Brandt Jean’s reminds us of the real meaning of justice

Texans do everything big, even forgiveness. Forgiveness happened big this past October 2nd in a Dallas courtroom soon after the conviction and sentencing of Amber Guyger, the white police officer who shot and killed Botham Jean, a Caribbean African American, while he sat in his apartment eating ice cream. His surviving brother, Brandt Jean, forgave Guyger in his impact statement, urging her to “give her life to Christ,” and embracing her in a scene that was quickly transmitted around the world over the internet. The judge, Tammy Kemp, then comforted Guyger and gave her a Bible.

An inbreaking of God’s grace!, Christians tweeted. Amazing! Healing! Powerful! Inspiring! Shrouding these comments was a spirit of catharsis, a sense that Jean’s forgiveness had broken the cycle of animosity arising from this and many other incidents pitting white police officers against black victims. The event seemed to offer respite, too, from polarized politics, which had reached a new peak as House Democrats decided to move ahead with impeaching President Trump and the president responded with rants about civil war. American Christians parrot this polarization, with evangelicals continuing to support Trump fervently but now being countered by a Christian left newly amplified by no less than South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

What came from Dallas, then, displayed the ability of the Christian gospel to rise above politics and illuminate its new path of peace – right?

An instant after the video exploded online, so did debate. It is mainly white Christians who celebrate black forgiveness, charged Jemar Tisby, an African American Christian, in the Washington Post the next day. A graduate student in history at the University of Mississippi (and a Notre Dame graduate, according to his website), Tisby argued that in extolling forgiveness, white Christians spiritualize and thereby ignore racial injustice: “A society built around white superiority is also built around white innocence – an assumption of the intrinsic moral virtue of all white people and the purity of their intentions regardless of impact. White innocence assumes black forgiveness.” It was Brandt Jean’s prerogative to forgive and to live his Christian faith, but this response should not be scripted for victims in general, especially African Americans: “If white people expect all black people to extend forgiveness as quickly as Brandt Jean did, then they understand neither black people nor black pain.” 

This debate is familiar to me. For two decades I have been following the efforts of countries to address pasts of war and dictatorship. Concentrated in Latin America, Africa, Europe, and East Asia, many of these countries host Christian populations and see churches involved in these efforts, advocating forgiveness, and stirring up controversy, just as Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness did. Skeptics say that forgiveness foregoes justice, illicitly imports religion into politics, and risks being imposed on victims, especially when touted by charismatic leaders. 

In June 2015, not long after exploring these processes with students in my graduate seminar, “The Politics of Reconciliation,” I read that members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina had forgiven Dylann Roof, the white racist who had murdered nine of their relatives and friends in a bible study. I emailed my students: See, forgiveness really happens! One of the students, from sub-Saharan Africa, promptly replied to me that such forgiveness salved injustice against African-Americans, much as Tisby had argued. 

Justice is what is at issue. The critique of forgiveness draws from a definition of justice that Westerners accept as widely and unquestioningly as they do traffic lights and mailboxes: Justice is the constant will to render another his due. The notion comes to us from Roman law and made its way into Western thought and law during the Middle Ages. The money word in the definition is due, which means what people are owed, entitled to, or deserve. Due translates into two further ideas that dominate thinking about justice in western liberal democracies: rights and just retribution. 

Forgiveness, on this definition, is something other than justice, for no wrongdoer has a right to it or deserves it. Rather, it is a gift.

Indeed, a commitment to the justice of what is due lies beneath criticism of forgiveness of serious crimes. Celebrations of forgiveness, the criticism runs, are prone to complacency about people’s rights not to face police brutality and other forms of discrimination and to leniency in assessing punishment for murderers. It was reported that Amber Guyger’s jurors gave her ten years of prison rather than a far lengthier sentence because they reasoned that Botham Jean, a devout Christian, would not have wished for severe punishment for Guyger. Botham Jean’s posthumous good will, it seemed, muffled what was due. To forgive is to forego justice. Or so the logic goes.

Is rendering due all there is to justice? In the long historical march to the dominance of due in the West, might something have been lost? The Bible’s vision of justice involves something wider than what is due – the entire set of duties that people have towards one another and towards God. Biblical justice can enfold rights and deserved punishment but it also involves duties that go beyond rights. Some duties, for instance, do not correspond neatly to what others are entitled to but are more open-ended, like the scripture’s commandment to give to the poor.

Forgiveness is one of these duties, in justice. Jesus taught in the Gospel of Matthew that humans are to forgive those who wronged them not because the wronged have a right to be forgiven but rather because God forgave humans their sins even though they had no right to such mercy. Jesus anticipated his own enactment of God the father’s forgiveness through his death and resurrection, which the Apostle Paul described as a gift. Jesus illustrated his teaching starkly through a parable of a servant whose debt was forgiven by his master but who then refused to forgive the debt owed to him, and was thrown into jail for it. 

If forgiveness is a gift, and not something that is owed, it does not contradict or stand outside of justice as the Bible conceives of justice. Paul also wrote of Jesus’s redemptive act, involving forgiveness, as righteousness, which also translates to justice. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses the term righteousness, or justice, to refer to the totality of ways that he calls his followers to live, which includes forgiveness. In the Bible, then, forgiveness manifests God’s justice and is not at odds with it, contrasting sharply with the justice of rendering due that dominates the West. Forgiveness in the Bible also involves a call to restoration – to become a “new creation,” in the words of Paul – and does not simply let a perpetrator off the hook. This is surely what Brandt Jean had in mind when he told Guyger to “give your life to Christ.”

Because forgiveness is one dimension, but not the whole, of the justice of right relationship, it does not preclude striving for other dimensions of justice such as police reform, taking strong action against racially motivated violence, or administering to convicted criminals their deserved punishment. Whether Botham Jean’s jurors ought to have reduced Guyger’s sentence is debatable, but there is no sense in which the forgiveness extended by his surviving brother, Botham Jean, stood in the way of other dimensions of justice. 

In the logic of the Bible, forgiveness even ought to motivate the pursuit of other dimensions of justice. It is in response to God’s “indescribable gift” of salvation that Christians are called to expand the sphere of justice and peace in the world, as they have done across history in establishing hospitals, working to end slavery, and marching for civil rights. Far from making Christians complacent, then, Brandt Jean’s gift of forgiveness, imaging God’s own gift of forgiveness, ought to stir in them the same motivation. 

Daniel Philpott is a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached at