Prophet Jonah, Murder of Another Black Man by White Police Officer, and the Limits of Forgiveness

Sculpture of two people hugging

Jonah is such a complicated story. Jonah’s unwillingness to see the humanity of those who commit wrongdoing is something we see regularly today. And I have to say, I have compassion for Jonah sometimes. The level of evil and destruction being perpetrated is overwhelming at times. And yet, moments arise when people are able to engage in individual acts of forgiveness that boggle the mind.

A very recent example that many of us are aware of is the almost shocking act of forgiveness by Brandt Jean, the brother of Botham Jean, that was witnessed by so many. Botham Jean was the African American man who was shot dead in his own apartment by a white woman cop (Amber Guyger) as he was watching television, eating ice cream in his underwear. Brandt Jean’s act was a stunning act of forgiveness. And it has raised many questions for me and others, questions and explorations that I think are relevant on Yom Kippur – the day of at-one-ment, during this time of repentance and forgiveness.

Forgiveness and Grace versus Repentance and Teshuva

There is a lot of conversation buzzing around on social media and in the general media about the amazing act of forgiveness and grace of Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness. There seems to be some indication that because he forgave her, we as a society should likewise forgive her. I think there are at least two problems with this. First, there is a difference between individual acts of forgiveness and grace, and collective acts of forgiveness and grace. Second, there is an important difference between forgiveness and grace, and repentance and teshuva (i.e., returning).

The former, namely forgiveness, is what those who are injured choose to do (or not do) to those who have harmed them (or their loved ones). One often chooses to forgive so they can go on with their lives. So the person who caused them harm no longer has the power to impact and control them, so they can grieve, mourn, cope, and move forward in life. And these acts of forgiveness occur on an individual level, not a collective level.

Repentance and teshuva, on the other hand, are what the one who has caused harm does. Just because someone has forgiven you, does not mean you do not have a responsibility to engage in proper repentance and teshuva for your behavior and actions. Sitting in a witness box at your sentencing, after having taken the stand and pled your innocence, expressing your fear that your life was in danger, arguing that you had the right to shoot an innocent man in his home because you thought you were in your home, is not repentance. And it is not teshuva.

I do not entirely fault the officer because she was caught in a legal system that does not provide opportunities for true repentance and forgiveness. Rather it judges only guilt and innocence. But even in that system, she had a choice. She could have chosen to plead guilty and to take responsibility for her actions. To admit she was wrong. To ask for forgiveness. To genuinely reflect on her own racism and biases. To seek deeper understanding of how systemic racism influences her own thinking and biases. She did none of this. The victim’s brother certainly had a choice to forgive her. But his forgiveness does not alleviate her responsibility to do proper repentance and teshuva.

The Jewish New Year provides all of us, Jewish or not, a wonderful guide for how to engage in proper repentance and teshuva. And our tradition requires so much more than to be forgiven by those we harmed. It actually requires a returning to our highest selves – and in that, a return to the Divine.  Forgiveness does not absolve us of our own responsibility to repent and do teshuva. And repentance and teshuva requires significantly more than merely tears of regret and sorrow.

So how do we engage in teshuva and what does it mean to do so when we are so profoundly shaped by the social reality in which we live? What does teshuva actually look like when we participate in, perpetuate, and cause harm not just on an individual level, but also on a collective level? What is the intersection between individual acts of harm and systemic acts of harm? And how might this case, and the story of Jonah help us understand what is called of us? The murder of Botham Jean and Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of the murderer also points to the question of how we repair not only on an individual level for harms we’ve committed, but how we repair for systemic harms, in which we play a role and for which we bear some responsibility.

I respect and honor the brother’s actions and am left wondering about the systemic implications of such individual acts of forgiveness, and the intersection of personal forgiveness and collective responsibility and repentance. I watched the officer’s testimony where she expressed her regrets, stating, “I feel like a terrible person. I feel like crap. I hate that I have to live with this every single day of my life.” What exactly is she regretting? That she took an innocent man’s life or that she has to live with herself having done so. That is not an insignificant difference. When someone repents, they are called upon to repent for the impact of their behavior on others, not on themselves. Perhaps Jonah struggled with these same questions. Maybe he was reluctant to speak to the people of Nineveh because he did not believe their regret would be genuine regret for how their actions impacted others, but rather that it would simply be a perfunctory regret and change of behavior to save themselves.

How can we come to understand individual acts of harm and need for repentance and teshuva in the context of the history of patriarchy, racism, and the like? In the case of Amber Guyger, I cannot unravel her statement of regret, however inadequate or genuine it was, from her racist texts, from the history of white women participating in the torture and murder of innocent young black men in our country, and from the systemic racism of our society in which both the white cop and the brother of the victim were raised. This is not intended to be an indictment of his decision or choice. I respect and honor his choice. Yet I am intending to question how internalized racism, powerlessness, and trauma played a role in what he did. I am interested in questions relating to systemic issues and the relationship between individual acts of harm and systemic harm. What social conditioning impacted his decision to forgive her, just as women often repeat the mantra “boys will be boys” while dismissing violence against women?

