The shock of forgiveness

Aaron Lambert

Every so often, the media will pick up a story that serves as a potent reminder of what it means to be a Christian. That’s because living as a Christian in today’s post-Christian society is an unusual way of living, contrary to what the rest of society might say about it. It is not “outdated.” It is not “irrelevant.” It is radical, countercultural and, to some, even incomprehensible.

On Oct. 2, the trial of Amber Guyger came to a close. Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was charged with the murder of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who lived in the same apartment complex as Guyger. On Sept. 6, 2018, she walked into Jean’s apartment, thinking it was hers, saw Jean sitting there on the couch, and after giving verbal commands, shot him twice, killing him. It was an absolute tragedy and played into the ongoing national conversation about police behavior toward people of color (Guyger is white; Jean is black).

What I want to focus on is a particular moment that came at the end of Guyger’s trial, after she had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jean’s younger brother Brandt took to the witness stand to address his brother’s killer directly. He wasn’t planning on saying anything during the trial but changed his mind at the last minute. A prompting of the Holy Spirit? I think yes, based on what happened next.

“I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past,” Brandt told Guyger. “If you are truly sorry … I forgive you. If you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” He continued, “I’m not going to say I hope you die … I personally want the best for you … I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want … and the best would be: give your life to Christ. Giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.”

But it didn’t stop there. Brandt was bold enough to ask the judge if he had permission to give Guyger a hug. He was granted it, and they embraced for over a minute, Guyger weeping into Brandt’s shoulder, just as some of us might do were we to be embraced by Christ.

Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Guyger has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her black neighbor in his apartment, which she said she mistook for her own unit one floor below. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Brandt has every reason to hate Guyger. This woman gunned down his innocent brother who had his whole life ahead of him and was given a lighter sentence than what she originally faced. Those in the courtroom and watching on TV wouldn’t have been shocked to hear Brandt tell Guyger that he hopes she rots in hell. No, the shock from those in the courtroom – and subsequently, the rest of the nation – came when Brandt did the exact opposite.

With those words and the simple act of embracing his brother’s killer, Brandt gave the world an incredible witness to the forgiveness Christ calls us to live as Christians. Of course, you can count on the bickering voices of social media and pundits to take this powerful moment and exploit it for their own agenda, but that’s because many of them don’t understand. It is not normal in our culture to forgive. It is also not easy. And that’s what makes witnessing something like this so shocking. It was not supposed to happen, but it did. It defied every expectation. Make no mistake about it: Brandt was living his call to be more like Christ in that moment. And it is exactly this moment – this shocking moment – that we are able to get a glimpse of what it is to be a Christian.

Following Jesus does make for quite a shock. And it is that shock that we are called to bring to the rest of the world, just as Brandt Jean did.

COMING UP: Bringing love to a violent world

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Bringing love to a violent world

Two Denver Catholics share their stories

Aaron Lambert

Ferguson. Baton Rouge. Charleston. Dallas. The list of places where violence has occurred in the U.S. within the last year goes on and on.

Right now, people need hope. Each day seems to bring a new headline of a shooting or a killing, and it’s easy to become numb to what is occurring around the community, nation and world on a daily basis.

As Catholics, we are called to promote justice and uphold the dignity of all people. However, with the narratives the media feeds into, knowing how to approach some of these issues through the lens of the Gospel can be difficult.

Still, hope perseveres, be it through prayer or acts of compassion. Cure d’Ars is one example of a local parish that’s relying on the power of faith to spread hope throughout the community. Last summer, they began embarking on prayer walks in the local neighborhoods, and on Aug. 4, they held a prayer vigil for peace and prayed for an end to the violence that has been occurring locally, nationally and internationally.

Two different worlds

Skeet Johnson is a cradle Catholic and a longtime parishioner of Cure d’Ars. He is also a former Colorado State public defender of 23 years. Johnson retired from his post as a public defender in 2007, but he’s kept plenty busy. He helped to facilitate the prayer walks last summer along with several other local churches, and he volunteers as a basketball coach at Smith Elementary, working with kids.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff,” Johnson told the Denver Catholic. “I’ve seen a lot of carnage and wasted potential. I’ve seen a lot of courage and I’ve seen evidence of redemption and true contrition and changing even in the face of situations that would require that a person give up a substantial portion of their freedom.”

