Thoughts on Serial Killers, Sufjan Stevens, the Grace of God, and Me

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Once I got very angry when I heard that a guy in prison had become a Christian. I got angry because I didn’t think he deserved the blessings of God’s grace, the comfort of God’s love, or the assurance of God’s forgiveness. And I certainly didn’t think he should benefit from the promise of God’s heaven. When I heard the news of this man’s conversion to Christianity, for a brief moment I thought to myself, “I’d almost rather be damned than spend eternity with someone like that.”

The man was Jeffrey Dahmer, also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal. In the course of thirteen years, Dahmer had dismembered and murdered seventeen men and boys. There are other unthinkable things that he did to his victims.

The news of Dahmer’s conversion and my reaction to it pressed me to deal with the implications of my own Christian faith. If what the Bible says is true – that salvation is a grace that can reach anyone because it comes as a gift through faith in Jesus alone – then even someone like Jeffrey Dahmer is within the reach of God’s forgiveness. Even a vicious, no good serial killer can be made new by the scandal of God’s kindness.

Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God…(Matthew 12:31)

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Face To Face With A Perpetrator

One Sunday after I preached a sermon on grace, a man named Lou approached me. With self-hatred written all over him, Lou asked boldly, “Pastor, do you really think there could be room in Jesus’ family for someone like me? It seems so impossible.”

I responded by asking Lou about his story. He said he had never told his story to anybody. He said, “What I’m about to tell you is about a demon I created. It’s a demon that I have, ever since, carried with me. Others are carrying the demon too…because of me. But first, can I ask again, could Jesus really love me?” My answer, this time more forcefully, was, “Of course. Of course Jesus can love you. Take my word for it. If Jesus can love me, he can love anybody.”

I have to admit that for a moment, I would regret saying these words.

Lou proceeded to tell me that he was a registered sex offender. As he told me this, Patti and both of our daughters were chatting merrily about ten feet behind him. I felt anger. I felt confusion toward Jesus and toward grace. I felt protectiveness toward my bride and daughters. Once again, the implications of God’s grace disturbed me deeply.

Then I remembered King David, the sex offender who was also called the man after God’s own heart. I remembered Bathsheba, David’s victim in more ways than one. David not only took advantage of her, but then, to cover up the pregnancy that his sexual exploit had caused, arranged for the murder of her husband Uriah. Bathsheba, by some great miracle of grace in her own heart, would later become the wife of David and mother of Jedediah, whose name means “Beloved of the LORD.” The other, primary name given to Jedediah was Solomon, a name that means “Peace.”

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah (Matthew 1:6).

Such stories are lovely, wonderful and hope-filled…until they become personal. I doubt that I’m the only one who has thought, in moments of gospel amnesia, that disgusting treatment of fellow humans should rule out and exclude a person from grace.

Grace is scandalous. Sometimes it’s terribly offensive to our sensibilities.

And yet grace, by definition, offers hope to anyone – even the very worst.

Grace, though offensive when applied to those people, is the same grace for all of us. For without this grace, without a far-reaching grace, all people – prostitutes and Pharisees, moralists and deadbeats, victims and perpetrators – would be without hope.

At the end of the Apostle Paul’s life, he wrote a candid letter to his young protégé Timothy. In that letter, Paul wrote these words:

I thank…Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, though formerly I was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man. But I received mercy…and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me…The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life (1 Timothy 1:12-16).

Before Jesus saved Paul from himself, Paul had a different name – Saul of Tarsus. Saul, the aggressive persecutor; Saul, the violent bully; Saul, the insatiable killer who presided over the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr; Saul, the man who, before Jesus stopped him in his tracks, was rushing toward Damascus to viciously slaughter more Christians (Acts 7:54-8:3; 9:1-19).

It’s hard to believe that this bully resembling Hitler ended up writing one-third of the New Testament, isn’t it? It’s hard to believe that through grace, his violence was transformed to gentleness, his vitriol to tenderness, his sword to a healing salve, his racism and violence to reconciliation, and his rage to love. It’s hard to believe that eventually he, too, would be imprisoned and mercilessly executed for his faith in Jesus.