Intersection between the personal and the collective

The feminist movement coined the term “the personal is political,” meaning that individual oppression and circumstances of women’s lives, that women previously believed were simply their “fate” due to being a woman, and that it occurred only on an individual level (e.g., in their own homes, in their workplaces, etc.), was in fact not that at all, but rather part of patriarchy and the systemic injustices and inequality of living in a patriarchal society and world. In other words, it was not any single woman’s individual “issue” or “problem” but rather a collective problem that was created by men in power and upheld by men and women in society to ensure that some had power over others. In a patriarchal society women learn many traits to make men comfortable – smile, don’t complain, forgive abusers, don’t be assertive, etc. Fortunately, these social norms have been challenged and in some instances overcome. Although, let’s be honest, there is still a huge amount of sexism that permeates our society that is still grounded in these same sexist messages. Just look at the vitriolic attacks on Greta Thunberg to see how this plays out even against young girls who refuse to make men comfortable, smile, look pretty or cute, etc.

And these dynamics play out in terms of racism too. Just as women have been taught to defer to and please men, so too African Americans vis-à-vis white people. Just think of the videos of African Americans pulled over by cops who are waving their gun and out of control and the African American person is trying to calm the officer down. This is the reality of being the less powerful in society – you learn to be deferential and to control yourself so as to not offend those with more power and to keep yourself safe.

If that is the case, how do we understand individual acts of forgiveness by the less powerful in our society of those with more power? And what do we do about it? To what extent does the forgiveness by the less powerful of those with more power uphold the systems and structures of society and maintain power imbalances and injustice? How do we hold individual people accountable when they too are conditioned in a patriarchal, racist society? What does forgiveness, repentance, and teshuva look like with this understanding?

Maimonides says that the first stage is to recognize the harm we have caused. To what extent are we individually and collectively able and willing to do this? In the case of Amber Guyger, that is easier – she murdered someone. There is clearly harm to the person and their loved ones. Yet even she struggled. She focused more on how her actions impacted her – she do not know how she could live with herself – than on how the Jean family will go on living with this huge hole in their hearts and lives. The next stage is to renunciate the harm we caused unequivocally and commit to never do it again. What do we do when the harm we cause not only occurs on a personal level but also a collective level? What might this look like in the case of Amber Guyger? How could she renunciate the harm, not only of her individual act, but of the ongoing harm she created by her racist texts, by her own biases, by those within the Dallas Police Department, and by those of society-at-large? What responsibility does she have to renunciate systemic harm and injustice? The third stage is recitation – publicly confessing and a committing to change. Simply saying I’m sorry is not enough, even if done in public. Maimonides calls for something more – namely, a commitment to change. And that cannot just be words, it must be intentions to act.

In this example, perhaps Amber Guyger could make a public statement committing to educate herself on how her biases and racism played a role in her decision that night. Perhaps it would include her reflecting honestly upon whether she would have felt scared if the person sitting on the couch was a white man (or woman). Publicly grappling with these questions, it seems to me, would be more in alignment with Maimonides’ intentions.

Reparations is the fourth stage – making amends for the harm caused. There have been more and more calls recently for reparations for slavery and that’s great. And, that is not enough in my mind. There has been an ongoing assault financially, physically, psychologically, and spiritually upon the African American community in our country (and they are certainly not the only ones) since the time of slavery to the present time. Reparations requires compensation for that past and also for the ongoing harm and injustice and can and will need to take many forms. Reparations must occur on all the levels mentioned, not just the economic level. One role Amber Guyger could play in this is, once she educates herself and comes to understand how racism played a role in her decisions that night, to commit to speaking with police officers throughout the country about how police have internalized racism and biases. Racism must be  weeded out of police departments and officers need to engage in reparations with their local communities.

Reconciliation is the next stage of the teshuva process. This phase involves an ongoing process of accountability between the individual(s) harmed, the individual(s) who committed the harm, and the larger community to which all the aforementioned parties are accountable. In this stage, perhaps Guyger would call for all police forces to hold listening and reconciliation circles to begin to repair the harm that has been done. This is different from reparations in that the reparations are simply giving something back to the individuals and communities harmed, whereas reconciliation is a recognition that the individuals and communities harmed have important voices that need both to be heard and included in the decision-making process in the future.

And finally, resolution and return. This is the moment when the party who committed harm is confronted with the possibility of recommitting that same harm and chooses a different path. This is critical not only on the individual level but also on a community and society-wide level. This moment will occur again and again and again, thus resolution and return are ongoing processes. This is where the possibility of genuine transformation occurs. This is where the opportunity for individuals in a society (or in a police force) and for institutions within a society and society as a whole to make different choices that rather than cause harm, create goodness, build community, repair past breaks, seek justice, and foster peace and love.

Perhaps Jonah did not have faith in the people of Nineveh to do the hard work of teshuva. Maybe Jonah was wanting God to be more discerning, to hold the people of Nineveh accountable for their actions. And God’s response was, perhaps just as Brandt Jean’s was, individuals are to see the best in one other and encourage one another to be their highest selves. And the rest is in God’s hands. Amber Guyger will have to live the rest of her days knowing what she did. I hope as she seeks a path to self-acceptance and to self-forgiveness, she chooses to search the depths of her soul and of our society to gain clarity as to how the social reality in which she lives impacted the lens through which she saw Botham Jean and from that heightened awareness she engages in a path of repentance and forgiveness that can help our larger society heal as well.

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