On September 6, 2018, off-duty officer Amber Guyger entered Botham Jean’s home by mistake and shot him twice, killing him. On October 1, 2019, Guyger was convicted by a Texas jury of murder. The next day, during Guyger’s sentencing, Botham’s brother Brandt gave a moving testimony in which he forgave Guyger for the killing, gave her a long hug, and called her to Christ. Almost immediately, the clip of his act went viral. Botham’s parents also gave testimonies, emphasizing the injustice of the system of which Guyger was a part and the need for radical change; their testimony, unlike their son Brandt’s, went largely unnoticed at the time, one more small heave in a groundswell that is only now, once again, cresting.
It should be obvious to any practicing Christian that these two messages have to go together. Forgiveness would not be forgiveness if it did not assume that the one forgiven is in the wrong and must amend her life. But the fascination Brandt Jean’s testimony held for so many onlookers lies in the idea that one must choose between an anger that clings to the past (and so cannot grow into God’s love) and a forgiveness and peace that refuses to be defined by the wrongdoing of others. In other words, one must choose between how the Psalms talk about evildoers—let sinners be consumed from the earth and let the wicked be no more—and how Christ talks about them. We have, as it happens, a word for the idea that these two ways of talking are mutually incompatible, and that word is “Marcionism”—the old heresy that the God of the New Testament was at odds with the God of the Old.
The actual Christ, the historical and not the Hallmark Christ, has no discomfort with the Psalms’ words about the wicked; in fact, he often quotes them. It is almost a commonplace to note that the greatest Good Friday Psalm, Psalm 22, continues beyond what Christ quotes to praise God’s deliverance and so points toward resurrection. It is less often noted that the next-greatest Good Friday Psalm, Psalm 69, calls down punishment upon punishment upon one’s persecutors, with no acquittal. But didn’t Christ forgive his persecutors, above all on the cross? Of course; that is the point. Forgiveness is entirely compatible with anger. Sometimes it even demands it. God’s offer of forgiveness precedes the conversion of the evildoer, and the anger lasts until she converts. That leaves some time—sometimes a very long time—where anger and forgiveness run together, where the offer of forgiveness comes at the business end of a “woe unto you” and even of a whip. Did Christ not offer forgiveness in his very acts of anger? Was he somehow lacking in forgiveness, a less perfect Son of God, because he sometimes offered it more with a scourge than with a simper?