Most of the nation is aware of the story of Judge Joan Lefkow. She is the federal judge in Chicago who came home on the evening of February 28, 2005, to find her husband and mother shot to death in her basement. The killer was a deranged man who was striking back against the judge for a ruling she rendered against him several years ago.

When Judge Lefkow’s story first made the national news the fear was that Matthew Hale, a convicted white supremacist who had openly vowed to kill her, was behind the brutal murders. The man who actually committed the crimes was later found in Milwaukee, where he had committed suicide and left a note. His story was also a tragic one to say the least.

The Chicago Tribune ran a "Special Report" in the Sunday edition (November 20) on the unfolding journey of Judge Lefkow since that horrific evening in February. It is heart moving stuff frankly. I could not read it without deep emotion and empathy. Several tragic things stand out in the story that I believe are worth noting.

First, Judge Lefkow’s life was shattered by a senseless violence. Now she is guarded night and day by federal marshalls. She has trouble sleeping and getting on with her life every single day is a profound challenge, though she is making gallant efforts to do so. She is back in the courtroom and invests lots of time in the lives of her chidlren, whom she loves passionately.

Second, Judge Lefkow loved her husband deeply. They day he was murdered they parted after a little disagreement in the home. One is struck by the need to continually keep clear channels of love and forgiveness open within your family, especially since no one knows when such tragedy might strike your home so unexpectedly. 

Third, some people are simply cruel when it comes to making their political points. Right or wrong Judge Lefkow has been at the center of a new federal effort to make judges safer in America. In her own words she became the "poster child" for the hazards of being a judge, appearing several months ago before a Senate committee. Conservative Senator John Cornyn (R) of Texas later linked the violence against federal judges in America to their "political" decisions. Judge Lefkow was genuinely angered by his comments and wrote to the senator saying "I challenge you to to explain to my fatherless children how any political decision I ever made justified the violence that claimed the lives of my husband and mother. As I will not reveal my daughter’s names and addresses, I will be glad to convey to them any statement you wish to make that might ameloriate the further pain that you have caused my family." Sadly, the Texas senator has never answered her.

Fourth, Judge Lefkow is a Wheaton College graduate, class of 1965. Her spiritual journey since those Wheaton days, and the childhood of her rigid fundamentalist upbringing in Kansas, has continually been away from this heritage in faith formation. Though she is affiliated with an Episcopal Church today she holds views that at best are spiritually broad and liberal. And her confession of what faith she now holds seems to have no basis in orthodoxy. I do not say this to attack her beliefs or to judge her person. I say it because it is frankly all too common. The subtitle of the Chicago Tribune story is "Seeking Resurrection." One comes to the conclusion, by the end of the story, that the resurrection Judge Lefkow seeks has nothing at all to do with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In trying to answer the basic question of "Who am I" the judge refers to her sense of anger buried deep inside. Reflecting the repressive side of her fundamentalist heritage she says, "This whole anger thing is pretty deeply buried in my soul. I learned early on that anger is not an emotion you could appropriately express."

As Joan Lefkow was moving from being a devoted supporter of Richard Nixon and conservative Christian values, in the early 1960s, she met Michael Lefkow while studying in the Wheaton College library. (He was not a Wheaton student but rather a law student using the Wheaton College library.) Joan lost her faith somewhere along that Wheaton road. She went through a deep depression and, in her own words, found herself liberated and liberalized. She writes that "By the time I left college I was divorced from the evangelicals."

It comes, therefore, as no surprise that Tribune writer Mary Schmich notes: "She says that she can’t tell her children that Dad and Grandma have gone to a better place. Or that they died because God decided it was time. Despite her deep faith, she’s not convinced of either."

At her mother’s funeral service the eulogy given by a friend provided real insight into the mind and life of a devoted fundamentalist mother as well. The eulogist said, "Here’s the thing you have to know about Donna. She was almost never positive and upbeat. Donna was born to parents who didn’t know how to show their love for her. I think her early lack of love and acceptance made her unable to accept love from others later and this included God. But interestingly, it didn’t keep her from feeling deep love for her own children."

Joan added that Donna’s despression "made me fearful that she would leave, commit suicide. That theme of abandonment is a theme I’ve lived with my whole life."

These words sent chills down my spine. I have met so many fundamentalist Christians like Donna over the course of my lifetime. They are often quite often surprised when their bright and inquisitive children go away to college and give up their evangelical faith.

Frankly, this story was a common one in the Wheaton of the 1960s. I came along right at the end of the decade. When I arrived at Wheaton in 1969 I met scores of my peers who hated the place and wanted out. They felt trapped by their parent’s expectations and the darker tones of the depressive side of their religion. This is why the revival of 1970 marked so many of my friends with the joy of the Lord and a new freedom. Many came to living faith in a new and positive environment. The difference was striking. As I read Joan Lefkow’s very sad story I wished she had been there in 1970.

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  1. H. A. Scott lll November 23, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    You have made several insightful observations. Between the lines I find a question emerging: Why do the children of evangelical Christian parents so often leave the faith? Another: Why do they continue in the faith? I am sure that you have thought about this, and perhaps you have addressed these issues before, but if not, this would be a worthy topic for a future blog, or column. Keep up the good work!

  2. David Sunday November 26, 2005 at 6:50 pm

    As I read the Tribune article I was feeling the same deep emotions you felt, but you just put what I was feeling into words. Thank you for writing a compassionate and deeply moving response to this tragedy.

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