I’m still thinking about and processing the violent, terrorist acts committed against George Tiller and yesterday at the National Holocaust Museum. I’ve been
to the Holocaust Museum twice, and both times, it profoundly affected me. I remember sitting on the floor in a room filled with Holocaust victims’ shoes, sobbing. This room is toward the end of the museum, and yet it moved me more than anything else in the museum. Perhaps because of the idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Perhaps because it just engaged all my senses. I could even SMELL the shoes. Visiting that museum gave me both a profound sense of the evil humans are capable of perpetrating on one another, but also of the indomitability of the human spirit. You can try to take away someone’s humanity. Treat them like animals. Attempt to eradicate them. But you can’t control someone’s spirit. You can’t take away their faith.
In the wake of horrible tragedies, it is easy to see the perpetrators as not human. I’m guilty of it. I am a pacifist, generally, but in the wake of something awful that one human has done to another, I know what it is to want vengeance, to want an eye for an eye, though I rationally know that this “leaves the whole world blind.” I know, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “through violence you may murder a murderer but you can’t murder murder.” While it may be easier to simply dismiss these hate-filled killers as somehow less than human, it just isn’t right. The Nazis, in all their horrific violence, were still humans. Scott Roeder is a human. James von Brunn, hateful as his prejudices are to me, is a human. Someone loved them. These killers were someone’s babies. How did they get from there to where they are now? I don’t know, but it’s worth exploring. People may hate, and people may have prejudices, but a variety of factors contribute to making a hateful person into a murderer, a terrorist.
I’m not trying to absolve these men for their violent, abominable atrocities. AT ALL. But I am musing about our humanness. I’ve always been a bit of an idealist, believing like Anne Frank, who could write in the midst of the Holocaust that, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” And yet, in the wake of these tragedies, I’m also forced to confront the darkness each and every one of us is capable of. Perhaps by coincidence, yesterday after work, I heard Sufjan Stevens’ song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” while driving home. I encourage you to YouTube this song and listen to it, as his beautiful voice really makes this song achingly haunting. These are the lyrics:
His father was a drinker
And his mother cried in bed
Folding John Wayne’s t-shirts
When the swingset hit his head
The neighbors they adored him
For his humor and his conversation
Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things, rotting fast, in their sleep
Oh, the dead
Even more, they were boys
With their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God
Are you one of them?
He dressed up like a clown for them
With his face paint white and red
And on his best behavior
In a dark room on the bed
He kissed them all
He’d kill ten thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast to the dead
He took off all their clothes for them
He put a cloth on their lips
Quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth
And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floor boards
For the secrets I have hid
Doesn’t that just strike you? First that this famous serial killer could be remembered for his “humor and his conversation” and then the idea that we all have death under the floorboards of our hearts. Sort of a “there but for the Grace of God go I.” Perhaps this is all just crazy rambling, but we are capable of so much light and so much darkness, and this is what it means to be a human. Of course, I believe in working to help the light overcome the dark. I see my Christian faith most clearly as me partnering with God in the restoration of all things. Of working to change systems that turn somebody’s baby into a killer. Of encouraging people to choose their inner light over their inner dark.
I’m not sure where this leaves me in the wake of a tragedy like this, but I am more and more convinced that God weeps for the death of George Tiller and Stephen Tyrone Johns, but God also weeps that their killers were also “dead” and had chosen their inner darkness over their inner light. I’m not saying these killers were “victims” in any real sense, but they didn’t become agents of violence all on their own. And while I know that I don’t have the power to change anyone’s inner darkness, I can advocate for change in the areas that contributed toward their choosing of that dark side.