God acts in human history. In his sovereignty, he engages not only with man but also with nations. When God made a personal covenant with Abraham, God promised to make Abraham into a great nation that would be a blessing to other nations (Gen. 12:3; 17:5-6). While God’s covenant with Israel was unique, God said he would reward other nations for just behavior and judge them for injustice. For example, God punished Egypt for its treatment of the Jews. He sent Jonah to Nineveh “because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jon. 1:2).
America has been guilty of wickedness. One of its most grievous was its enslavement of Africans. It can be reasonably argued that our nation’s continued racial conflicts since the abolition of slavery in 1865 and almost a century of segregation are part of God’s judgment on our nation. At the same time, we can acknowledge that the civil rights movement of the 1960s was a sincere attempt to address the legal and moral problem of racial injustice in America. In many ways, the civil rights movement was a success. It forced the country to acknowledge its failures and enact legislation granting American blacks political and socio-economic access to American society. The civil rights movement resulted from the long history of the Black Church pursuing biblical justice and righteousness. God used the Black Church to achieve racial neutrality and integration during the 1960s. I believe he will use the Black Church again to renew our civil compact with one another and our national covenant.
America’s national covenant suggested in the opening words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I can think of no other national founding document that grounds the rights to life and the pursuit of human flourishing as the foundation for self-determination. Strikingly, the signatories declared that these rights come from God, not a government of human beings. In other words, American rights and freedoms are from the God who enters into a covenant with those nations that acknowledge him.
By its definition, this audacious statement of freedom should’ve included blacks. The Declaration specifies that “all men” are equal. So, from the beginning, the States violated their covenant because they denied the equality of blacks. The justification for this contradiction–the denial of equality–was predicated on the refusal to acknowledge the humanity of blacks. White people treated blacks as sub-human rather than human. Worse, most blacks in America were seen as property— “things” that could be owned––rather than persons of equal worth and dignity. But if whites could deny the fullness of black humanity, then covenantal fidelity was impossible.
Eventually, rights and privileges for formerly enslaved people were protected by three amendments to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship and equal protection and prohibited states from enforcing laws that undermined the privileges and rights protected by the Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment gave blacks the right to vote.
Several southern states passed laws that prevented blacks from enjoying the constitutional rights and privileges that were theirs by virtue of being Americans. Here, the national covenant was compromised once again. This violation of the national covenant resulted from the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional. This opinion crippled the federal government’s ability to reconstruct Southern society by undermining sections of the 13th and 14th Amendments. Power reverted to the Democrat-controlled southern states (their “states’ rights”), which started a new era of oppression for blacks living in the American South under Jim Crow segregation.[i]
Those entrusted with its preservation didn’t defend the national covenant. Nor was it being extended to its rightful heirs. The Declaration had rooted the nation’s covenant in God, implying that he was the source of its citizens’ liberty and pursuit of prosperity. Then the Constitution broadened this covenant by detailing the rights and liberties belonging to the people of this new nation, stating–
We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution of the United States of America.[ii]
However, “we the people” excluded blacks. Black theologian James Deotis Roberts laments,
Even though the platitudes were written into the principal documents of this republic, there is a real question as to whether the Founding Fathers had in mind the “image of God” in black skin. The history of this country would indicate that in law, custom, and theology, blacks were excluded from the minds of those who penned the liberation documents upon which this nation was based.[iii]
After nearly a century of Jim Crow, the Black Church decided to challenge the moral failure to fulfill the national covenant. In many senses, the civil rights movement was a revival– a Spirit-led awakening to redeem the national covenant. Not only did it help repair the covenant between the government and its citizens, but it also sought to restore the covenant between God and the American nation. Through this movement, the Black Church helped its siblings in American churches repent of the racial sins they had committed and justified in God’s name. This movement was not only about civil rights but moral imperatives. It called the nation to account for its underperformance regarding the covenant in response to prophetic calls from the black church tradition. God spoke through his prophets. And this time, the nation listened.
Christians had to revise their understanding of the imago Dei—the image of God in every human being. This revision was significant. Most Christians thought they had understood the image of God in their neighbors. Still, many Christians realized their understanding of the imago Dei was compromised if they disapproved of full rights and privileges for blacks in American society.
Many Americans did not accept the civil rights movement. It was rejected by many people, including Christians and churches–regardless of race–particularly in the South. But it also sparked the beginning of the end of systemic racial injustice and the beginning of racial and cultural reconciliation. The Black Church-led civil rights movement of the 1960s minimized race in response to white racists who used race as the foundation of human identity. For the civil rights participants, race was superficial. Equality was more critical, rooted in the imago Dei. Because of this biblical anthropology—preached from black pulpits and shown on American TV screens–the civil rights movement convinced America of its moral obligation to desegregate American society. Blacks came to enjoy social and economic opportunities to achieve the American dream. They started to enjoy the same rights as white Americans and to experience equality before the law.
The racial and cultural reconciliation of our nation is what we must take seriously. There’s no doubt that we have come a long way. But there’s still more that must be done. Christians must work together to set an example of what reconciliation looks like. This partnership must be multiethnic–a clear reflection of our objective. This collaboration is critical, and the legacy of the Black Church makes it essential as a leader in this effort. As one pastor put it, “The legacy of oppression juxtaposed against resistance, and suffering juxtaposed with perseverance… has provided [the Black Church] with a unique testimony of how God saves God’s people in history, and what salvation looks like in the real world.”
What is the Black Church? The Black Church is a general reference to the historical and cultural origins of black churches in America, which go back to slavery in the South and the free independent churches of the North, beginning in the 19th century. Though not monolithic, seven historical denominations broadly represent the Black Church.[iv] These churches, which represent the majority of black Christians in America, are the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ), the Colored/Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME); the National Baptist Convention USA, (NBC); the National Baptist Convention of America, (NBCA); the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC); and the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). Additionally, Christian blacks in both predominately black congregations, and those who attend evangelical churches, are also considered members–or religious descendants–of the Black Church.[v]
In the South, many plantations briefly allowed whites and enslaved blacks to worship together. These unified worship services were short-lived due to slaveowner concerns about the initiatory rites of confession and baptism, signaling to the enslaved that they were equal with whites– and that they, too, should be free. However, as more slaves experienced Christian preaching, distinct theological and spiritual interpretations flourished. These hermeneutical and kerygmatic developments communicated a distinct spirituality that ordinarily occurred during secret worship meetings in secluded areas called “hush harbors.” These services were the beginning of what E. Franklin Frazier called the “invisible institution,” where worship meetings served as a free and safe place for enslaved blacks to preach, sing, pray, and worship out of the eye of the slaveholder and slave patrols.[vi] These gatherings were where slaves established the ability, despite their illiteracy, to create fuller theological expressions of human dignity, equality, and freedom, all of which reside on the foundation of being a child of God. During these secret worship sessions, slaves drew inspiration from biblical themes like the Exodus, and the Prophetic ethics, that counteracted the God–and religion–of slaveholding Christianity, which was interwoven with their oppression.[vii]
Northern black churches began because white Christians practiced segregation. One example took place at St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. While several black members were kneeling in prayer in an area segregated for white members, church leaders demanded that the parishioners move to a different church area. Disheartened, two members– Richard Allen and Absalom Jones– led the black membership out of St. George. Years later, Richard Allen planted Bethel Church in Philadelphia, an African Methodist Episcopal Church–America’s first independent black denomination.[viii] Absalom Jones started St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. St. Thomas was the first black Episcopal church in the country. Many churches in the North and South, including Bethel A.M.E, were stops on the Underground Railroad, where churches sheltered, fed, and provided spiritual direction to slaves as they escaped to freedom.
