Saturday, March 05, 2005

Word for the Week

Ephesians 5:8-14

The recent arrest of Dennis Rader, suspected of being Witchita’s "BTK" serial killer, has opened a mystery.

Not "whodunit": according to the Wichita police, it's an open-and-shut case. It's a mystery in the original sense of the word: an unresolvable paradox. For in the same decades Rader allegedly spent terrorizing his community, he was helping to lead a Wichita church.

Rader and his wife were active in the congregation; he was even president of the church council when he was arrested. Unlike his workplace, Rader's church has stuck with him: he was fired from his job Wednesday, the same day his pastor visited him in jail.

In a further twist worthy of Graham Greene, the church may have played a role in Rader's arrest. Wichita police apparently ran him to ground by tracing code on a floppy disk sent to them by the BTK killer to a computer in the church office.

There’s little sense in trying to puzzle all this out. Psychologists say that many murderers have an extraordinary ability to segment their lives into a seemingly stable surface and a dark, roiling substratum.

So the mystery remains unresolved: how could a person capable of murdering at least 10 people pass for normal in a community of good folks? These are Lutherans, for goshsake. Aren’t they supposed to be more focused on casseroles than binding, torturing, and killing?

It’s human nature to divide the world up like this, into good people and bad people, or as Paul calls them "children of the light" and "children of the darkness."

It is also wrong.

The great American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote an essay explaining why: to divide the world up into white hats and black hats inevitably becomes an exercise in ideology, which is to say, an idealization of what is good for me and mine as good for everyone.

That, Niebuhr argues, ignores a more fundamental problem in human nature: the conflict between self-giving and selfishness. We are by nature neither good nor bad, he says, but conflicted, torn between the desire to seek our own ends and the desire to seek what is good for others. That conflict rarely leads to the kind of bifurcation seen in Dennis Rader, but it is present to some extent in all of us.

This makes the world a more complex—and terrifying—place. There is no easy comfort in realizing that the evil of the world resides within us—except the simultaneous realization that the good resides there as well.

From that perspective, Paul's exhortations make more sense. "Live as children of light," he says, "for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true." This is not a call for believers to segregate themselves from a fallen society, but for them to live as Jesus instructed: in the world, but not of it. According to Paul, part of the calling of Christian life is to engage the darkness around and within us, and move to the light.

Or as Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes in The Gulag Archipelago,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Whether we like it or not, people like Dennis Rader are a piece of our own heart, as are terrorists—domestic and foreign—insurgents, and all our other enemies. We can and should track them down, put an end to their selfishness, even separate them from ourselves as necessary. Nowhere is this more true than with serial killers, who murder for nothing more than self-gratification.

But to say that they are categorically different than we are is not only unwise. It is to remove a piece of our own hearts, to make ourselves less human. A serial killer depends the division of the good and the evil: the good we stand beside in church. The evil we kill, with no need for remorse.

Why would we want to drag ourselves down to that level?

In the end, the mystery of Dennis Rader's double life is not that he was able to go undetected for so long. It is that in order to preserve the fullness of our humanity, we must accept—though not embrace—that which seems least human.

O God, awaken us to what is good and right and true, and send us your light to shine in the darkness we would rather not confess.

At 11:03 PM, Blogger blueenclave said...

pastordan, I write these ignorant responses to your sermons on Kos because I like you. My rabbi has had such a terrible streak with sermons that I am relieved when I can tell him that I actually liked one of them. Then I completely forget them by Sunday.

4jkb4ia, your stalker


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