After viral act of forgiveness, a black minister reflects on justice, mercy and an imperfect system
Many well-intended people shared their opinions of the viral hug…
SEARCY, Ark. — A stunned silence fell over the daily chapel service at Harding University, where police shooting victim Botham Shem Jean, 26, earned his accounting degree and was known for his singing voice and dedication to his faith.
Thousands of the Christian university’s students had just watched a video in which Jean’s younger brother, Brandt, 18, offered forgiveness and an emotional hug to Amber Guyger, the fired Dallas police officer convicted of murdering his loved one.
As voices outside the Texas courtroom chanted “No justice, no peace” in protest of the 10-year sentence that Guyger — who had faced up to 99 years in prison — received, Brandt Jean took the witness stand to make a victim impact statement.
“If you are truly sorry, I know I can speak for myself: I forgive you,” he told Guyger. “And I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.”
The early October video quickly went viral around the world. Many on social media championed Brandt Jean as an example for all Christians to follow. Others raised concerns that his gesture might distract from the black community’s cries for justice in police shooting cases.
In this small Arkansas town, about 370 miles northeast of Dallas, Harding President Bruce McLarty — who knew Botham Jean well — has given periodic updates in chapel and prayed for the family repeatedly since the 2016 graduate was shot to death on Sept. 6, 2018.
Guyger was off duty but still in her Dallas police uniform when she entered Botham Jean’s apartment that night, thinking it was her own. She told jurors she shot him when she mistook him for a burglar.
“I ask God for forgiveness, and I hate myself,” she said during the trial.
“We all sat there in stunned, convicted, overwhelming silence. What we had just witnessed was too incredible and moving to fully absorb.”
When McLarty saw the video of Brandt Jean’s act of grace toward Guyger, he knew he wanted students to see it.
During the announcement portion of the next day’s chapel, the Harding president introduced the clip and then sat down.
“When it was finished, not only could you hear a pin drop; you could hear your own heartbeat,” McLarty said. “There was no clapping or talking. We all sat there in stunned, convicted, overwhelming silence. What we had just witnessed was too incredible and moving to fully absorb.”
Allison Jean didn’t see it coming.
Brandt Jean didn’t tell his mother or the rest of his family what he intended to say.
“I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die, just like my brother did,” he told Guyger. “But I personally want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone, but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do.
“And the best would be: Give your life to Christ. I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do,” he added. “Again, I love you as a person. And I don’t wish anything bad on you.”
Then, his voice breaking, he asked the judge for permission to hug Guyger. The ex-officer sobbed as the two embraced for nearly a minute.
“Brandt’s act of forgiveness as well as the hug is what Brandt has learned all his life,” said Allison Jean, who raised both her sons in Churches of Christ in St. Lucia, a small island in the Caribbean.
“Growing up in a Christian environment, we always practiced forgiveness,” the mother added. “So it was a little surprising to me that he was forgiving of someone who took his brother away — a brother that he cherished. But I know that it was something that he knows is right, and that’s why he did it. He’s fully aware that if we do not forgive, then we don’t get forgiveness.”
At an assembly that night at the Dallas West Church of Christ, Botham Jean’s home congregation, Allison Jean called her son’s gesture “remarkable.” However, she stressed that there must be consequences for the shooting, and problems within the Dallas Police Department must be investigated.
In a telephone interview from St. Lucia, Allison Jean told The Christian Chronicle that she personally never has harbored hatred toward Guyger.
“I was hurt at what she did, and the entire experience has been quite painful,” the mother said. “But I never saw her in a way that I hated her. I, however, hated the covering up of the people who were around her and the discussion of the truth.
“So, for me, I was really more interested in getting to know the facts of exactly what had happened, what it is that my son had done to her to make her react in that way,” she added. “So, the trial showed me that Botham was innocent and did her absolutely no harm.”
“Every time I pray, I ask God to open up my heart to forgive her.”
In her heart, Allison Jean said, she has forgiven Guyger.
“Every time I pray, I ask God to open up my heart to forgive her,” she said. “But I have not demonstrated it in the way that Brandt did.”
Her son’s willingness to forgive in such a public manner made her proud.
“The shocking thing is, the Scripture says, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,’” Allison Jean said, referring to Proverbs 22:6. “I saw that very vividly in what he did. … And I didn’t realize that my training resonated so well in him.”
Sammie Berry, minister and elder of the Dallas West church, was sitting with the Jean family when Brandt took the witness stand.
The preacher heard the protest chants outside and couldn’t help but notice a few people crying inside the courtroom, including his daughter Jessica Berry and Botham Jean’s older sister, Allisa Findley.
He assumed they were upset with the length of the sentence.
“I think when people say ‘No justice, no peace,’” the minister said, “really what people in the black community believe is that unless you’re out there making noise and destroying property, nobody listens to our issues and our concerns about what’s been happening with the black male in our society — the mass incarceration, the police killing.
“So that’s why people react in the way that they do,” he added, “because they fundamentally and fearfully believe that if they just go and demonstrate quietly and peacefully, people will say, ‘OK, we hear you,’ and move on.”
But when Brandt Jean said what he did, it seemed to bring even those outside the courtroom “to silence and tears as well,” the preacher said.
“When he came out of that witness box and back to the family, I went and said to him, ‘Brandt, what you did was powerful,’” Sammie Berry said. “I said, ‘Man, thank you, because what you did helped so many people.’”
The preacher said he could think of only one example of forgiveness more powerful than what Brandt Jean displayed: when Jesus was nailed to the cross and said in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Both Allison Jean and Sammie Berry said they believed justice was served in Botham Jean’s case.
“In the end, I think her soul is going to be saved,” Sammie Berry said of Guyger, “and ultimately, as Christians, that’s our mission in life — to convert as many people to Christ as we can.”
In January, Brandt Jean plans to follow in his brother’s footsteps by enrolling at Harding.
It’s a 4,900-student university, associated with Churches of Christ, where Botham Jean made an immediate positive impression. Even as a freshman in 2011, he became a favorite song leader at Harding, McLarty recalled.
That year, as part of an annual “Struggles in the Faith” week, McLarty said he had asked Botham Jean to lead the hymn “Master the Tempest is Raging.”
“I thought nothing more of it,” McLarty said. “What I didn’t know was that Botham didn’t know the song. … I found out on Monday, when he led the song beautifully, flawlessly, that he’d been on the phone with his grandmother in St. Lucia all that weekend, and she had been teaching him over the phone how to sing that song.”
To McLarty, that anecdote helps illustrate Jean’s character, his love for family and his devotion to praise and worship.
So after the guilty verdict in Guyger’s trial, McLarty invited worshipers at Harding’s annual Bible lectureship to sing “Master the Tempest is Raging.”
“I thought maybe tonight,” he told the crowd, “it’s the perfect way for this gathering of people to remember Botham Jean and to pray for all those who were involved in this incredible tragedy.”
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