As an African American who grew up in the projects of Chicago, Johnson has lived in two different worlds. He has seen racism firsthand, but has always viewed it through the lens of the Gospel.

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Skeet Johnson is a parishioner of Cure d’Ars parish and a former public defender of 23 years. As an African American man who’s been on both the racism side and the criminal justice side, Johnson views the issue of violence through the lens of the Gospel and said the biggest challenge he faces as a Catholic is overcoming his fear and going out and doing what he can with the tools he’s been given. (Photo by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

“There’s a lot of circumstances that exist as a consequence of racism, and those circumstances are beyond the personal kind of racism, but are rooted in the institutions. That can, in some way, answer the question of why black and poor people find themselves very close to the same position they were in historically,” he said. “But, there comes a time when you have to make a decision as to what kind of person you’re going to be, how you’re going to deal with your circumstances.”

Johnson also looks at these issues as a former public defender who dealt with criminals and police on a regular basis. In his career, he saw police officers who were “about protecting themselves to the exclusion of protecting the community,” and he also saw police who “amazed me with the kind of commitment they had.” Johnson recalled one case he handled where he was defending a man who attacked a police officer with a knife.

“Nowadays, you’d be reading about how many bullets entered his body,” he said. “But this one cop did not do that, and he ultimately disarmed the guy. I asked him at the preliminary hearing, ‘man, why didn’t you [shoot] him?’ And he said, ‘Skeet, my job is not to take life, my job is to protect life.’ That attitude is what it ought to be about.”

When speaking about the numerous incidents that have occurred around the nation, he said the point isn’t how numerous or not they are; the point is how it’s breaking down the relationship between the community and the police.

As a Catholic, my challenge is to break away from my fear and to go out and to do that which I can with the tools that I’ve been given.”

“All I can talk about is a mistrust that exists between the police community and the black community,” he said. “What is occurring and how it’s affecting other people, in how it’s breaking down the relationships between the community and the folks who are to protect them — that’s the issue. Although statistically that may be one situation, that’s a situation that’s like a cancer that spreads throughout the body politic.”

Even so, Johnson refuses to let fear stop him from doing what he believes is his God-given duty to love others and make the world a better place.

“As a Catholic, my challenge is to break away from my fear and to go out and to do that which I can with the tools that I’ve been given,” he said.

To protect, serve and love

Lily is a police officer who just began her career working for a Denver Metro police department (For safety reasons, Lily’s last name and the specific police department she works for have been withheld). She is also a practicing Catholic, and one whose faith informs and affects the way she does her job every single day.

“What makes you a good cop is that you do feel things,” she said. “I’ve always felt that one of my strengths I bring is that I am emotional. I feel things a lot deeper than most people do, and I think that’s why God called me to the profession. It’s the human part and the compassion part that makes my job worth it.”

Being a cop has changed the way Lily sees people. She feels compassion for the people in the community she’s serving. There is a large Latino population where she works, and she said that she’s seen firsthand the way in which race can affect the way people are approached or treated. She can also relate to it because she’s a young, white and female officer.

I don’t care what color skin you are, I don’t care about your history, I care about that moment and loving you in that moment. That’s the most important thing I can do.”

“Seeing how difficult people really have had it gives me so much compassion for them. I can’t condemn people as easily as I once could,” she said. “I can taste it from a minority’s perspective in my job. People do look at you differently and you never know what they truly feel about you. I can see where that might be an issue for someone who is African American or Latino.”

As a member of the law enforcement community and a Catholic, Lily hopes to see the nation heal from the wounds that have been broken open as a result of racial and police violence.

“My goal as a police officer and as a Catholic is to have healing and peace come from this,” she said.

Though racism might not be as prominent in the community she serves as it is in other parts of the country, Lily said that she doesn’t deny that it exists. From her perspective, though, race has nothing to do with the way she does her job, and in her experience with other officers, she said the majority are concerned first and foremost with protecting and serving their community. Lily, however, adds another action to that list: love.

“I don’t care what color skin you are, I don’t care about your history, I care about that moment and loving you in that moment,” she said. “That’s the most important thing I can do.”