As Wise As Serpents

” “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Matthew 10:16 ESV

I don’t have a problem with Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of Amber Guyger in and of itself.**
I do have a problem with Judge Kemp’s actions, the sentencing, and the actions of the bailiff.

In a world with fair courts and sentencing not affected by race and power, Brandt’s actions of forgiveness are commendable. In a world that continually asserts that black life is worth less than white life and undeserving of the same protection and justice, the actions he took to express forgiveness can look like agreement with that system and I think that’s something we as Christians in general and Black Christians in particular need to ACTUALLY wrestle with.

It’s not heart-warming or “moving” when people who don’t believe racism is still a problem and froth at the mouth whenever even a Black fellow Christian points out the manifest issues in our nation hold up this instance of forgiveness as an example of how to handle injustice, as if forgiveness is incompatible with demanding right action. When it has to be explained over and over that Black protest is legitimate. When other Christians ignore the theological criticisms of power that the Black church has formulated for hundreds of years but suddenly admire Black Christians’ capacity for forgiveness. When a judge takes that forgiveness and uses it as a stepping stone to sympathize with the perpetrator instead of the victims and to withhold justice in sentencing.

I separate actions of forgiveness from forgiveness itself because forgiveness is a posture of the heart that reflects a desire for the goodness of God on someone else and an openness to reconciliation (think of Jean’s words “I love you as a person and I don’t wish anything bad on you” or his father’s declaration to Guyger “I’d like to become your friend at some point… I think I have the ability to do it and I would like to be a friend despite my loss. That’s why we are Christians.”). This posture doesn’t always require a particular outside action*; it’s why you can forgive someone who has passed away or who you may never see again. It’s also a heart posture that every Christian is called to (“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us”).

The question isn’t whether the Jean family should forgive Guyger; that answer is resoundingly yes for all Believers. The question is what that forgiveness should look like in real life and various circumstances.

I don’t think that critics of the forgiveness statement and hug are wrong to point how Black forgiveness in the face of racial injustice is expected (in ways forgiveness from other victims and victims’ families are not expected) and is weaponized to minimize calls for holistic justice. To me, this means we should be thoughtful in the way forgiveness is expressed so that it does not contribute to and can’t be used as a cover for continued injustice. It’s time to start being as wise as serpents.

*But it might! That’s why we have to listen to the Holy Spirit!

**None of this is to be taken as a direct criticism of Brandt Jean, an 18-year old who just lost his brother.

Published by:

Johana-Marie Williams

Johana-Marie Williams is a writer, artist, and historian focusing on Black women and femme's health and religio-spiritual experiences. Her current projects include the ongoing zine caro and papers on the history of Black midwives in Leon County, Florida and Black women's thought on transhumanism, as expressed in science-fiction and fantasy media. Johana's work also appears under the name Marie Annetoinette, in homage to her mother's influence on her creative and spiritual life.

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