Letting Go As a Way of Living: Writing About Radical Forgiveness

Brandon Risher and the casket of his grandmother, Ethel Lance, who was killed at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Her daughter Nadine Collier told Dylann Roof during a bond hearing, "I forgive you." (AP Photo/David Goldman)

When Cliff and Wilma Derksen’s thirteen-year-old daughter didn’t come home one afternoon in 1984, they faced every parent’s worst nightmare—the eventual discovery that their child had been abducted, tortured, and left to freeze to death in the harsh Winnepeg winter. They could have chosen to dwell in the unendurable sorrow of that new reality, but the Derksens took another path, writes Jana G. Pruden for The Globe and Mail: They decided to forgive the man who tormented and killed their daughter.

Their 33-year-long journey may be almost unimaginable to anyone who struggles with forgiving others. It’s hard enough to forget an imagined slight or overlook a harsh word, much less extend anything but hatred to a person who destroyed another human’s life. But strangely enough, the Derksens are not alone. Though the road they walk is largely uncharted, they do so as part of a long line of victims who have not just forgiven, but embraced the perpetrators of unthinkable acts—people who somehow find grace in the darkest human emotions.

How did they do it? For the Derksens, the answer was part religion, part personal resolve. After speaking with the father of another murdered child, they decided to forgive no matter what, even though they had no idea what that might mean. And as the years go by, their seemingly simple choice becomes more and more complex.

There was so much to forgive, and it went far beyond forgiving the brutality of a stranger they did not yet know. There were the police, for not believing them when they said Candace wouldn’t have run away, for implying that they were bad parents, and for focusing so long on Cliff as a suspect. For not finding her when she lay in a shed not more than 500 meters away from home. There were their own actions and choices, for the small things said and done, for not picking her up that day. There were the friends and family that disappointed them, the media that sometimes got things wrong. The strangers who piled on more hurt with false confessions and crank phone calls. There were the years Cliff spent under suspicion, even after a polygraph declared him a truthful man.

Forgiveness was not something to be done only once. It had to be a constant choice, letting go as a way of living.

The Derksens’ forgiveness is not an event, but an endless process that has changed over the years. Now that their daughter’s killer could walk free, they are once again being forced to confront their decision to forgive—this time at much closer quarters than the decades they spent having no idea who murdered Candace.  Forgiveness allowed the Derksens to survive, yet Pruden paints a picture of mercy that, no matter how radical, is under continual threat.

But what if forgiveness is also an attempted shortcut at healing? In a November 2015 cover story for TIME magazine, “How Do You Forgive a Murder?” reporters David Von Drehle, Jay Newton-Small, and Maya Rhodan interviewed the families and survivors of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. Just days after Dylann Roof gunned down their loved ones at a Bible study, a few of the family members stood before Roof at a bond hearing and told him they forgave him.

Somehow—perhaps the idea was planted by the judge’s remarks—Nadine Collier was able to recognize the wreckage this man had made not just for her and the other survivors but in his own life. “I kept thinking he’s a young man, he’s never going to experience college, be a husband, be a daddy. You have ruined your life,” she recalls thinking.

What she said at the podium, while choking back sobs, came out like this: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again—but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Since that day, Collier has had many hours to reflect on those spontaneous words, and she says she has no reason to regret or revise them. They expressed a sense of loss and absence that remains unfilled months later, as well as her desire to move beyond the horror—a desire she still feels keenly. And she believes that her mother might have said something similar if she had lived.

For those who forgave Roof publicly, the choice to do so was a matter of freedom, of refusal to be bowed by a 21-year-old’s racially-motivated hate crime. Their decision to forgive—made in a split second in an emotionally harrowing moment—gained national attention. But for those who did not or could not make that choice, both the forgiveness and the fame that came along with it are discomfiting. If forgiveness really is a choice, their story suggests, so is the refusal to reconcile. The Charleston families who are less ready to forgive suggest that to do so might lead to forgetfulness—and lay claim to a path that is theirs to direct and experience.

Not everyone occupies the place of forgiver, though. When Darin Strauss struck and killed one of his high school classmates in an unavoidable car accident, he was saddled not just with his own guilt, but also with the ramifications of a community’s unwillingness or inability to forgive.

Strauss, who discussed his experiences on a 2008 episode of This American Life, and later in the memoir Half a Life, has lived with his actions for more than twenty years. And though he has eventually forgiven himself for what he now sees as a freak accident, his interactions with the family of the girl he killed—including their years-long lawsuit against him—illustrate the tense gray area of life without reconciliation.

Should we forgive? Not everyone is cut out for mercy and certainly they’re not required to be. Whether an act is unforgivable depends entirely on the circumstances, and the victims. But the experiences of those who have lost everything raise intriguing questions about the choices we do and do not have—and what might change if we walk a largely uncharted road.

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