Due to segregation, the Black Church was–and in many cases, still is– the central social institution for blacks. It’s where blacks sermonized, prayed, worshipped, and socialized. The Black Church was also where blacks created mutual aid societies for their congregants, helped develop black leadership, and ran funeral homes. The Black Church also provided care for the sick, helped nurture Masonic lodges, held political meetings, was the economic center of black communities, and provided education for its members– among many other things. Carter G. Woodson referred to the Negro Church as “an all-comprehending institution,” the only visible institution blacks led and owned. He said–
The Negro church touches almost every ramification of the life of the Negro. As stated elsewhere, the Negro church, in the absence of other agencies to assume such responsibilities, has had to do more than its duty in taking care of the general interests of the race… All efforts of the Negro in things economic, educational, and political have branched out of or are connected in some way with the rise and development of the Negro church.[ix]
Reflecting on its history, the Black Church is deeply rooted in orthodoxy and orthopraxy, reflecting Christianity’s concern for the poor and oppressed. These faithful practices encouraged the church’s involvement in every aspect of life, and why it became an “all-comprehending institution.” The Black Church, unlike its religious counterparts, didn’t separate religious piety from public action. From the beginning, the Black Church has been a theopolitical institution, maintaining fidelity to the biblical text while historically concerned about how theology affected the pursuit of emancipation and human dignity during slavery. The Black Church has taught theology, what it had to say about equality, politics, and freedom during segregation, and what theology has to say about the pursuit of justice and righteousness in the post-civil rights age of integration. Traditionally, faith-filled social activism was essential as white denominations were silent and rarely advocated for the freedom of their brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. Many white churches saw slavery and its resulting indignity as a political matter only–a place where churches and Christians shouldn’t interfere.[x]
For the Black Church, transcending the sin of racial discrimination while maintaining its faithfulness to the biblical text has always been a spiritual commitment. Established on the scriptural emphasis of the Old Testament, the Black Church intuited a moral necessity to move beyond the spiritual and ecclesiastical realms to promote real change in everyday socio-economic, political, intellectual, and educational areas of life where its members sought full inclusion. Throughout its history, the Black Church has been concerned with the problem of racial evil and suffering–theodicy relating to the moral, physical, and metaphysical areas– and its solutions.
Now that we understand the reference to the Black Church and its significance to American blacks, can this institution offer our nation and fellow Christian insight toward racial healing? Yes, it can. Despite being criticized for its worship practices, the application of the Social Gospel, and its clergymen broadly lacking the theological credentials of its predominately white counterparts, this institution successfully led the effort toward freedom. Here, God chose the “weak things,” according to the standards at the time, “to shame the ‘strong’” and accomplish his will.
How was the Black Church able to accomplish this? The answer is the Holy Spirit. But it was also due to the historical circumstances of the Black Church, which necessitated the development of certain ethical principles that sustained it during very challenging times in American history. The Black Church taught that prolonged and unearned suffering could be recapitulated and understood as redemptive suffering. Redemptive suffering is the theological understanding that suffering develops character and points to something greater. It also signifies the transformational possibilities of those who suffer and those responsible for suffering. This theology was established by an institution whose legacy included the contextual nature of its creation and its development in proximity to injustice, as it ultimately achieved equality. Of this, Rev. Martin Luther King said,
Another thing that stands at the center of this movement is [this] idea…that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the nonviolent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation.[xi]
The Black Church developed a notion of forbearance– patience, endurance, and self-control that allowed it to persevere and appreciate the gift of life in adversarial and life-threatening circumstances.[xii] This ethic has been essential to the Black Church for faith-based survival. This ethic is used to achieve racial harmony and healing. Many have witnessed this as black and white churches have united to promote Christian solidarity as they pursue racial reconciliation, particularly during heightened racial discord.
The Black Church also leaned heavily on forgiveness, cultivating the ability to develop relationships with others and resolve tensions in an alienated community. Forgiveness seeks restoration/reconciliation– personally and collectively.[xiii] Forgiveness has been a “vital process for moral growth and communal transformation… giving and obtaining forgiveness have been, and still are, fundamental aspects of life in the Black Church.”[xiv]
In the Black Church, justice and righteousness are inseparable. The Black Church has repeatedly sought justice and righteousness. In our contemporary social context, justice and righteousness are distinct. People demand “justice” while ignoring righteousness altogether, which has had the practical effect of justice redefined as vengeance or punishment because of personal/group disagreement with a particular situation, historical consequence, or verdict.
The Black Church has pursued reconciliation. Reconciliation has been of such importance– on the individual and institutional level– that the Black Church has been open to the confessions and contrition from several Protestant denominations that actively supported slavery, segregation, and racism. Despite the indignity of its beginnings, the Black Church has been a religious blessing to churches in America and should be appreciated as such, regardless of denominational commitments.
As a means of cultural restoration, forgiveness brings us closer to scriptural reconciliation. Let me explain reconciliation, then give examples of forgiveness practiced by the Black Church and show why it’s essential for our nation.
