Three hundred and ninety-seven months.
The words literally overwhelmed me. I felt numb. I felt sick. I felt hopeless.
I was doing Christian ministry in a mostly urban context. As “urban” as it gets in a small town. On this day, that meant being a character witness in court for a teenager with a clean record except for the charges he was facing. And those charges were all non-violent.
By the time the federal court judge had tallied up this mandatory minimum plus that mandatory minimum, the total came out to 99 years with 66 of those years suspended.
Three hundred and ninety-seven months.
It really hurts when injustice has a face.
Especially when the face belongs to someone you love.
I was too shocked for tears. But apart from someone dying, it’s about as sad as I’ve ever been.
I should be clear. What the teen did was wrong. There needed to be some form of punishment. Just not 33 years worth of punishment. No one one was harmed. No one was even threatened to be harmed.
And no one was dead.
This was the most tragic sentencing I’ve personally seen. But it’s certainly not the only one. All of this is on my mind, obviously, because of the Amber Guyger case. The former police officer was found guilty of murdering Botham Jean and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
However, the sentencing has only been the second most talked about part of the case, because of courtroom speech of Botham’s brother, Brandt Jean.
Not only did Brandt look his brother’s killer in the eye and offer words of forgiveness, he left the stand and embraced Guyger in a tight hug.
Some people thought is was the greatest act of forgiveness they had other seen.
Others were angered by Brandt’s behavior.
TO FORGIVE OR NOT TO FORGIVE
We have the words of Jesus (recorded often in the gospels): “Forgive”
And we have the words of Rick Ross.
The Maybach Music mogul’s 2012 album was entitled, “God Forgives, I Don’t.”
The pro hug group viewed Brandt’s offering of forgiveness mostly through the lens of person-to-person interaction. In a complete plot twist, viewers found love at a place where they were expecting to find hate. It was brave. It was courageous. It was emotional. It was merciful.
For Christians such as myself, love and forgiveness are central teachings in the Christian faith. And rarely do we get to see them put on display against such a dark backdrop.
The anti-hug group placed what they had observed about the case into a historical narrative. And that narrative includes a long history of black people being forced into subservient roles to white people in society.
Things such as being forced to breed during slavery, forced to move to the back of the grocery line if a white person was also in line, forced to clean up Emitt Till’s blood, forced to give up a bus seat to a white person, etc.
So when the anti-hug group sees Brandt Jean, they may not see someone acting out of his own volition. Rather, they see a person who has been conditioned that it’s the responsibility of black people to be subservient to white people.
It’s seen as similar to it being a black person’s responsibility to not accidentally touch the hand of a white cashier during a cash transaction during the Civil Rights era.
And just like love and forgiveness are key Christian teachings, so God also speaks clearly in His word about his hatred toward injustice in all of its forms.
So which group is right?
Whose side is God on?
What if it wasn’t an either/or scenario?
Who made justice and forgiveness adversaries?
I’ve done my fair share of ministry in correctional facilities. The rational part of my brain understands why prisons exist. My heart, on the other hand, wishes no one would ever be in a correctional facility.
But since prison is a part of society, I hope all sentences are decided justly. I want to live in a just society.
Proverbs 11:1 says “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” (ESV)
God wants us to live in a just society.
And our hearts rightly cry out for justice when we see racism, classism, sexism, nepotism, wealth and/or poverty advantaging some and disadvantaging others in our legal system.
Or anywhere else in society for that matter.
But I also rejoice whenever and wherever I see biblical forgiveness being practiced. I want to live in a world where mercy exists.
Brandt’s behavior didn’t remind me of Uncle Tom.
It reminded me of Jesus Christ.