Dear White People: About Botham Jean, Forgiveness, Justice, and Cheap Grace
Yesterday we watched the sentencing of a white woman, a former cop, convicted of murdering a black man named Botham Jean in his own apartment, unarmed, eating ice cream. She received the very minimal sentence of 10 years following which the brother of the murder victim gave her a big hug and said he forgave her. Many Christians applaud that hug saying it was an extraordinary act of grace on his part. Having never walked in his shoes I will not judge him. However as a white woman, also a former cop, and Christian theologian I will judge the way so many of us in the white community are so quick to applaud black people for forgiving white murderers. We did it following the Charleston nine and here we go again.
We are quick to point to the way in which Jesus forgave his own killers even as he suffered on the cross and we hold that up as the model for victims to adhere to today. But wait a minute. Is that fair? As we usually do with Bible stories we cast ourselves in the role of Jesus but really white people in the U.S. are the Romans in this story. We are the crucifiers not the crucified, the defenders of brutal empire who perhaps feel a little guilty at the scene of yet another lynching taking place in our name. As such we hear “father forgive them” as good news. Even though we have killed Jesus and brutalized his people we need not really fear hell. Even the victim himself does not hold us accountable. We are innocent. We did not know what we were doing. Good news right? Wrong.
Forgiveness without repentance is what theologian Dietrich Bonhoefer, quoting Adam Clayton Powell, called cheap grace. It lets us believe we are off the hook for our evil without demanding any real change on our part. In the case of the murder of Botham Jean cheap grace lets us white people maintain our sense of innocence and goodness without first facing up to the role we all play, knowingly or not, in maintaining systemic racism. In this case it allows us to avoid looking at the particularly brutal history of black men and white women. We don’t have to think about the thousands of lynchings, unjust crucifixions, that happened in our country due to black men being unjustly accused of raping white women. We don’t have to think about the way in which white women to this day are seen as fragile and innocent (particularly if they are or make themselves blond) while black men are perceived as threatening and dangerous even when they are in their own homes eating ice cream. In other words we do not need to see let alone repent of our sins. But is that the gospel? Is that grace?
I say no. Let’s look at the “father forgive them” scenario again. Jesus of Nazareth who lived as an oppressed Jew under Roman occupation is, like many before him, being crucified as an enemy of state. (Side note- All of you chomping at the bit to inform me that Jesus’s crucifixion/lynching was “not political” because he was “dying for our sins” need to hold off until you read some of my upcoming posts about the racist roots of Anselmian substitutionary atonement theory. All of you who likewise want to blame “the Jews” need a lesson in the history of Christian anti-Semitism. All of you who similarly want to say “we are all equally guilty as sinners regardless of race” need to read a history book. Have I covered all the loopholes? If not I will get back to them. Today we are talking history.) So Jesus has been persecuted by Romans all of his life for preaching good news for the impoverished and oppressed people of Rome now hangs on one of thousands of crosses (which Dr. James Cone rightly identified as lynching trees) designed to support Roman supremacy. Notice that in every one of the passion narratives he has very little to say to his oppressors. At this point he is done talking to them. Notice also that Jesus does not forgive them. He asks God to do so. Notice furthermore that he essentially writes them off as ignorant “for they know not what they do.”
Is that what we, as white citizens of a white supremacist nation want for ourselves? Will we be satisfied by a cheap grace that comes from being written off as ignorant? Will that restore the humanity we have lost to the false and demonic systems of racism and white supremacy? Will enforced (and it is enforced) forgiveness coming from black victims of racist violence be enough to save our souls?
I am going with no on this. I don’t know about you but I want more for myself. When I see a white woman, entrusted to “protect and serve” all people who nontheless harbored racist ideas as evidenced by her texts to co-workers, who illegally entered a black man’s castle, shot him in cold blood, told a nonsense story, played Goldilocks on the stand, and got away with the most minimum sentence, I want to do better than cling to the “but his brother forgave her bless his heart” defense.
I want to hold her and I both accountable, her for murder and me for whatever way I have, knowingly or not, contributed to the systemic racism that caused the murder. I reject cheap grace. I need justice to be done. I need the gift of true repentance for my own sins of racism. I need real soul salvation. I refuse to be written off as one of those who did not know what I was doing. I am better than that and so are you.