The four central passages concerning reconciliation are Pauline texts. They are Romans 5:10, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20, Ephesians 2:14-16, and Colossians 1:19-22. Pauline theology of reconciliation (καταλλαγή) is the process by which God reconciles or reunites himself to us and his creation through the earthly ministry and sacrificial death of his son, Jesus.[xv] Paul explains that reconciliation is God not “counting our sins against us,” with relational reunion being objective. When Paul declares that believers are given the “ministry of reconciliation” as in Second Corinthians, the inference is that this vocation is naturally evangelical and soteriological: actively leading others to God through Jesus Christ so they too may be reconciled. In Ephesians, Paul suggests that being reconciled to God means that Jews and Gentiles are no longer estranged but are reconciled.[xvi] Therefore, to be reconciled to God involves the confession and repentance of one’s sins, God’s grace in granting forgiveness, the removal of alienation, and the gift of redemption. The outcome is that believers are fashioned into a new “temple,” with Jesus being the cornerstone.
When it comes to interpersonal reconciliation and overcoming societal discord to achieve a sense of shalom, we must turn to the Beatitudes.[xvii] Here, Jesus takes a different position from that of Paul. However, both are interrelated.
Demonstrating its importance, Jesus explains that reconciliation of personal relationships takes priority over giving gifts to God. Here, Jesus suggests that our horizontal relationships with our brothers and sisters must be in good standing before the cultivation of our vertical relationship to and reverence of God.[xviii] Matthew 5:23-24 reads, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First, be reconciled (διαλλάγηθι) to your brother, and then come and offer your gift [to God].”
One of the most reverent acts among first-century religious Jews was approaching God’s altar for the offering. Jesus, admonishing his Jewish listeners to suspend this essential religious requirement to mend broken relationships, was clear about the imperative of his instruction concerning reconciliation. Putting aside one’s offering, one’s relationship or obligation to God, until one is reconciled to one’s brother underscores the point. Good horizontal relationships with neighbors and brothers reflect our redeemed vertical relationship with God.[xix] Jesus is aware of how internalized anger and bitterness can spread to the point of consuming its host, motivating them to be various self-justified and entitled forms of verbal harassment, physical violence, and injustice. Murder is the most grievous manifestation of personal contempt and disregard that originates within a heart filled with anger toward someone with whom one knows.[xx] Jesus not only rejected the behaviors that disrupt kinship, but he also repudiated the emotions that predictably lead to it. We cannot continue to present ourselves as living sacrifices, “holy and acceptable to God,” if we have failed to do the essential work of reconciliation. Jesus indicates that our offerings and sacrifices will be inadequate and unacceptable without reconciliation. Our gifts to God are not legitimate substitutes in place of personal reconciliation, particularly in the multiethnic family of God.[xxi] To be clear, Jesus enlarges the definition of one’s “brother,” broadly defining it to mean just about anyone in any relationship that has been fractured and is in disrepair.[xxii] “Neighbor” and “brother” become synonymous in God’s kingdom community.
The fundamental point of reconciliation is that it doesn’t matter who’s at fault. Jesus is intentional in the use of the word “you”; “if ‘you’ . . . leave ‘your’ gift . . . first be reconciled to ‘your’ brother” (Matt. 5:24). The obligation is on the hearer, no matter who the hearer is.[xxiii] Jesus is also against procrastination. We’re obligated to act immediately upon the remembrance of conflict. We can’t delay our obligation of reconciliation nor offer our gifts to God with a heart filled with contempt or self-righteousness on the basis that a fractured relationship is the obligation of someone else to make amends or grant concessions as part of the reconciliation process.[xxiv] To be reconciled is an act of mutuality (Greek διαλλάσσω [diallasso]) such that when parties reconcile, their relationship is renewed, holding nothing against the other.[xxv]
Again, reconciliation is significant. Jesus explains that it takes priority before honoring God. The primary obligation is to repair broken relationships. Jesus’ teaching on reconciliation is reciprocal. Reconciliation is not established on one party (or group) accommodating, capitulating, or acquiescing to the emotional, nonnegotiable demands of another. The goal is mutuality and cultivating relationships that eliminate hostility and other obstacles that preserve separation. [xxvi] Human relationships matter.[xxvii] In the Torah, God says, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18). Jesus reiterated and emphasized this prescription when he required his followers to love others the way one wants to be loved when someone questioned Jesus as to which commandments were most important (the other being the obligation to love God with all our being). Loving our neighbors and treating them how they should treat us is the foundation of justice and righteousness. It’s also the reflection of our new reality in Jesus Christ. Moreover, reconciliation– be it with God and our neighbor(s)– requires that the sins that lead to separation be acknowledged. There’s an obligation for people (and groups) to recognize the specific transgressions that led to relational conflict and the willingness to repent for them. This recognition leads to forgiveness and restoration.[xxviii]
