In earthly terms, I have never seen anyone do what Brandt Jean just did. But in spiritual terms, I have seen this before. Every Christian has.
It is one of the more shocking moments I’ve seen. The brother of Botham Jean, a man tragically slain in his apartment by Amber Guyger, shares Christ with his brother’s killer. In the courtroom. That alone is enough to freeze this episode in your mind forever. But the strange moment continues. Brandt Jean then asks the judge if he can hug Amber Guyger. The judge consents, and the two embrace, obvious emotion coursing through them both.
I thought to myself as I watched this, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” In one sense that’s true. I’ve never seen a man show such forgiveness as this. I’ve never witnessed a person who has suffered tremendously at the hands of another then take such definitive steps to comfort—to comfort!—the person who has caused his suffering. This is unusual; no, not unusual, this is unearthly.
This act in no way sets aside the just demands of the law. A man was killed. His killer deserves punishment for this terrible crime. Further, this is a crime that clearly causes anguish for many, for it speaks to them of a string of crimes along racial and ethnic lines. There is much to sort out here. At base, Christians support the judicial system, and are even thankful for the punishment of wrongdoing. Beyond this, Christians cannot fail to hear the cries of others, and mourn with this family, and mourn with all who grieve real evil and tragedy and loss. We are not faced with a choice, in other words, between forgiveness and justice. Christians stand for the proclamation of forgiveness in Christ; Christians stand for the extension of justice, justice secured in a theistic sense by Christ. We are not either loving or justice-seeking; we must be both those who love and those who seek justice.
But with this noted, we recognize that forgiveness goes where justice does not. In other words, the law exists to concretize and punish evil. Justice in human form is appointed by God to carry out this commission (Romans 13:1-4). There is a sphere of activity, then, for the judge. But the judge can only go so far; the just judge only will go so far, and then stop. The administration of the law is not the same as the administration of grace. This is not because the law is bad; it is because in God’s wisdom, the law and the gospel are not the same thing.
Forgiveness picks up where the law leaves off. In fact, you could argue theologically that the law and the law alone makes forgiveness possible. It identifies and defines evil, addresses evil in concrete terms, and thus makes space for forgiveness to happen. But the law is not forgiveness. Forgiveness occurs when a truly-wronged individual sets aside the right of grievance and even anger in order to show mercy and kindness to another. By “sets aside” I do not mean that the forgiving person simply pretends that no wrong was done. I mean that even when justice is enacted, and a crime is met with appropriate punishment, something additional happens. Another principle kicks in. Where there is no need for mercy, yet mercy is shown. Where there is no automatic forgiveness, yet forgiveness is offered. Here we gain a little glimpse of heaven on earth, something higher intruding into the world of the lower.
This is what happened as best I understand it when Brandt Jean engaged Amber Guyger. A terrible crime was committed; it is fully understandable in natural human terms to be wracked with grief and just anger at this murderous event. Yet Jean crossed the courtroom not to strike back at Guyger, but to offer her forgiveness. It is not that justice was cancelled or rendered unimportant in this moment, for Guyger must serve a sentence for her crime (there is considerable debate about the sentence she received, and that debate makes sense to me from my limited vantage point). But even as the law acted, something else happened. Forgiveness happened. Our sincere hope and prayer is that this godly act will lead to the salvation of many, including Guyger herself. Christians, after all, seek the salvation of the wicked, even the worst of sinners, even sinners as foul as we ourselves were. This is why Jesus came: not to save the righteous (for no one is righteous), but to save the ungodly (Luke 5:32; 1 Tim. 1:15). If this truth is not paramount in our engagement of the lost, however lost they may be, one wonders if we fully grasp the gospel—and one wonders if the gospel has fully grasped us.
My first thought in watching the video was not right, then. I have seen this before. Every Christian has. I think of another courtroom, the courtroom of divine justice (see Romans 4-5). In this scene, we were rightly on trial. We had committed real wrongs, terrible offenses, against an innocent party. We had fallen under the justice of God, and rightly so. We deserved nothing but to taste the full sting of the law. Even more than this, we deserved to drink the cup of the wrath of the Father to the fullest dregs, and to do so for all eternity.
But then, opposite us, something happened. The figure whom we had wronged in our hatefulness crossed the courtroom to us. Jesus Christ came to us, and wrapped us in his merciful embrace. On the cross, he drank the cup we should have consumed. He died the death we should have died. He took the penalty we should have borne. He embraced us, and embraced us not only as a friend, but as a family of adopted, blood-bought children, the church. He stunned the principalities and powers by his willingness to die for the wicked and unlovely. He showed us that there is something higher and greater than the natural mind can imagine: total forgiveness. Complete cleansing. Full redemption, purchased by his perfect righteousness.
In earthly terms, I have never seen anyone do what Brandt Jean just did. But in spiritual terms, I have seen this before. Every Christian has. The one we wronged, and wronged terribly, is the one who has drawn near to us, and loved us, and welcomed us into his kingdom.
Justice is righteous; justice is good. But forgiveness, we were just reminded, goes where justice does not.