A Most Complex Hug

A Most Complex Hug

Photo credit: Tom Fox, Dallas Morning News staff photographer

Hugs are usually not complex, but this one is. The above photo symbolizes the complex mix of forgiveness, guilt, police brutality, and historic racism.

The photo is of Brandt Jean and Amber Guyger embracing. Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger killed her unarmed black neighbor last year after stepping into his apartment, having mistaken it for her own apartment. Guyger fatally shot 26-year-old Botham Jean, an accountant from St. Lucia, who was watching television and eating a bowl of ice cream when Guyger fired two shots. One shot hit Botham in the chest.

Guyger was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. During the sentencing and impact statements by the family, Botham’s brother, Brandt, said he loves and forgives Amber and wants the best for her.

Then the 18-year old Brandt Jean did something stunning in the courtroom: he asked the judge if he could give Amber Guyger a hug. The judge allowed him to get up from the witness stand, and Amber Guyger rose from the defendant’s table, meeting Brandt halfway.

This photo, taken from a four-minute video of Brandt speaking to Amber, has gone viral on social media. While many feel inspired by this embodiment of love and forgiveness, others believe you cannot hug away decades of racism and police brutality.

Other members of the Jean family, including Botham’s mother, Allison Jean, have joined activists in calling for stronger policing reforms. Those who wanted the sentence to be at least the number of years of Botham’s life when he was shot (26) were disappointed at the brevity of the sentence. “I don't want forgiveness to be mistaken with a total relinquishing of responsibility,” Allison Jean said. [1]

The photo and the embrace are complex also because of our history of racism. For instance, Erik Ortiz, writing for NBC News, points to the pattern of brutality and injustice making it “incumbent on people of color, particularly black Americans, to absolve their perpetrators without the need for meaningful accountability.” [2]

In a Washington Post article, Ibram X. Kendi writes, “America is still hemorrhaging from the racism of police bullets, health disparities and environmental catastrophes. The black unemployment rate has been twice the white unemployment rate for 60 years, segregation is on the rise in public schools across America, and an unprecedented number of black and brown bodies have been mass incarcerated as a result of the war on drugs.” [3]

But wait. Didn’t the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, desegregation of schools, abolishing Jim Crow, and separate but equal usher in a new era of history, with Martin Luther King Jr. dreaming of our children being judged not by the color of our skin but by the “content of their character”?

Kendi goes on to say that, while the Civil Rights Movement scored a victory in the battle against racism, “this celebratory history that Americans love has only been part of the story. The other, less popular part of the story is understandably underplayed: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, intended to dismantle racism, also spurred racist progress.”

This “racist progress” has scored counter attacks against equality with the poisonous idea that America has really defeated racism.

Here’s why this insidious idea impacts communities in the United States, and I’m going to focus specifically on Christian communities. Many Christian white people don’t believe racism is a problem anymore. They can’t understand why we’re even talking about it. Weren’t laws passed 50 years ago for this? Why haven’t people moved on? People need to just get over it. The playing field is level, right? Wrong.

In fact, I’ve never known one person of color who thinks racism has been defeated.

We white people—who face no oppression and have no ancestors who were oppressed by racism or white supremacy—are the very ones who believe racism was defeated. Yet it has not been slain, and it is not our place to decide when victory has occurred. To use a biblical comparison, imagine if the ancient Egyptians had released the Israelites but had continued to actively oppress them by arresting them on petty crimes, incarcerating them at alarming rates, and creating new laws to keep them from being truly free, all while applauding themselves for freeing their slaves. That wouldn’t have been freedom for the Israelites, and it is not freedom for people of color in the United States today. When freedom does come—when the monster of racism is finally slain some day—it is people of color who will have the privilege of releasing the victory cry.

Take a moment to watch this video.


As you watch it, and as you see the photo of Brandt Jean hugging Amber Guyger, what do you see? Forgiveness? Complexity? Black Lives Matter? Blue Lives Matter? All Lives Matter?

One of the fallacies of badly formed moral arguments is when we set up a false dichotomy. Is a hug good or bad? Does supporting Botham Jean’s family (being against police brutality) automatically pit you against the police? No. If someone supports the police force, does this mean they’re against black people? No. The issue is not that simple, and there are far more than two sides. It’s a complex hug.

The night my wife and I watched the four-minute video of Brandt Jean asking to hug Amber Guyger, we were both moved to tears at this powerful gesture of forgiving, merciful, loving embrace. However, we understand that not all people see the hug that way. [4] We believe, with the Jean family and with police of integrity, that there remains much work ahead of us.

But the question is not, What are black people going to do about racism? Instead, the question for many of you who look like me is, What are white people going to do about racism? Before we can do anything constructive and redemptive, we must learn how to talk about racism in white circles without freaking out.

As one of my professors, Dr. Regina Shands Stoltzfus, says, “Before we can dismantle injustice and white supremacy, we must learn how it is mantled.” In our nation’s history, white people created the ignoble legacy of systemic white supremacy, and we white people must ask ourselves how we are influenced by 400 years of white supremacist history, policy, and actions. And if we are willing to dig deeper, then perhaps we can also examine how that influence in our lives allows white supremacist precedents to remain in our communities to the destruction of people of color around us.

We white people are a huge part of the problem, and it’s time to be part of the solution.

The heart of my research is to develop conversations on race among white Christian communities. Please contact me if you are interested in your church participating in my doctoral research and proposed formats for redemptive conversations on race, justice, and equality in Christian communities.

[1] Erik Ortiz, “Botham Jean’s Brother Told Amber Guyger ‘I Forgive You.’ It Became a Polarizing Moment.,” NBC News (October 3, 2019), accessed October 4, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibram X. Kendi, “The Civil Rights Act was a victory against racism. But racists also won.,” Washington Post (July 2, 2017), accessed October 4, 2019.

[4] For instance, see Dorena Williamson, “Botham Jean’s Brother’s Offer of Forgiveness Went Viral. His Mother’s Calls for Justice Should Too.,” Christianity Today (October 4, 2019), accessed October 7, 2019.

Opportunity at the Gate

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