Hank Stewart understands forgiveness.
He’s a Christian and active in his church, Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta.
Everyone makes mistakes. He also knows that.
What he can’t wrap his mind around, however, were the scenes that played out this week in a Dallas County courtroom during the trial of ex-police officer Amber Guyger, who was found guilty of killing an unarmed black man, St. Lucia native Botham Jean, in his apartment, after she claimed that she accidentally mistook it for her own.
What Stewart also doesn’t get is the African American judge Tammy Kemp stepping down from the bench and hugging Guyger and giving her a Bible or a black female bailiff touching Guyger’s hair. Or Jean’s younger brother asking to hug the woman who had robbed his family of a beloved member.
“Would that same type of compassion be shown in Fulton County, in DeKalb County, in the Bronx in New York, in Miami to black and brown people?” asked Stewart, a poet and activist. “It’s consistently inconsistent. We all want forgiveness. We’ve all made mistakes, but you can’t ignore the role race played. It’s white privilege.
”Like Stewart, many in the black community find themselves grappling with the belief in forgiveness as encouraged by their faith and how that juxtaposes with the raw emotions they feel living in a divided nation where the justice system is often seen as unfair.
“We keep having these same kind of conversations,” said Carl Suddler, an assistant professor of history at Emory University and author of “Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York.”
“We had it after Charleston (when some relatives of members of Emanuel AME Church forgave the killer, Dylann Roof) and here we are again — whether we should forgive folks for such heinous actions. And it’s hard.”
He said more people are likely to understand 18-year-old Brandt Jean’s reaction than that of Kemp and the bailiff.
“This has gotten such a visceral reaction because we, as black folks, haven’t been given the same type of treatment,” said Suddler. “If the shoe were on the other foot, would a judge have given someone a Bible? History says probably not.”Dionne Mahaffey of Sandy Springs, an entrepreneur and business psychologist, agrees.
“When you think about other people who have been wronged, they are expected to always remember the wrong,” she said, citing 9/11 and the Holocaust. “As black people — the way white supremacy works — we are expected to forget the wrong and forgive it. You never hear about Jewish people embracing a Nazi terrorist. Throughout our history, the onus has always been placed on black people to show humanity. We don’t even take the time to show that same level of empathy to our own people. We are not allowed to see ourselves as human.”
She said she’s told people not to be so forgiving if someone should kill her “or I’ll come back and haunt you.”
Many on social media weighed in.
“It’s weaponizing Christianity against black People that’s been past (sic) down for generations to keep black People docile,” wrote one Twitter user.
Another wrote: “Ppl are criticizing #BrandtJean for hugging & forgiving #AmberGuyger If that’s what he feels he needs to do for his heart & sanity in dealing with losing his brother, who are we to criticize. Now the judge and the bailiff can get all the smoke but I respect his grieving process.”
During his victim impact statement, Brandt Jean told Guyger, who was sentenced to 10 years, that he wanted the best for her because he knew that was what his brother, an accountant and leader in his Dallas church, would have wanted.
People, though, do not always arrive at forgiveness at the same time or in the same way. And forgiveness does not mean the offender should not be punished.
Brenda Muhammad’s 16-year-old son, Norbren, was murdered in 1989.
A Christian, Muhammad said her faith helped a lot.
“Forgiveness is an individual thing, and people have to decide what’s in their heart and in their spirit,” said Muhammad, director of the Atlanta Victim Assistance Inc. “It took me awhile. At the beginning, I could have never thought about forgiveness. It was just when I thought about how much weight I was carrying because of the anger and lack of forgiveness.”
Even those who have spent decades in the pulpit are wrestling with what happened.
“There’s a line of demarcation,” said the Rev. Gerald Durley, pastor emeritus of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta and a psychologist. “The teaching is that when a person has sinned against you, you should forgive their transgressions as Christ forgives ours. But in a society where this young lady gets 10 years, that was really challenging given my human feelings towards justice. I really had to go down inside of myself.
“And he’s still grappling with it.
“The social and psychological side based on a racist system will really challenge our Christian petition. In our Christian faith, he demonstrated the appropriate behavior, but that human aspect is real,” Durley said.
To the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, forgiveness is a process.
“It’s recognizing that a wrong has been committed, processing that wrong and reaching a point where there is at least some sense of reconciliation. I don’t think forgiveness means going back to where we used to be.
“We’ve been taught wrong about forgiveness,” McDonald said. “… Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t and I’m OK with that.”