The Black Church After Christendom
Maybe you saw Brandt Jean, in the courtroom, offer forgiveness and mercy — and an embrace — to Amber Guyger, a white woman convicted of killing his brother Botham. If you haven’t, believe me, you need to see it. He called on Guyger to accept Jesus Christ.
Here’s what you might have missed. Judge Tammy Kemp went to her chambers, got her personal Bible, and gave it to Guyger, who is going to prison for ten years for what she did:
Judge Kemp addresses Guyger:
“You can have mine. I have three or four more at home. This is the one I use every day. This is your job for the next month. Right here. John 3:16.”
Here is John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Guyger hugs the judge, and says something inaudible in her ear. The judge replies:
“Ma’am, it’s not because I’m good. It’s because I believe in Christ.”
The judge continues speaking to Guyger:
“I’m not so good. You haven’t done so much that you cannot be forgiven. … You did something bad in one moment in time. What you do now matters.”
I don’t know about you, but I cannot recall the last time I witnessed more powerful public expressions of what it means to be a Christian than what Brandt Jean and Judge Tammy Kemp did in that courtroom. Guyger — again, a white woman — is going to prison to do time for her crime — but both Mr. Jean and Judge Kemp wanted her to know that there is hope for her, and redemption.
Man! I am humbled. Aren’t you? What heroes of faith and mercy and love those two black Christians are!
Not everybody feels that way. Here’s a black church leader:
Post Traumatic SLAVERY Syndrome pic.twitter.com/NTXs0PT8Db
— Bishop Talbert Swan (@TalbertSwan) October 3, 2019
Holding on to race hatred is more important to Bishop Swan than obeying the Lord he supposedly serves.
To be honest, on many issues, I’m no better than Bishop Swan. But I pray — seriously, I do — that I will have the humility to get out of the way and allow the grace of God to make me over into someone who resembles Brandt Jean and Judge Tammy Kemp. When I listened to what Judge Kemp said to Guyger, I thought about my own sins. I have never shot and killed an innocent man, but I am not innocent. Neither are you. Neither is Judge Kemp, who said, “It’s not because I’m good. It’s because I believe in Jesus Christ.”
If the brother of the victim and the judge were white, I don’t think we would have seen this, even if they had felt it in their hearts. Maybe from the victim’s brother, but not from the judge. We white people are too much for decorum. A white judge most likely would never have gone to her chambers, retrieved her Bible, and witnessed to a prisoner before the prisoner is taken away to jail for a decade. If not out of respect for decorum, then at least out of fear that the ACLU would scream bloody murder.
But that black judge, Tammy Kemp, did, because she was inspired by Brandt Jean’s love. And because Brandt Jean and Tammy Kemp chose not to do the expected thing, Amber Guyger will likely go into prison more free than she ever has been in her life. And not only that, the whole world can see what Mr. Jean and Judge Kemp did, and be inspired to go forth and do the same thing, in their own lives.
They saw an opportunity to save a drowning woman — a murderer who needed mercy. And they gave it to her, for no other reason than they love and serve Jesus Christ.
If this country, the United States of America, is going to be saved, it is going to be through the faith and love and deeds of men and women like Brandt Jean and Judge Tammy Kemp. Not the left-wing and the right-wing political preachers with big congregations and slots on national TV. Humble, everyday believers like these two — they will be the ones, if there are enough of them left.
I’m serious. These courtroom deeds made me think about my daily life here in south Louisiana. Without question, the people who make me know that I live in a place where Christianity still matters are the black folks I talk with in the public square. Nobody ever pushes religion on you here, but black people in general — at least in my part of the world — speak so naturally and freely about God, and Jesus, and their sense of blessedness. They are not ashamed to be Christian, and are not afraid to talk about it. The news that we live in a post-Christian culture has not yet reached them. We have a million problems in the South, and half of them are race-related, but the public witness of black Christians is one of the best things about living here.
I recently had a discussion with a black journalist, a Christian who writes for a major secular newspaper. He asked me why I didn’t write about the black church in The Benedict Option. I told him that part of the reason was that I had only limited space — 75,000 words was the publisher’s limit — and bringing in the black church’s experience, and making it fit into the Ben Op scheme, would have required using a lot more of that space than was worthwhile.
And I wasn’t confident that I had the capability of writing about the black church knowledgeably and sensitively. Along those lines, I was aware that I didn’t know how to do it without causing a huge row, given the cultural politics of the moment. I was confident that I would be attacked for “cultural appropriation” — that is, being a white man who takes the experiences of the black church to use for his own project. It would have been a petty objection, but had it been raised, the controversy would have overshadowed the book itself.
