The face of forgiveness.
It is not often that I hasten to my keyboard after reading or watching something in the news so as to provide comment. I don’t pretend to assume that my contributions to the ever-churning news machine matter all that much. But this was different. This was important. What occurred and what was uttered in that courtroom was, perhaps, one of the best instances of grace this side of the cross (besides, you know, the cross). I wanted to chew on this moment a bit more so that I, myself, might be able to savor it — and come back to it again in the future.
Frankly, I didn’t know anything about the tragedy involving Amber Guyger and Botham Jean — that is until Botham’s brother, Brandt, displayed what can only be called, as my friend David Zahl puts it, “capital-F Forgiveness.” Guyger, of course, is being prosecuted for the murder of Botham Jean, whom she mistakenly, tragically killed after entering what she thought was her apartment and seeing Botham, whom she assumed was a dangerous intruder. I don’t wish to rehash the awful circumstances surrounding the legal proceedings or the incident itself, for that matter. What I wish to spotlight is Brandt’s affecting articulation of grace and forgiveness in the midst of appalling grief. Watch:
I want the best for you. Because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do. The best would be to give your life to Christ . . . I think giving your life for Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do. Again, I love you as a person, and I don’t wish anything bad on you.
Confronted with his brother’s killer, Brandt extended the opposite of what was deserved — surprising everyone in that courtroom, I’m sure, and shocking the rest of the world in the process. Such is the quintessence of grace: it always catches us off guard. “Grace,” writes 19th century churchman Octavius Winslow, “delights to surprise its objects.”1 The unbidden, unearned favor of God in Christ is the last we would ever expect to be given. I think that is, among a bevy of other things, what you’re seeing when Brandt and Amber embrace. This was such a human moment — a moment of pure, distillate grace, the likes of which I cannot rightly recall in the modern era.
I think it is laughable that some have attempted to turn this scene into another platform on which to push their (political or social) agenda. Some have even opted to forgo a scathing op-ed and just protest the sentencing altogether. In so doing, those offended by such displays of forgiveness betray their own misguided notions as to who really needs forgiveness in the first place. When wrath wins out over absolution, you know the gospel’s been lost.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis quips, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”2 By this, Lewis assumes what we all know to be true, even if we never admit it, which is, forgiveness is hard. Forgiving another person is incredibly difficult, nigh impossible, in and of ourselves. As much as all evangelical Christians would claim they are among the band who believe in the hope of forgiveness as the foundation upon which their faith rests, those same disciples would have to admit that they find it nearly impossible to truly forgive, especially when that forgiveness is being tendered to those who’ve wronged us, hurt us, or betrayed us. Forgiveness for murders, screw ups, and low-lifes seems like the wrong move precisely because we, as fallen humans, crave justice.
To forgive someone else means laying aside the idol of justice, something which our vengeful hearts don’t like to do. We are hungry for fairness and repercussive action. We love revenge stories in film and literature because they appeal to our innate lust for retribution. Why does Ridley Scott’s “swords and sandals” epic Gladiator possess such enduring appeal? Not only because Russell Crowe is steely brilliant but because we all have a hunger for revenge. Why else do you think Alejandro Iñárritu’s retelling of the legend of Hugh Glass in 2015’s The Revenant strays so drastically from all historical accounts of the tale?
Forgiveness is foreign to us. It necessitates an abnegation of our own conceptions and cravings for reciprocity and justice. Forgiving a person who wronged you requires an understanding of a God who forgives us, and does so liberally, without partiality. To be sure, in Brandt’s case and in our own (in the gospel), justice isn’t set aside — it is rightly enacted. But our misshapen affinity for our own opinions of just penal action betray the fact that we don’t think we are equally as desperate for clemency. As Lewis wrote elsewhere, in his The Weight of Glory: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”3
The certainty of God’s forgiveness is a well that can never run empty. We have no ability to exhaust God’s capacity to forgive. That isn’t an incentive to go on sinning and stumbling. It is the adamantine fact of the gospel that keeps us going, that picks us back up when we fall, not if. And when we do, the bloodied and bruised face of forgiveness will be there, again and again and again, to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Lk 7:48) So wrote Elizabeth Bruenig for The Washington Post:
If forgiveness had a face, it would be hideous to us now . . . Forgiveness means having the technical right to exact some penalty but electing not to pursue it. This breaks the cycle of retribution with unearned, undeserved mercy. The face of forgiveness is bruised because it bears its own injuries with grace.
Such is what’s been done for you. Brandt’s words and actions may be unheard of here on earth, but that, I think, is because they are the echo of the otherworldly news of the gospel. God in Christ has stared down his accusers, his murders, his betrayers and said, “I forgive you” (Lk 23:34). “The One we wronged, and wronged terribly,” writes Dr. Owen Strachan, “is the One who has drawn near to us, and loved us, and welcomed us into his kingdom.” The very blood for which we thirsted, which gushed from the Savior’s side, covers our sin, washes us “white as snow” (Is 1:18), forgives, full stop.
Octavius Winslow, The Ministry of Home: Brief Expository Lectures on Divine Truth (London: William Hunt & Co., 1867), 180.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 115.
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 182.