Justice, Forgiveness, and Health

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Recently Amber Guyger, a former Dallas, Texas police officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison for shooting and killing Bothom Jean, an unarmed man. According to the New York Times report, “Ms. Guyger was off duty on the night in September 2018 that she came home from work and entered the wrong apartment, one floor directly above hers. Believing she had found an intruder in her apartment, she said, she pulled her service weapon and opened fire. In fact, she had entered Mr. Jean’s apartment and fatally shot him in his own home.” (New York Times, October 2, 2019).

Recently, I was asked to join a radio show on WHYY Philadelphia Public Radio where Glenn Bracey, an assistant professor at Villanova, Megan Feldman Bettencourt, a journalist and author, and myself discussed the issues of forgiveness and justice, as well as, implications for health and well-being. See the discussion.

I’m grateful for the conversation between Glenn, Megan, and myself. I learned much from it, and want to share some of what I learned with you below. I encourage you to listen to the show to get the full details.

Ms. Guyger is a white woman and Mr. Jean was a black man. This incident set off a firestorm of controversy, protests, and calls for justice and again underscores the fragile nature of race relations in America. Why should blacks be asked to forgive yet again? In fact, some might argue that forgiveness is being “weaponized” to maintain power differentials between offenders who are often part of majority groups (e.g., whites, men) and victims who are often part of minority groups (e.g., blacks, women). When will there be justice?

I have studied forgiveness for about 20 years and of all the things I have learned, two important lessons come to mind. First, an expectation of forgiveness might be equivalent to the license to do wrong. Forgiveness should not be expected or coerced, it can only be freely given. Second, when forgiveness is freely given, it absolutely cannot be mistaken as approval, excusing or justice. Unfortunately, this remains one of the most common misconceptions about forgiveness. Just because Bothom Jean’s brother Brandt forgave Ms. Guyger, it doesn’t mean he gives up all rights to see justice done. He’s forgiving, not condoning or excusing the act. In fact, I often hear folks say that forgiving means that you’re saying what was done is ok. But if it is “ok,” then why the need for forgiveness in the first place? The wrongness of the behavior cannot be changed by forgiveness. As it turns out, there is a way to parse out forgiveness and justice that keeps the two very separate. It looks like the graphic below:

Justice and Forgivenss graph

What the graphic suggests is that no matter where you fall on the continuum of justice, whether you believe there was much or little justice for Ms. Guyger, your movement on the personal experience of forgiveness continuum can be virtually independent of justice perceptions. Justice for an offender is a social and legal solution. Sometimes justice is done and wrongdoers are forgiven, whereas, just as often justice is not done and people still forgive. Sometimes people still cannot forgive even after perfect justice is done, and sometimes neither happens. Brandt Jean freely forgave Ms. Guyger no matter what he thought of the justice of this situation. Forgiveness is the personal experience of letting go of negative thoughts, feelings, and motivations you have toward someone who has hurt you.

In the present case, Jemar Tisby so aptly put it in his piece in the Washington Post, “No one should mistake black forgiveness, whenever and if ever it is offered, for complacency with racial injustice.” Or, as Wendell Scanterbury, a friend of mine put it, “Absolutely! Forgiveness and justice are not the same; but, to what degree does our justice system rely on forgiveness to smokescreen its failures and shortcomings; or its refusal to look at its heart? I often wonder how impactful the public outcry is or has been at impacting the heart of the system, in light of what seems to be an unending history of unexplainable (or at least unjustifiable) bias. Negro spirituals were often hedged on the expectation that “true justice” will not occur in this life; and my thought is that, unfortunately, or maybe by necessity, true forgiveness is the only dependable lifeline for the preservation of our true worth and well-being in our current reality.”

As I learned in our radio conversation, it was Maya Angelou who said, “You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

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