Editor’s note: Wilma Derksen’s world collapsed when her teenage daughter, Candace, was taken hostage and murdered. Through the process of grief and enduring the legal trials that followed the murder, Wilma learned to choose to “let go” and trust God with the outcome.
I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice. — Abraham Lincoln
We felt like hostages in the courthouse as we waited for the verdict. Around eight o’clock Friday evening there were rumblings from the journalists that a verdict was coming down. There was a flurry of activity with everyone texting and making phone calls. People were already gathering when we got to the room, standing excitedly in the hall outside the courtroom — media, police, family, and friends, chatter, laughter, excitement.
It was odd to be gathering in Room 230 on a Friday evening. As we waited for the doors to open, the most unexpected people continued coming down the long hallway — a little disheveled, a little nervous, hushed and concerned. It was like a surprise party but without celebration — only relief and anticipation.
When the doors of the courtroom opened, we found our seats in the front row. There was a pleasant hum in the room until we heard the leg shackles rattling at 8:50 p.m. He was dressed in his suit. The reason for our gathering was not a good one. It was sobering to think what lay in the balance for the accused — a life in prison, perhaps, or freedom. The energy left the room when he took his place in the prisoner’s box. I started to hear sniffles.
This was the moment we had all been waiting for.
Inevitably, when we are victimized there will also be engagement with systems designed to help. But systems don’t always behave the way we want them to.
I was always worried about the criminal justice system. I had seen people come to group right after the murder of their child, and they were grieving, but they were gracious. After encountering the justice system, they turned brittle, almost unrecognizable.
I was worried when a good friend — articulate, capable, socially astute, and as strong a person as one would ever find — experienced the murder of her mother and was just entering the process of attending the preliminary hearings. I received a call from her in the late afternoon, and she was almost belligerent after spending a day in the courtroom. I was terrified of anything that could diminish her to that state.
So when our own case was before the courts I had already developed a deep-seated fear that the system could re-traumatize the victims. We were caught in — and still have to deal with — the criminal justice system, and there is nothing as complex as the legal wrangling. Victims are often disappointed in the existing criminal justice system that focuses more on determining the guilt of the offender than on the victim’s needs for recovery and vindication.
When this happens, when a system becomes intolerable — even abusive — do we forgive systems? Author Lewis Smedes confronts this question in his book Forgive and Forget. “God knows that systems can hurt people. Economic systems can lock poor people in a ghetto poverty. Political systems can turn free people into slaves. Corporate systems can push people around like puppets and toss them out like trash. But we do not forgive systems. We only forgive people.”
I would maintain, however, that anything that has the capacity to treat us unjustly needs to be met with our own capacity to forgive. Most of our conflicts lie in the relationships between two people, but very quickly a conflict will find supporters, and as the conflict grows, more and more systems and people are involved. Whether they are family systems, church systems, health systems, or friendship-based systems, when a system becomes an issue in our lives or becomes dysfunctional, we need to deal with it. And when our issues poke a sleeping system and it turns on us, we can be royally victimized to the point of feeling complete powerlessness because of its immense and pervasive power. But what do we do when a system turns against us? We need patience. Systems can only work if they have our cooperation, our truth, and our goodwill.
The criminal justice system, which has been set up in our country to protect the weak, to create justice, and to heal the victim employs some of the most skilled lawyers in our land. But when it moves against anyone, there is nothing that can stand up to the decision of the judge. It is final. Once, when I asked a judge whom he answered to, he smiled and said, “No one.”
Sitting on the edge of the mount, the Nazarene sees a young lawyer in the crowd, and He raises His voice, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
He keeps an eye on him. The lawyer stirs.
The complication of the word peace matches the complicated skills needed to be peacemakers and to create peace in the world around us. I think that is why this beatitude is closer to the end of the list.
What is peace? We often think that it is the absence of trouble. Instead of taking advantage of natural conflicts between people to further the dissension, we are told that it is better to intervene, to work toward peace. The culture of the day used the Hebrew word shalom, which was used sometimes to mean “quiet goodness.”
According to Wil Pounds, a Baptist missionary and teacher, “Peacemakers are those disciples who strive to prevent contention and strife. However, they are not peace-keepers, but are active makers of peace. They use their influence to reconcile opposing party strife among individuals, families, churches, and the community. They change hostile attitudes to attitudes that seek the best interests of everyone.”