Believing Grace While Not Being Codependent

What does this mean for us? For the potential victims, the actual victims, and those who love the victims? For those who, like me, are nauseated by the bullies and the bullying?

One thing that it surely does not mean is that bullies and perpetrators get a free pass for bullying and perpetrating. Grace and forgiveness – whether granted by God or by people, and whether granted to Jeffrey Dahmer or to Mother Teresa – are free.

But trust, and especially the vulnerability that comes with trust, must be earned.

Until then, be wise and maintain healthy boundaries with those who have a track record of abusing and bullying and hurting people. This is precisely what the man Ananias did when the Holy Spirit announced that Saul of Tarsus was now Paul, and the former persecutor and violent man was now a chosen instrument to herald the message of grace, reconciliation and peace.

Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority…to bind all who call on your name.”

It took a direct word from God for Ananias to move past his appropriate caution concerning Paul.

It also took fourteen years for Paul, who was formerly Saul of Tarsus, to learn the ways of grace and gain the trust of the Christian community, before he would begin his missionary journeys and letter-writing to the churches (Galatians 1:11-2:2).

In addition to caution, wherever there has been violence and injustice, anger by and on behalf of the victims is an appropriate – even God-like – response. About persecution and violence, the Psalmist – also a victim of violence and abuse – writes:

They band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death. But the LORD has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge. He will bring back on them their iniquity and wipe them out for their wickedness; the LORD our God will wipe them out (Psalm 94:21-23).

So then, there are really two possible “Christian” responses to a perpetrator:

On the one hand, if a perpetrator demonstrates no sorrow or restitution for her or his abuses, the faithful response is to keep a safe personal distance while also confronting the evil by all means possible. Victims can also prayerfully celebrate that God, who will ultimately judge all and punish all evil, will achieve a complete and satisfying justice in due time.

On the other hand, if a perpetrator demonstrates proven sorrow – a sorrow that endures, and that is accompanied by restitution, wherever possible, of what has been taken from the victims – she or he may be viewed as a candidate for grace. Jeffrey Dahmer and Lou, King David and the Apostle Paul – each of these reached a place of sorrow for the thoughts, words and deeds that introduced horror into the lives of their victims. In some cases, as in the case of King David, reconciliation was made possible through the forgiving grace of God. We see this played out in his epic prayer of sorrow and restoration, found in the fifty-first Psalm. David was reconciled to God against whom his adultery, murder and abuse of power had been heinous sins. And Bathsheba – what an amazing woman she must have been – once David’s victim, became David’s wife and the mother of Solomon, whose name was Peace.

In the case of the victims of Jeffrey Dahmer and Lou, reconciliation may be neither possible nor realistic on this side of eternity. In such instances, the victims and especially their loved ones who still feel the pain of their loss, must be remembered, prayed for, and shown heaps of compassion. May God grant them grace to forgive the perpetrators of their pain, not merely for the perpetrator’s sake but for their own hearts and for sanity’s sake. May God grant them comfort to know that what makes no sense now will make more sense on the other side, where Jesus promises to make all things new and take away all death, mourning, crying and pain.

As for those of us who have misgivings about the scandalous extent and reach of God’s love? As for those of us who need God’s grace for ourselves but feel wounded by the grace God gives to certain others? Whatever wounds we carry, may we find solace in the justice of God – the God who will chase down vicious and unremorseful perpetrators and will, as the Psalmist has written, wipe them out. May we also find solace in the grace that is so expansive that it has the power to reach anyone…even us.

The Perpetrator In All Of Us

Speaking of grace and perpetrators, I am compelled to quote a lyric from a song written by one of my favorite musicians, Sufjan Stevens.

In this particular song, Stevens hauntingly re-tells the story John Wayne Gacy, Junior, another mass murderer who stored the bodies of his victims beneath the floorboards of his house.

The final words of the song are the ones that slay me most:

In my best behavior,
I am really just like him.
Look beneath the floorboards
to the secrets I have hid
.

These are the words that remind me that though I may be a victim, I, too, am a perpetrator. I, too, am a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man.

Because it was my sins – right there alongside the sins of King David and Saul of Tarsus and Dahmer and Gacy and Lou – that put God’s boy, God’s Prince of Peace – on the cross.

God have mercy on us all.

 


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