And I feel certain that it would have been raised. Look, a black church’s self-styled bishop is attacking other black Christians for acting like Christians, and not following the protocols of race politics. This was a no-win thing for me as a white conservative writer.
My black Christian interlocutor said that he’s been thinking for a while about the future of the black church in post-Christian America. He said that if it’s true that America is a post-Christian country, and that these trends are not likely to be reversed any time soon, where does that leave the black church? African-Americans are part of this culture too, and don’t stand apart from it. They will be affected by the de-Christianization of America, even if they resist it. How will they resist? What resources can they draw on? The church was how they endured slavery and Jim Crow, and how they mustered the strength to challenge and defeat segregation. How will they be able to hold on to their faith in a post-Christian country? asked my black friend.
I told my friend that that would be a great book, and that I would do whatever I could to bring his idea, and him, to the attention of publishers.
What happened in that Dallas courtroom this week is a powerful witness to what black Christians, and the black church, mean to America. We cannot afford to lose it. I hope my friend writes that book, and wakes up the black church and all of us.
UPDATE:Hey, white people! Don’t enjoy that beautiful moment of forgiveness too much!warns black theologian policing awe to make sure it stays within the bounds of political correctness.
UPDATE.2: Of course. Texas being Texas, I am confident the state will tell these idiots to get stuffed:
Freedom From Religion Foundation files complaint against Judge Tammy Kemp over her exchange with Amber Guyger at the end of the proceedings yesterday. pic.twitter.com/1X7KXANxze
— Blake Hanson (@BlakeFox4News) October 3, 2019
UPDATE.3: A reader sends this from a black theologian:
Wow. What made what Brandt Jean and Judge Kemp did was so powerful in large part because it was non-compulsory. Nobody would have blamed Brandt Jean one bit if he had said that he hopes Amber Guyger rots in jail for what she did to his brother. That’s the normal thing to have done. In light of his great deed, I feel bad admitting this, but the truth is, it’s the position I probably would have taken had I been in his place. But Brandt Jean didn’t do that. And Judge Kemp, who had just administered temporal justice (sentencing Guyger to ten years in prison for her crime), showed her the kind of mercy that brought people in that courtroom to tears.
This was the kind of thing that members of the Charleston black church did when the racist monster Dylann Roof murdered their pastor and others in the congregation. This is what the Amish community in Pennsylvania, back in 2006, did for the family of the monster who murdered ten of their children: showed the man’s devastated mother mercy, love, and forgiveness.
These acts are so powerful because they are so unexpected. They come from a place of extraordinary strength, not weakness. This is what holiness looks like. If we come to despise these acts of extraordinary grace, we will sign the death warrant for our culture. It is impossible to create total justice in this world. In my life, I have seen beautiful things destroyed from a lack of forgiveness. And I saw something almost miraculous happen because of forgiveness.
In my Dante book, I wrote about how reading the Divine Comedy, while also under the direction of a therapist and a priest, taught me that the only way I could be truly healed from the wounds of injustice in my family was to forgive my dad, even though he did not acknowledge his culpability. I did not want to do it, but I did it because I was so physically ill from the anxiety that I had no choice. As my priest told me, if I demanded justice before love, what would I say to Jesus, who loved me even though my sins crucified him, and who does love me still even though I fail to love God with my whole heart, and fail to love my neighbor as myself?
He was right. I relied on God’s mercy, even as I withheld it from my dad because he was too proud to say he had wronged me, and was sorry. And because I obeyed the priest (who was speaking the truth to me, even though I didn’t want to hear it), I was able to be there to hear my dad tell me, a few months before he died, that he was sorry. And I was able to care for him, living with him in his room for the last eight days of his life, and to hold his hand as he breathed his last. It was a great gift, the restoration of harmony. The unconditional forgiveness that Jesus Christ compelled me to grant to my father set me free. I can’t imagine where I would be today had I rested on justice, not mercy.
I have a very powerful instinct for justice, one that makes forgiveness difficult for me. My dad had this too. This is a strong point for me, I think, but also a great weakness. Watching the acts of mercy by Christians like Mr. Jean and Judge Kemp, and by the Emanuel AME believers, and by the Amish — that calls me to conversion. It reminds me that we humans, we crucified our God for the sake of justice. And He forgave us even as we murdered Him. This is not at all a reason to eliminate temporal justice. But it is a command — a command — to eliminate hatred in our hearts, even when that hatred is justified by a despicable person’s deeds.
In my case, I find it impossible to imagine forgive abusers of children. That’s just my thing. But Brandt Jean and Judge Tammy Kemp showed me that I cannot rest in that. There is unfinished business.
If we, as a culture, become “increasingly interested in [the] nonperformance” of forgiveness and mercy, then we will be lost in a maelstrom of vengeance and resentment, with no way out.