Could You Forgive a Murderer?

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted October 07, 2019

It was, as one writer termed it, “the hug seen around the world.” In a Dallas, Texas, courtroom, 18-year-old Brandt Jean, younger brother of murdered accountant and church musician Botham Jean, had moments earlier uttered words of forgiveness to Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer who was sentenced to ten years for Botham’s killing.

“I forgive you, and I know if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you,” Brandt Jean said.

He added, “I love you just like anyone else. I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die. … I personally want the best for you, and I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do—and the best would be to give your life to Christ.”

Turning to State District Judge Tammy Kemp, Brandt said, “I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug? Please… Please?”

The judge allowed the request, and the two embraced for about a minute. Words failed as Guyger was heard to sob before each returned to their seats.

Then the Judge Stepped Down

But the drama didn’t end there. Judge Kemp retreated to her chambers for a moment and returned, holding a Bible and walking over to Guyger, who was seated at the defense table.

“You can have mine,” the judge said, referring to the Bible. “I have three or four more at home. This is the one I use every day. This is your job for the next month. You read right here: John 3:16. And this is where you start, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever…’ You stop at ‘whosoever’ and say, ‘Amber…”

Legal observers said they had never before seen such compassion on display in a courtroom. Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said, “To think if I’ve ever seen anything like that. … I don’t think I have. I think that young man was speaking from his heart. It certainly brought tears to a lot of people’s eyes in my office as we were watching it, and I know it did down here in the courtroom. I think that’s an amazing act of healing and forgiveness that is rare in today’s society.”

However, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State pounced on Judge Kemp for sharing her faith and Bible with Guyger.

Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-presidents, wrote in a complaint letter to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct that Judge Kemp “was in a government courtroom, dressed in a judicial robe, with all of the imprimatur of the state, including armed law enforcement officers, preaching to someone who was quite literally a captive audience, and even instructing her on which Bible verses to read!”

According to Religion News Service, Americans United president Rachel Laser said, “By distributing a Bible and telling the defendant it is her ‘job’ to read a religious text as she’s on her way to prison, Judge Kemp has sent a message to all defendants who come before her that their religious beliefs could affect the outcomes of their cases and their sentences.”

It’s not likely that the complaints will go far: The Texas judicial rules FFRF cited are general and not specific to religion or “proselytizing.” Dallas criminal law attorney George Milner told the Dallas Morning News there was nothing in those rules that would have stopped Judge Kemp from acting as she did.

“Not a chance,” he told the newspaper. “I’m not aware of one [rule] that prohibits it.”

And the First Liberty Institute, headquartered in the Dallas suburb of Plano, issued a statement in support of the judge. According to Hiram Sasser, the group’s general counsel, “FFRF is protesting Judge Kemp rather than joining the rest of the nation celebrating the compassion and mercy Judge Kemp demonstrated. We should all be thankful the law allows Judge Kemp’s actions and we stand with her and will gladly lead the charge in defending her noble and legal actions.”

“Forgiveness Goes Where Justice Does Not”

The reaction from Christians was largely positive. Owen Strachan, a millennial Christian thinker who directs the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Jean’s action demonstrates “[w]here there is no need for mercy, yet mercy is shown. Where there is no automatic forgiveness, yet forgiveness is offered. Here we gain a little glimpse of heaven on earth, something higher intruding into the world of the lower.”

Strachan added, “In earthly terms, I have never seen anyone do what Brandt Jean just did. But in spiritual terms, I have seen this before. Every Christian has. The one we wronged, and wronged terribly, is the one who has drawn near to us, and loved us, and welcomed us into his kingdom. … Forgiveness, we were just reminded, goes where justice does not.”

Pastor Doug Batchelor, speaking in Cape Town, South Africa, where citizens have learned much about reconciliation over the past 25 years, discussed forgiveness as one of the “Keys to the Kingdom.” The biblical parable of the king who forgave a great debt—and the pardoned man who refused to forgive a small one—illustrates what Christians need to remember when it comes to forgiveness, and equally important, what they need to forgive—and forget!

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