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This article is part of our “Religious Reflections on Forgiveness in Law” series.
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Americans are talking about forgiveness. Forgiveness happened where many believe it shouldn’t have, in a place, at a time, and by people who should have left it alone. Forgiveness intervened, as it so often does, when what was demanded was justice—long-delayed, long-awaited, grueling justice. How can justice and forgiveness co-exist?

This question is raised sharply by the Guyger case. Last year, Amber Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean, an unarmed man, relaxing in his home. Guyger mistakenly thought the apartment was her own. In October, a Dallas jury convicted her of murder and a judge sentenced her to ten years in prison. 

The case entered the national consciousness because of race; it stayed there, in part, because of forgiveness. Guyger was a police officer, a petite, blonde, youngish white woman. Jean was a black man. White officers have been killing unarmed black men for decades—centuries if you count right. Since the beginning of the Black Lives Matters movement, Guyger is the first white officer convicted by a jury of murdering an unarmed black man. For some civil rights activists, the conviction was about far more than Guyger and Jean. Though many found the ten-year sentence too lenient, some viewed the conviction as a step toward justice nonetheless.

Yet something curious happened after the trial came to an end. The victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, publicly offered his forgiveness to Guyger. More stunningly, after imposing the sentence, and in response to Guyger’s expression of hopelessness, presiding Judge Tammy Kemp offered Guyger a Bible, a hug, and a prayer. Judge Kemp’s conduct came after the trial, after judgment, after sentencing. 

What on earth was going on? Worlds that many would prefer to keep separate collided. One is a world of public duty, of law, of justice. The other is a world of piety, of faith, of religion—valuable, perhaps, but private. The allegations that Judge Kemp’s conduct violated the ethical duties of a judge or the “separation of church and state” deserve careful consideration in their own right. But the deeper conflict most commentators have pointed to is the tension between justice and forgiveness. 

Does forgiving Guyger minimize the gravity of her wrongdoing? Does it perpetuate a racial double standard where whites expect prompt forgiveness when they harm blacks but feel themselves entitled to exact a pound of black flesh at every perceived slight? Commentators raised the same concerns when the family members of the Charleston shooting victims forgave Dylann Roof. These concerns are powerful, valid, and important.

So too, though, is the Christian practice of forgiveness. The Guyger case illustrates the complicated relationship within Christianity between justice, mercy, and forgiveness. 

The heart of Christianity is the mystery of God’s loving forgiveness of human sin. Jesus Christ, sinless, suffered at the hands of sinners on behalf of sinful humanity. God then raised Jesus from the dead to vindicate his faithfulness, offering forgiveness of sins for all who believe. In the cross and the empty tomb, judgment and forgiveness embrace. On this view, God’s forgiveness is absolute, unmerited, free. It absolves the sinner of wrongdoing, eliminating guilt. It does not just forbear punishment; it unwinds the reason for it.

Christ taught his disciples to forgive as they had been forgiven. In the Sermon on the Mount, he instructed them: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” (Matt. 5:39), “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:39, 43-48).  In the Lord’s Prayer, Christians ask the Father to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Forgiveness is the core of Christian ethics because it reflects God’s love for humanity in Christ. 

Many philosophers over the centuries have criticized Christian forgiveness for condoning evil. Yet Christianity does not give a blank check to wrongdoers. Jesus taught that God has a special concern for the poor, the helpless, the social outcast, the victim of injustice. The Apostle Paul wrote to the believers at Rome that they should “not repay anyone evil for evil” nor “avenge [themselves], but leave room for the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:17-19). But God’s vengeance is not disembodied, a miraculous intervention into human affairs. Rather, Paul explains, “the governing authorities … have been instated by God” as “the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13:1-7). 

Christians should practice forgiveness; the government should exercise judgment. But what if the judge is a Christian?

So far, so good. Christians should practice forgiveness; the government should exercise judgment. But what if the judge is a Christian? (Or the legislator, executive, or juror?) Over the centuries, Christians have given various answers. Some believe that faithfulness to Christ requires not participating in the government’s exercise of judgment. Most Christians in the western tradition, however, have concluded that Christians may serve their communities by participating in governmental judgment, even as they exercise personal forgiveness. This has been the view of clergy and thinkers from Augustine of Hippo to Martin Luther King, Jr. 

It is worth distinguishing between mercy, as that term has often been used in Christian jurisprudence, and forgiveness. When Augustine was a Bishop in North Africa, he encouraged a local magistrate not to execute a convicted murderer. Drawing on the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, he emphasized that no one, including a magistrate, is without sin. (John 8:1-11) He also argued that taking the convicted man’s life would shorten his time to repent, jeopardizing his eternal salvation. 

What Augustine sought for the man may be described variously as mercy, compassion, or equity. This is best understood not as forgiveness but as a form of justice, one that considers the relationship between the community and the wrongdoer and the particulars of the case. Christian jurisprudence incorporated this notion of mercy, compassion, and equity into its theory and practice. Civil governments implement this principle when judges consider mitigating (and aggravating) factors at the sentencing stage. But it is important to distinguish this form of mercy, or equity, from forgiveness. Forgiveness does not reduce punishment; it eliminates wrongdoing, erases debt, blots out sin. It returns a relationship to the status quo ante. It is, in the words of King, “the Christian weapon against social evil.”

What does this overview of the Christian understanding of judgment and forgiveness suggest about the Guyger case? From a Christian point of view, perhaps everyone (or almost everyone) who commented on the case was right. What Guyger did was wrong and she should be punished. She harmed innumerable people to whom she owes a debt. American law incorporates a fiction that she has also harmed the state of Texas. In this respect, Texas stands in the place of all of its residents. She broke their law, stole a resident from them, and breached the unique trust she owed them as an officer of the law. 

Christians are called to believe that God works through the government, though it is as imperfect as any human institution, to execute judgment against wrongdoers. Texas should execute judgment against her—declare her guilt, hold her accountable, and punish her according to law. Was her sentence too lenient? This is a question of equity. Was it within the range authorized by law? How does it compare to the sentences in similar cases? Given the justice system’s systemic (often unconscious) discrimination against black defendants, it is quite possible a black officer who shot a white victim would have been received a stiffer penalty. Does that suggest that Guyger got off easy, or that the black defendant’s sentence would have been too harsh? These are questions that observers should continue to discuss in light of the available evidence.  

Guyger cannot, and should not, become a scapegoat for others who have escaped justice.

Yet Jean’s family was right to extend forgiveness to Guyger for the immeasurable hurt she caused them. Brandt Jean did what Christians are called to do—in humility, in faith, and in love. And this without abandoning trust that God is avenging, and will avenge, Botham’s killing, in God’s perfect way. I cannot imagine the Jeans’ pain. But I can imagine that forgiveness, though begun at a certain time, may be for them a process; as they experience new hurt flowing from Guyger’s wrongdoing, they will have to continue to choose to forgive.

What the Jeans will never be able to do is forgive Guyger on behalf of the many others she has harmed. They cannot forgive on behalf of Botham’s co-workers, friends, or other family members. They cannot forgive on behalf of other members of the black community left more afraid, for themselves and their children, and left feeling more marginalized in American society because of their race. Nor can they forgive on behalf of Guyger’s own family and loved ones who have been deprived, by Guyger’s wrongdoing, of her companionship over the coming years. Multiple families and communities will never be the same and the Jeans’ forgiveness cannot change that.

One tempting response to Guyger’s wrongdoing deserves to be resisted. Guyger cannot, and should not, bear the guilt of every officer who has wronged the black community. Her conviction may be a harbinger of a broader and deeper commitment to justice; and she certainly deserves judgment—but only for her own wrongdoing. Guyger cannot, and should not, become a scapegoat for others who have escaped justice. To do so would trade the injustice of failing to bring some wrongdoers to judgment for the injustice of judging another wrongdoer wrongly.

What of the powerful argument that the Jean family’s forgiveness diminishes Guyger’s wrongdoing—symbolically if not in fact? That it becomes yet another chance for white victims to invoke a double-standard? The Christian response, seemingly embraced by Jean’s family, can only be one of faith: God sees, God loves, and God judges—in both the short and the long run. Christians are called to invoke God’s vengeance while conveying God’s forgiveness. The State of Texas, it must be remembered, is called to only one of those tasks.

Nathan S. Chapman is an Associate Professor, University of Georgia School of Law, and a McDonald Distinguished Fellow, Emory Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He holds degrees from Duke Law School and Duke Divinity School.

Recommended Citation

Chapman, Nathan S. “Judgment and Forgiveness in Texas: Christian Reflections on the Guyger Case.” Canopy Forum, February 3, 2020.