Herman Bavinck wrote,
Sin, in the first place, breaks off fellowship with God and then, in consequence, all genuine relationships that humans have with all other creatures. Thus, the first order of the day is restoring our proper relationship with God… From the principle of reconciliation with God, all other human relationships are given a new ordering and led back to their original state.[xxix]
Reconciliation is interpersonal, social, and cosmic. Is it attainable in America? Yes, and I agree with John Perkins when he said, “There is no institution on earth more equipped and capable of bringing transformation to the cause of racial [or ethnic] reconciliation than the Church.”[xxx]
Secular agendas of “racial justice” or “social justice” emotionally manipulate, coerce, and guilt white people into action–burdening them with the overwhelming responsibility of the work toward reconciliation. These agendas happen in churches, also. To contrast this corrupted form of justice, the Black Church should lead toward reconciliation. Jesus was clear that his followers must upend the normal cycle of reciprocating anger, antipathy, and hostility. There is no disputation that blacks have suffered humiliation through exploitation and injustice. Slavery and segregation in America, though not unique, were moral indiscretions and have been a civic and historical impediment to cultural harmony. The residual of white racial chauvinism, though legally outlawed, is still present in some quarters. Black resentment and feelings of racial self-consciousness that precipitate an unearned moral authority and entitlement continue to dictate performative racial pretention; the issues of bitterness and self-consciousness must be addressed. However, the Black Church must re-establish the mission of reconciliation, which begins with forgiveness– not through manipulation or compulsion but with humility, courage, love, and grace. Reconciliation will be a difficult and painful process. But the Black Church must take the lead because fellow American churches lack the historical experience of subjugation and inequality with which blacks were familiar and overcame. The historical and religious perspectives of the Black Church essentialize its leadership in restoring broken relationships. I’m not suggesting evangelicalism has nothing meaningful to contribute to reconciliation; it does.[xxxi] Nor am I discrediting evangelicalism.[xxxii] The Black Church and evangelicals hold similar theological views.[xxxiii] However, Christian blacks have managed to be a segment of the church while being overlooked by those who should have embraced them within the Church. The consequence of exclusion is that the Black Church developed spiritual methodologies that spoke to Christians broadly, specifically to its members, which repeatedly addressed unmerited suffering, forgiveness, and reconciliation within the family of God. The Black Church emphasized human dignity, equality, providential involvement in history, and a covenantal understanding of collective freedom and salvation. Moses was the foundation of the Black Church, while Paul was the foundation for many American churches. Because Evangelicals have been an influential part of the status quo–which has been to their benefit, they are unacquainted with, have minimized, or have ignored the significance of these practical theologies to the detriment of national healing. That is to say: it’s challenging to understand and then appropriate that which a group hasn’t experienced.
One noteworthy example of forgiveness demonstrated by the Black Church was the response to the murders in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. At a Wednesday night Bible study and prayer service, Dylann Roof entered the historically black Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murdered nine people, including the church’s pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney. Twenty-one-year-old Roof, a loner, and a white supremacist sympathizer, felt racially marginalized and wanted to start a race war because he thought blacks were taking over the country.[xxxiv] According to his manifesto, Roof claimed, among other things, that–
“. . . Segregation was not a bad thing. It was a defensive measure. Segregation did not exist to hold back negroes. It existed to protect us from them. And I mean that in multiple ways. Not only did it protect us from having to interact with them, and from being physically harmed by them, but it protected us from being brought down to their level. Integration has done nothing but bring Whites down to level of brute animals.[xxxv]
After deliberating about where to carry out his plan, Roof chose the historical (Mother) Emanuel A.M.E Church.[xxxvi] Though he wanted to kill as many blacks as possible, Roof admitted that he almost decided against murdering the churchgoers that evening because they were so welcoming and kind to him.[xxxvii] Their Christian faith and love transcended their blackness, almost saving their—and Roof’s—life.
However, Roof murdered nine innocent people. In response, family members and members of the Charleston community came together in prayer and sought forgiveness and healing. During Roof’s bond hearing, family members of those he murdered confronted him. In this situation– shock, anger, hatred, and grief are naturally expected from those mourning the loss of loved ones taken in such a violent and evil way. Through their suffering, the victimized families held little visible anger. Still in anguish, those who chose to speak offered Dylann Roof forgiveness and told him they were praying for his soul, even as they described their losses and intense suffering and pain. Nadine Collier, who lost her seventy-year-old mother, Ethel Lance, said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” Felicia Sanders, who lost her son Tywanza, said, “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza… was my hero…. May God have mercy on you.” The sister of Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor admitted, “… I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family . . . she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God [has mercy] on your soul.” Camryn and Chris Singleton, whose mother, Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was killed, somberly offered forgiveness. Chris said of Roof, “We already forgive him for what he’s done, and there’s nothing but love from our side of the family.” His sister Camryn added, “I just feel a lot of love. I’m a little bitter, but I’m overwhelmed with love.” Reverend Norvell Goff, the then-interim pastor of Emanuel A.M.E Church, echoed the same thing—love, prayer, and forgiveness. Forgiveness is, and has been, a theological staple in the Black Church. Seeing these people demonstrate such Christian character and poise during intense pain and suffering caused by pure evil was remarkable.
Members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church were victims of death caused by the fundamental racism characteristic of a time past. Yet, they refused to embrace racial resentment and vengeance. Family members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church expressed compassion and forgiveness to a racist murderer after he assassinated their loved ones.[xxxviii] Compassion and forgiveness is the practice in the Black Church that goes back centuries. In light of this racial tragedy and the Jesus-like response born of faith and spiritual endurance—are a characteristic legacy of the Black Church tradition in America. There is no excuse for any Christian to continue rejecting the admonition to embody love and compassion in the subversive act of forgiveness. This practice is not only a form of redemptive suffering but a clear contrast to the zero-tolerance spirit of cancelation that’s so pervasive and destructive to our culture.
Another exemplary act of forgiveness happened during the sentencing trial of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in 2019. Guyger was on trial for killing Botham Jean, a Christian black accountant for PricewaterhouseCoopers. Inside a dimly lit apartment, which Guyger thought was hers, claimed that her neighbor, Jean, was a burglar. Guyger shot Jean twice, claiming she feared for her life. Botham Jean died at a nearby hospital.
After the killing of Botham Jean, the department placed Amber Guyger on administrative leave. Eventually, she was fired from the Dallas Police Department. After an investigation ended, Guyger was arrested and charged with manslaughter. After a grand jury heard evidence concerning the incident, Guyger was charged with murder.
The jury took two hours to convict her. Guyger was found guilty of murder and sentenced to ten years in prison.[xxxix] After the sentencing phase of murder cases, the court is presented with or hears victim impact statements– written or oral statements that allow victims, friends, and family members of victims to tell the court how the criminal action has impacted their lives.[xl] Botham Jean’s mother, Allison Jean, told the court that the murder of her son had profoundly affected her and her family. Through her grief, she said to the court,
“My life has not been the same…I cannot sleep, I cannot eat. It’s just been the most terrible time for me. I have been sick often. I have to try to keep the family together because everybody is in pain.” Jean said that she was having trouble eating and sleeping…because of the behavioral changes in her youngest child, Brandt Jean. She explained in court, “I’m very concerned about him because he’s just been very, very quiet. He doesn’t speak much. So, I’m not sure what’s going through his mind.”
