My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The power of forgiveness was recently shown in a dramatic court room when former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murdering her neighbor Botham Jean, when she mistakenly entered his apartment thinking it was her own. She identified the victim as a burglar and shot him to death. But this is not the end of the story. The courtroom was presided over by Judge Tammy Kemp, who is a deaconess in her church. The scene began when the 18-year old brother of the victim, Brandt Jean, asked the judge if he could embrace the now-convicted murderer who received a 10-year prison sentence. Judge Kemp hesitated, but eventually allowed the two to embrace. This too is not the end of the story.
The judge herself came down from the bench to embrace the convicted officer as well. Eventually, she gifted her a Bible. Judge Kemp saw a woman changed, she told the news service, someone who might seek God’s forgiveness; she knew where to start as she had a Bible of her own. Ms. Guyger asked Judge Kemp if she thought God would forgive her, and Kemp told her that yes, God can forgive you, and has. Kemp went on to say that if she wanted to start, begin with the Bible. She also told her that she did not want her to go back to jail and sink in doubt and self-pity, and then become bitter, because Guyger still had a lot of life ahead of her. Following the sentencing, the judge hoped that Ms. Guyger could live those years purposely.
This story does not end here either. Judge Kemp was severely criticized for hugging the convicted officer and giving her a Bible. Of course, many mentioned the separation of church and state and that the judge was, in fact, proselytizing the convicted murderer by giving her a Bible.
The most difficult petition in the Our Father that we sometimes recite so quickly is the one where we ask for God’s forgiveness in as much as we are ready to forgive those who trespass against us. This core teaching of Jesus is something that we cannot avoid as Christians. This sets us apart from other religions that still believe in the Law of Talion, that is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, where forgiveness is not part and parcel of belief. The words of Jesus instead tell us that we must love our neighbor as ourselves, and that if someone strikes us on one cheek, we should offer the other. This teaching of Jesus was one that centered on God the Father as one who forgives, and we, who are the repentant children, must have recourse to Him.
The justice system in our nation is in need of perpetual reform. As we grow as a nation and recognize the inequities that sometimes happen in this system, we must have recourse to understanding what true restorative justice is all about. The controversy is surrounded by the death penalty itself. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has changed the Catholic Catechism to state that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
There seems to be no current reason why the death penalty should be inflicted because it seems not to be a deterrent. Unfortunately, it falls heavily on minorities who are not always properly defended.
The scene in the Texas courtroom is a moving one. It reminded me of the scene of St. John Paul II when he visited his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Ağca, in prison. At that time, the Pope said he had gone there to offer him forgiveness. In his book, “My Life with Karol; my Forty-year Friendship with the Man Who Would Become Pope,” Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz mentions the conversation that took place between the two. Although John Paul had come to offer forgiveness, the only question that Ali Ağca posed was why the Pope did not die when he was shot.
Due to our society today that cannot bring itself to put some kind of control on the firearms available to people, we have witnessed mass murders time and time again, and just this past year. While forgiveness is important, the prevention of murder is even more important. Still, it took extraordinary courage, what the brother of the victim Botham Jean, and even Judge Kemp did, to show true Christian forgiveness in the hope that it can start the perpetrator on the road for change in her future life.
The road to forgiveness is never an easy one. This truly is putting out into the deep waters of our own idea of justice and resentment for wrongs committed against ourselves. In our own country, this is something that we need to meditate upon, so that we can in the future, if we are confronted with any kind of a similar situation, be ready to offer an extraordinary act of forgiveness when it is necessary.