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The courtroom hug that showed Christianity in action

Brandt Jean embraces Amber Guyger (Youtube screenshot)

I can entirely understand why some people thought Brandt Jean shouldn’t forgive Amber Guyger. Guyger killed his brother. On September 6, 2018, in Texas, Guyger says that she came home, found what she thought was an intruder in her apartment and shot him dead. In fact, it wasn’t her apartment – she’d gone through the wrong door – and the man she killed was a innocent young African-American called Botham Jean.

Guyger was tried and given 10 years. During the witness impact statements, Botham’s 18-year-old brother, Brandt, stunned the world by telling Guyger that he forgave her. “I don’t even want you to go to jail,” he said. “I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want… And the best would be to give your life to Christ.”

He asked if he could hug Guyger and the judge said yes. This was Christianity in action. As CC Pecknold wrote on the Catholic Herald website, “The world saw God in a Dallas courtroom.”

Not everyone, however, liked what they saw. When various celebrities shared the footage on Twitter, the reaction was often negative, especially from young black Americans. You might call their response unChristian, but I think it would be unChristian not to try to understand it.

For a start, there’s the reduction of a lifetime of pain to a social media moment. I’m not judging anyone for being moved by the footage; I was, too. But “shareable” images are not necessarily the whole picture. For example, Botham’s father said that he also forgave Guyger – but believes she should’ve got a stiffer sentence.

Then there’s the toxic mix of race and violence in this story which shapes each viewer’s individual perspective. Guyger’s explanation of how she came to shoot a man dead in his own apartment is bizarre but tragically familiar in a society where people are quick to react and their reactions are shaped by race. For many African-Americans the absurdity of assuming a black man was an intruder in his own apartment is merely an extreme embodiment of what they face on a daily basis – and why, oh why should they put up with it?

What I suspect really angered part of the audience on social media was the spectre of white people apparently saying “this is what God expects black people to do” – to suffer and forgive, to endure racism with the patience of saints. That’s a tough ask in a society where people of colour are rarely forgiven at all. Thirty-three per cent of the US prison population is black.

All of this, however, only emphasises how remarkable Botham’s act was and how radical Christianity really is. Most ethical or religious systems of Jesus’s time would have encouraged violent retribution for killing a love one, or at least empathised with revenge. One thinks of the Greek tragedy of Medea: abandoned by her lover, Jason, Medea murdered their children to even the score. Jesus turned this moral order upside down. In the topsy-turvy world of Christianity, it became virtuous to suffer, strengthening to be weak, a victory to die. And its message still proceeds not by force but by peaceful witness.

One hopes that Botham will set an example, that American society will look at what he did and think “Perhaps we need to learn to forgive more, too.”

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The editor made me promise not to write anything about Cardinal Newman this week because the magazine will be stuffed with his canonisation, but I do have to add one snippet: he pops up in Margaret Atwood’s excellent new novel.

The Testaments is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, set in the dystopia of Gilead, where handmaids are forced to bear the children of religious fanatics. I don’t want to give anything away: suffice to say that one of Atwood’s characters is an insider turned traitor, and part of the book’s narrative is her secret diary, which she keeps hidden inside a copy of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

It’s a clever joke. Newman’s title translates literally as “a defence of one’s own life”, and Atwood’s anti-hero is both justifying her life with the diary and protecting it by stuffing the notes inside the book.

But I think there’s a deeper meaning. Atwood is often misunderstood as an anti-religious writer because Gilead is a theocracy. But in fact Gilead’s theology is self-justifying bunk, and it oppresses dissident churches, including the Catholic one, as much as it does non-believers. I suspect that Newman is name-dropped because he’s regarded as one of the greatest defenders of the concept of conscience, which is what led Newman to Rome and Atwood’s character to her own form of salvation.

By letting us into the mind of an apparently irredeemable character, to see their potential for good, Atwood reminds us never to judge a book by its cover.

Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor