In a culture that has given itself over almost entirely to extreme moral accountability, mercy often appears dangerous and reckless.
Eighteen-year-old Brandt Jean offered forgiveness to his brother Botham’s murderer during victim-impact statements last Wednesday. He, an African-American man, implored Amber Guyger, the white woman who had killed his brother, to ask God for forgiveness and to give herself to Christ. He then gave Guyger a hug. A video taken in the courtroom shows Judge Tammy Kemp in tears as the young man hugs Guyger. Jean’s act of mercy inspired Kemp to present her personal Bible to Guyger in the courtroom—while instructing Guyger to read John 3:16 and telling her that her sins do not set her apart from forgiveness in Christ.
Reactions to these gestures of forgiveness and mercy have been mixed. While many have lauded Brandt and Kemp for their actions, others have condemned them, calling them irresponsible and complicit in an oppressive, racist system that permits whites to persecute blacks. But such condemnation only makes sense in a culture that has allowed bourgeois moral accountability to overcome what I call the Christian bohemianism of grace and mercy.
Jacques Barzun, in From Dawn to Decadence, attributes much of Western culture’s development to bourgeois values, in particular the niggling over small sums of money that gave rise to the precision and record-keeping without which modern business and science could not have arisen. Dollars and cents are not the only kind of currency, however. Reputation and ethical status have always been valuable commodities, and in both personal relationships and broader society, people have always jostled for the most favorable positions. In that economy, good deeds and right opinions are cash in the bank, while missteps and thought crimes are debts.