Forgiveness of crimes is important, but healing requires atonement

Three weeks ago, Dallas Police officer Amber Guyger was found guilty of the murder of accountant, worship leader, brother, and son Botham Jean. At the end of a shift, she was sexting with a co-worker, entered Mr. Jean’s apartment where he was eating ice cream, stood over him, and shot him dead. She called 911, but instead of administering CPR as she was trained to do, she texted that she was “f-----” to her partner and the work of obstruction began. Amber Guyger’s apartment never got searched before she moved, while Botham Jean’s did with someone leaking information about potential marijuana possession to smear his character.

During the case, Guyger gave testimony that conflicted with the medical examiner’s report, which said Jean was bent over or lying down when shot. Instead of owning her actions, she tearfully attempted once more to activate the King Kong visual of the big black man coming towards her and making her fear for her life.

In the end, the jury, notably comprised of five black citizens, five Latino and/or Asian citizens, and two white citizens found her guilty. Eboni K. Williams of Charlotte wrote a great piece detailing how having more equitable representation not only in the jury but throughout this court process likely led to a different verdict outcome than we have come to expect in officer-involved killings of black citizens. This critical reality was glossed over on mainstream television coverage.

Instead, this story was a classic story of black forgiveness. Full disclosure: As a lifelong Christian who grew up in the AME Zion Church and am now ordained as an elder in the Presbyterian church, I believe wholeheartedly in forgiveness. As a clinician, I see it as something that can be liberating for the person doing the forgiving. However, the part of the healing equation that too many Christians, especially White American Christians, continue to gloss over is that of atonement.

Botham Jean’s brother hugging Amber Guyger, much like the families in Charleston forgiving Dylan Roof, was superhuman. However, it should not be treated as an expectation, vilifying those who maintain righteous indignation.

Healing is a process and a practice combining forgiveness and atonement. If you were sharing the picture of the forgiveness hug on social media and not sharing the other parts of the story above, that’s healing malpractice. If you shared the hug, but not Botham’s mom’s painful cry out for Dallas police to address their systemic corruption, that’s healing malpractice. If you shared the hug, but didn’t share Joshua Brown, the key witness, mysteriously being killed 10 days after testifying, shortly before he was supposed to testify against the force, that’s healing malpractice. If you shared the hug, but haven’t noticed that Atiana Jefferson, a black woman an hour away in Fort Worth who was playing video games with her nephew, was just shot within seconds through her window by an officer who approached her house like SWAT and never identified himself as police, that’s healing malpractice.

While forgiveness is great, the work of atonement reduces the amount of acts we commit that require it. On Oct. 8, Jews celebrated Yom Kippur. I had a Jewish friend tell me they never felt pressured to offer forgiveness to Germans about Nazism, while Germans were committed to atonement for previous sins. And while imperfect, they’ve established one of the best representations of community healing. Calling for kindness may be comfortable, but healing won’t happen without the hard work of atonement. Let’s roll up our sleeves.

In the world of forgiveness versus atonement, it’s time for America to try the road less traveled by.

Justin Perry is a contributing columnist. Email:justinperry.observer@gmail.com