Brandt Jean gave his statement. Still, visibly amid pain and grief, his was a powerful testimony of Christian forgiveness. He said,
“I don’t want to say twice… or for the hundredth time… how much you’ve taken from us. I think you know that. But I…hope you go to God with all the guilt and all [of] the bad things you may have done in the past; each and every one of us may have done something that we’re not supposed to do. If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. And I don’t think anyone can say it — again, I’m speaking for myself and not on behalf of my family — but I love you just like anyone else. And I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die, just like my brother did, 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 I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do. And the best would be– give your life to Christ. I’m not going to say anything else. I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do. Again, I love you as a person. And I don’t wish anything bad on you. I don’t know if this is possible [addressing the judge], but can I give her a hug, please? Please?”[xli]
Brandt Jean’s statement is profoundly moving; it went viral for a reason. Through his grief, he gave testimony to his Christian faith. In that moment of personal and spiritual witness and testimony, Brandt Jean demonstrated forgiveness– a radical act of consideration toward Amber Guyger. She was no longer a “racist” or the symbol of state-sanctioned, antiblack violence. She was no longer just a murderer. Brandt Jean had done the one thing that very few people did during the trial: he recognized and affirmed Amber Guyger’s humanity. Judge Tammy Kemp granted Brandt Jean’s request. Brandt Jean and Amber Guyger firmly embraced each other, and she wept. Brandt Jean offered forgiveness, love, and compassion and extended an opportunity to Amber Guyger– the person convicted of murdering his brother– to redeem her life through knowing Jesus.[xlii] At Guyger’s request, Judge Tammy Kemp gave Guyger a Bible and a hug.[xliii] Judge Kemp attends Concord Baptist Church, a black church in Dallas, Texas.
These are examples of taking the first step toward reconciliation and redemption. Dylann Roof and Amber Guyger didn’t ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness was given to them by the family members of their respective victims. I’m not suggesting that granting forgiveness should permanently exclude confession and repentance by the guilty; those culpable must repent. However, forgiveness and compassion may precipitate repentance and perfectly contrast the contemporary practice of public, personal shaming and the lack of grace toward people when they make mistakes, particularly regarding “race.” It can positively contribute to healing what remains of our nation’s racial divide, which will also help restore our covenant.
These examples show how the Black Church should approach our white brothers and sisters in the faith, with the economic expression of regulating and extending freedom, equality, forgiveness, and reconciliation— doing to them what it wants them to do for it.[xliv] This practice is the “Golden Rule.” It doesn’t mean doing to people what they have done to you in the past under some mistaken belief of entitlement or sense of retribution. Nor does it mean refusing to act in favor and benefit of other people because they haven’t done anything that should be reciprocated. Despite past actions, evil ones, the Black Church has a moral obligation to treat others the same way its members want to be treated. The Golden Rule is a bold moral idea of freedom. It admonishes the hearer not to respond in kind (how one has been treated) or not to respond (because a previous act of goodwill was ignored). Still, it pinpoints the central idea of the gift and action, placing it in other people rather than being a self-centered affair of doing what is self-advantageous.[xlv]
Jesus’ teaching recapitulates the divine institution of stewardship given to man at creation in that man would have dominion over every living thing except for his fellow man. In appropriating this teaching, we must cease the destructive practice of exercising authority over one’s neighbor, lording it over them as a master does over a slave. Ignoring this teaching has happened for far too long between the Black Church and fellow American churches. Jesus’ instruction to respect our neighbors in ways one wants to be respected in light of creational dominion recalibrates the listener’s focus on the significance of the imago Dei. Faithfully engaging Jesus’ instruction, a master must place himself in the position of the slave and the slave in place of his master, ending the hierarchical imbalance between the two.[xlvi] This new understanding of freedom is not self-seeking piety. Still, it is grounded in equality and mutuality, predicated on the obligation to cast aside historical suffering and degradation. It also means forgoing all other instinctive compulsions to be compassionately seen through the eyes of others– and to look at others as if one were looking at oneself. It is as close to empathy as one can get without actual firsthand experience. This is a habit that the Black Church and American churches should engage in. Notably, it would grant white evangelicals in American churches some insight into what blacks, and the Black Church, have endured. The Black Church, and black Christians in evangelical churches, should forgive the physical and emotional damage that impedes the principal moral commitment of treating whites as blacks want and have wanted to be treated.
Forgiveness is the most important of all the ethics that characterize the Black Church. I believe it’s the one moral and practical principle directly applicable to what our country needs to heal our racial divisions. This division and the reluctance to reconcile reflect a theological crisis. Only a Christian renewal, in combination with the Spirit of God, will solve our problem. Christian renewal is a present concern considering the increasing rise of religious disaffiliation. As Christianity loses its religious, theological, and cultural influence, alternatives replace Christianity.
Consequently, identity politics have taken on greater cultural importance such that it has become a religion for increasing numbers of people. Politics can’t save us; if it could, it would have happened by now. Identity politics, as we’ve seen in an exacting way during the last five years, though certainly before, preserves our division. Identity politics demands that people are viewed through a political anthropology of red or blue or some other political identity predicated on racial, gender, or cultural victimization, which reinforces hierarchy, antipathy, and estrangement. This discord has prevented healing and reconciliation in our nation, which the Black Church should lead, which will help restore our covenant.
[viii] Subsequently, it would become known as “Mother” Bethel A.M.E. Church.
16 It is true, however, that in Ephesians, Paul is discussing God reconciling broken humanity with himself. However, Paul also describes the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles, provided through the shedding of Jesus’ blood, which is contingent upon accepting Jesus as being who he said he was, and is, our Savior.
[xvi] A clear allusion to the Temple. In this new Temple, there are no divisions; we worship God in Jesus, together.
17 Luke 12 also contains an admonition to reconcile. The Lukan passage focuses on reconciliation–settling accounts with “an adversary” prior to him taking one to court. By not making amends, Jesus warns that the judge will turn the listener over to an officer, and the officer in turn will place the listener in prison. Consequentially, the listener won’t be released until the debt has been paid. There are a few interpretations as to the explicit meaning of this passage, but they do not concern us, here.
27 It is why when the rich man asked Jesus (Matt. 19:16-22) what must be done to achieve eternal salvation, Jesus repeated the commandments that involved maintaining righteous relationships with our neighbor, including the poor. He did not mention God, and that was intentional.
32 Evangelicalism can be defined as an alliance of Christians that identify with a well-defined history, contemporary culture, theology, and an ethos with which membership generally agrees. Promise Keepers was a movement that sought racial reconciliation in the nineties that achieved some success.
33 Michael O. Emerson, Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 200). See also, Jason E. Shelton and Michael O. Emerson, Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions (New York: New York University Press, 2012). See also, The Black Church in the African American Experience, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1990).
34 Dylann Storm Roof created a website called, “The Last Rhodesian,” in reference to Rhodesia, which was a British colony prior to gaining its independence and renaming itself Zimbabwe. Roof also supported apartheid, the southern Confederacy, segregation, and various other forms of white supremacy, including the Council of Conservative Citizens, which was formerly the White Citizen’s Council.
37 Daniel Arkin and Erik Ortiz, “Dylann Roof ‘Almost Didn’t Go Through’ with Charleston Shooting,” NBC News, June 19, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ charleston-church-shooting/dylann-roof-almost-didnt-go-through-charleston-church-shooting-n378341
38 The grief-filled response of forgiveness should rightly be juxtaposed to the reactions by blacks after the shooting of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and just about any protest that includes Black Lives Matter. In all cases, blacks without any evidence took to the streets, called the police officers “racist,” demanded “justice” (vengeance), and rioted and looted their own neighborhoods. To make matters worse, there were Christian “pastors” allowing their churches to be used as staging areas for these “protestors” and were out marching with these “demonstrators” rather than calling for calm, patience, prayer, and forgiveness.
39 Amber Guyger has since appealed her murder conviction in hopes of having it overturned. Her lawyers are attempting to have the charges downgraded to a lower felony count to have her sentence reduced.
40 Victim Support Services, “Victim Impact Statements,” https://victimsupportservices.org/help-for-victims/victim-impact-statements/#:~:text=A%20Victim%20Impact%20Statement%20is,the%20sentencing%20of%20the%20defendant.&text=Victim%20Impact%20Statements%20were%20created,and%20those%20that%20you%20love.
41 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeESVLQK4hw. Additionally, Brandt Jean was a member of Dallas West Church of Christ, congregationally part of the Black Church.
42 As expected, many blacks couldn’t get past Brandt Jean’s merciful gesture. Rather than accepting, applauding, or even seeking to emulate the actions of Brandt Jean, some sought to clarify that Jean’s forgiving embrace didn’t excuse nor should it overshadow the long history of “white supremacy”, or America’s racism; that black anger was more preferable than black forgiveness; blacks should be slow to forgive, and so on. Even so-called black Christians deliberately racialized the incident, racially muddying what Jean had theologically clarified.
43 “Why a Judge Says She Gave Amber Guyger a Bible, a Hug, and Hope of Redemption.” The New York Times, October 7, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/07/us/tammy-kemp-amber-guyger.html.