In the victim world, misunderstandings are rampant, and the inherent contention in all of these issues gives us a unique role to either widen the gaps or narrow them.
Peacemakers naturally strive for better communication and more goodwill, and they help victims procure the information they need.
Later on in the sermon, the Nazarene gives another directive to the people: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”
In other words, avoid getting entangled with something too big to handle. If you are caught, at least remain disengaged emotionally. We see the Teacher doing this throughout His entire stay here on earth. He avoided the systems because our systems are imperfect and they are limited.
We need to choose when to engage. We embrace our lives and our learnings, but we need to let go of that which harms us and lures us into dysfunction. Rather than depend on systems to do justice, we need to help the justice systems by being just.
In Room 230, the defense counsel gathered around the prisoner’s box. At 9:00 p.m. the judge arrived and looked over the room, a little surprised by the large number of people present. He began listing the reasons we were gathered here. He said that the jury had worked hard and had deliberated long and hard, and that we must respect their decision, whatever it was. “If anyone cannot keep their emotions in check, please leave. Please, no outburst in the court this evening.”
I looked at our family; their shoes were off. I knew I didn’t have to worry about them. During the months preceding the trial, our now-adult children were attending missionary training when they met a man who told them that he had received a divine message that January 17th was important. He said that they should remember that they were entering a new place. They should bring nothing into the space, nor take anything out. It was holy ground. He said it was important that they take off their shoes to help them be sensitive to everything that was happening.
He did not know that January 17 was the beginning of the trial, but we did. So we applied this message to the time in court. The message was loud and clear. We were not to see the courtroom as a place of judgment and justice, but as a sanctuary — a temple of God. It was perhaps the Holy of Holies. We would take off our shoes when we needed to disengage our fiery emotions and treat the courtroom as a sanctuary.
Then the jury filed in and took their places. It was different seeing them in the evening. The windows were dark. The judge looked weary. Everyone looked tired of waiting. Juror number seven stood to give the verdict. He was the tall man at the gallery end of the second row. His hands were shaking as he held the verdict.
That’s all that mattered. Whether it was first- or second-degree murder wasn’t important to me. Relief! Gratitude! It was over. I was now free of it!
Except the defense appealed the decision.
After a lengthy process, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the provincial court’s decision and ordered a retrial.
A retrial. We would have to go through it all again. I was flummoxed. I thought one trial would have been enough.
A reporter wrote, “The leave application is the first step in what could be a long legal process that may not result in Grant or the Derksen family achieving resolution for years.”
The next Sunday, after hearing the appelate court’s decision, I met a man who was very interested in the details of the trial, and he asked for an explanation of the appeals hearing and the court’s decision. He kept asking. I kept trying to answer, but every answer just led into another question and another answer that was even less satisfactory.
Finally, he gave me an out, an acceptable pat answer: “It was a technicality.”
He left it at that, but that didn’t feel complete either. It wasn’t a technicality. It was a different story that had butted up against the original story. It was a clash of stories.
This happened again and again as we met different friends. Sometimes, after settling on an easy answer, a person would pause and then, looking deeply into my eyes, would ask the question, “Did he do it?”
I would nod, “Yes.” But even that would lead to the next question, and the next, and the next.
Finally we discovered that it was just too complicated to talk about. We couldn’t seem to share a decent conversation with anyone about our case because it would take an insurmountable pile of words to even begin to have a conversation about it.
It was even too complicated for a book. All desire to write was gone.
I had stopped blogging. I had stopped writing. I had stopped. Rather than remain stuck, I had to find another creative way to deal with this new complication. And it came. I started to paint, which launched me into a new creative venture that turned out to be a life-giving ministry for me.
I had to let go of my need for a perfect justice system and learn to reengage into an imperfect community and imperfect systems. I needed to accept brokenness.
Excerpted with permission from The Way of Letting Go by Wilma Derksen, copyright Wilma Derksen.
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Like the Derksen family, have you ever been in a long, long battle and been faced with injustice after injustice? Where is God in the injustice? Does He hear? Does He see? Does He care? Is He good? Does He love me? Those are the questions we wrestle with when injustice reigns. And, yet, those places are holy ground… And, God is still our good, gracious God… who loves us! Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you.