It was the last thing anyone was expecting.
Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger had just been sentenced to 10 years in prison for fatally shooting a black man, Botham Jean, in his own apartment.
Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean was on the witness stand Wednesday, giving a victim-impact statement, when he turned to the judge and made a most unusual request.
“I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug, please?” he asked.
What happened next stunned both the courtroom and the nation. Jean stepped off the witness stand and stepped over to Guyger. The two hugged for nearly a minute.
“I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you,” Jean told Guyger. “I think giving your life to Christ is the best thing Botham would want for you.”
This isn’t the first time a black victim of violence has offered public forgiveness to the perpetrator.
Some relatives of the nine victims in the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting publicly forgave killer Dylann Roof just a few days after the massacre. The mother of Walter Scott, an unarmed man who was gunned down by a South Carolina police officer that same year, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that she felt “forgiveness in my heart.”
But many other black victims, including the mother of Michael Brown, slain in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, are not so quick to absolve. And not everyone agrees with this method of instant and public forgiveness.
Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said earlier this year she has not been able to forgive George Zimmerman for killing her son in Florida in 2012.
“I think black people are not forced to forgive, but they are expected to forgive, because there are so many times where we have forgiven people who have done mean, evil, and nasty things to us,” she told Essence magazine.
Here’s a look at why some people — black and white alike — opt to forgive, while others refuse.
It’s part of their Christian faith
Forgiveness is mentioned many times in the Bible and is a pinnacle of the Christian faith.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you,” reads Ephesians 4:32. Another verse, Matthew 6:14, goes further: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
These sentiments of forgiveness are reiterated again and again throughout the Bible, and Botham’s family is quite acquainted with this Christian tradition. Like his brother, Brandt was raised in the Church of Christ in St. Lucia, where his family lives. His mother, Allison Jean, gave all of her three children Biblical middle names. Botham Jean’s middle name was Shem, who was a son of Noah. Brandt’s middle name is Samuel, after a prophet in the Old Testament.
Botham Jean’s father, Bertrum, approved of Brandt’s hug in the courtroom, saying that he felt the same way and wished he could have extended that same courtesy. Despite the pain his family is going through, Bertrum Jean said he feels no hatred for Guyger and would like to befriend her.
“That’s what Christ would want us to do,” Bertrum Jean told CNN’s “New Day” Thursday. “If you will not forgive, neither will your father forgive you. I don’t want to see her rot in hell. I don’t want to see her in rot in prison. I hope this will help her to change and recognize the damage, the hurt that our family’s going through. So I wish her well and I will pray for her family and pray for her as well.”
But it’s not always easy
That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though — or that everyone can so readily offer it. Rev. Sharon Risher lost her mother and two of her cousins in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Her sister was the first person to talk about forgiving the shooter, she told Essence Magazine.
“And when I heard that come out her voice, I screamed. Because it was like, what, forgiveness?,” she said. “Forgiveness is one of the hallmarks of the Christian faith but yet, even as a pastor, I could not get there.”
It took two years for Rev. Risher to be able to let go of her rage, she said.
Rev. Joseph Derby, a vice president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, said that just because black families extend forgiveness does not mean that society doesn’t need to evolve on matters of race.
“There’s a difference between forgiveness and the absolution of guilt,” he told CNN.
There’s also a health aspect to this. Science says forgiveness is good for us.
Harboring anger and hostility is associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease, a 2009 study revealed.
“Anger is a form of stress, and so when we hold on to anger it is as though we are turning on the body’s stress response, or fight or flight response, chronically,” Neda Gould, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told CNN in June. “When we engage in the act of forgiveness, we can begin to turn off the stress response and the physiological changes that accompany it.”
Not everyone thinks this is healthy
“Why do black folks always have to forgive?” CNN analyst Bakari Sellers tweeted Wednesday after video of the Jean-Guyger hug went viral. “We can have a conversation about black folk and our unconscionable forgiveness in the face of hate and violence. I don’t get it.”
Sellers’ sentiment was shared by many corners of black America on social media. Many said black people have been conditioned by years of trauma to reflexively offer forgiveness, especially when the perpetrator is a white person.
They also wondered whether this public forgiveness of a white person by a black person becomes, essentially, a vehicle to ease white people’s own feelings of guilt.
That’s what artist and activist Bree Newsome, famous for taking down a Confederate flag in South Carolina by climbing a flagpole in 2015, argued.
“The focus of concern is the white person who committed violence and their redemption,” she wrote on Twitter. “The Black person who forgives them is viewed through the white gaze lens as a model minority solely for their willingness to forgive. The Black person exists as a vehicle for white redemption.”
The same expectations have not been placed on white people in the wake of violent acts, wrote freelance journalist Stacey Patton in a 2015 piece for the Washington Post.
“After 9/11, there was no talk about forgiving al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. America declared war, sought blood and revenge, and rushed protective measures into place to prevent future attacks,” she wrote.
Rev. Derby, of the Charleston NAACP, believes there’s a disconnect between the the call to forgive between black people and white people.
“I have yet to see a white family go up to a black defendant, even if that defendant has apologized,” he said. “My question to white Christians is, how can you praise black people for [forgiving] when you don’t do the same kind of thing yourself?”