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Of Saints and Serial Killers

This is the first non-fiction article I ever had published, circa 2005. A theme still near and dear to my heart.

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In a glass jar in a Wisconsin hospital, there was a brain. At first glance it looked like any other brain – soft, grey, cauliflower-like. There was no apparent damage or deformity to it, but this brain was special because it belonged to Jeffrey Dahmer.

By the time he was arrested, Dahmer had already committed 17 murders. But there was more. As the story unfolded, so did a macabre tale of cannibalism and necrophilia. Mummified body parts were found throughout his apartment. There were three human heads in the refrigerator, some hands in a pot of water on the stove and three torsos liquefying in a keg of acid. Dahmer confessed, plead guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. About two years later, he was murdered.

Jeffrey Dahmer’s body was cremated, according to his wishes; his brain, however, was preserved and kept under lock and key. Serial killers are rare – their brains, more so. Maybe in this moist, messy labyrinth scientists could find the cause of, and cure for, such deviance.

So there was Jeffrey Dahmer’s brain, surrounded by quizzical onlookers, hoping to examine its contents. What would they find inside? A chemical imbalance or a birth defect? Remnants of a cowardly surrender or a great war? These questions had to wait, because not far from the hospital, there was a courtroom where another type of inquiry was beginning. Lawyers argued and lines were drawn until the gavel sounded. Jeffrey’s father had his request and thus, almost a year after his son’s death, the brain was incinerated.

Several years later, the experts missed another chance to study a special brain. This one belonged to Mother Teresa.

She was called the living saint. At the age of twelve she became a nun and at thirty-six left the convent to live among the poor. For more than fifty years Teresa combed the gutters and junkyards of India, ministering to the indigent and outcast. She went on to found the Missionaries of Charity – a religious order that served the sick and dying – and won numerous humanitarian awards. When she passed away, the world mourned.

But unlike Mr. Dahmer there was no request for her brain. It would seem that saintly cerebra are as rare as serial killers’. Dysfunctional folks are a dime a dozen – it’s the genuinely good ones that are unique.

Yet the seraph’s skull was left untouched.

In a way, those two brains represent the bookends of humanity, the yin and yang of moral matters, polar opposites on the scales of civility.

But as much as they are different, they are the same. For inside saint and serial killer churned the law of sin.

“There is no one righteous,” said the apostle Paul, “not even one” (Rom. 3:10). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The prophet Isaiah intoned, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray…” (Is. 53:6).

When it comes to the human condition, Scripture paints us with a broad brush, using words like “all” and “none.” Apparently, there are no exceptions. We may separate ourselves by gender, preference, skin color or tax brackets, but God says we’re all in the same boat.

The Bible teaches that mortals are bound to sin as a tree is bound to earth; none are free from its downward pull. We may reach skyward – accomplish great feats and noble deeds – nevertheless, we remain hopelessly rooted in darkness. Sin entwines itself in our genetic fabric, burrowing into the soul and choking out the image of God, forever re-seeding itself into the next generation. Like the hydra, it sprouts new heads with every whack, refusing to die. It cannot be reformed or rehabilitated; no amount of culture or class can rise above it; no amount of genetic engineering or plastic surgery can slow its decay. Whether it’s stealing pens from the office or plotting murder, sin plants its flag in every soul, staking claim for the kingdom of hell.  It’s true of saints and serial killers, Mother Teresa and Jeffrey Dahmer: We’re sinners. It’s not in our brain, it’s in our being.

Someone once said there are only two types of people in the world: Sinners who admit it and sinners who don’t. John the Beloved, elaborated: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I Jn. 1:8-9).

Here is the eternal watershed, the fork in the road.

What defines us – eternally – is not our sinful condition, but our response to it. Do we deny it or confess it? Do we nurture it or starve it? Do we lock it in a closet, or drag it into the light? Do we turn, however slightly, away from who we are, and face Him?

This is the crossroad of heaven and hell.

Christ was crucified at the crossroad – the Lamb and the Goat – between heaven and earth, and two criminals. As the first criminal “hurled insults at Him” (Lk. 23:39), the second turned slightly, “’We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’” (Lk. 23:41-42).

Surely these few words of kindness are not enough to undo a life of crime. He deserved to be there, and said so himself. Deathbed conversions are usually anything but sincere. Besides, there’s a lot to getting right with God.

“Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise’” (Lk. 23:43).

Say what? In paradise? Am I missing something here? There has to be more to it than that – maybe some formula or ritual to perform. Wasn’t there a prayer he could recite or some promises he could make? Can paradise be had so easily?

At the risk of being overly simplistic: Scripture imposes few restrictions concerning who can be saved, and how it happens. It appears that even the faintest admission of guilt and movement towards God can be redemptive in nature.

The prophet said, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32). There are no qualifiers or contingencies to this promise, no reference to background, ethnicity, motivation – it says, “Everyone.”

Alright. Then how does someone call on the name of the Lord? What does it look like? Does it involve tears or laughter? Is it in the recitation of a doctrinal creed or a short sigh? Should I grovel, wail, or sell all my goods? Must I exchange my spinning hubcaps for a roller scooter and my fur coat for camel hair? Should I “call” from a church or a mountaintop or a salt plain? This is important, so how is it done?

All we’re told is to “call” – to turn away from the cross we are nailed upon, to turn our head His direction, like the thief, and say, “Jesus, remember me…”

Beside the Temple of Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction, Theresa built a hospital. She called it Nirmil Hriday or Pure Heart. One day, near that temple, she found a man, half-eaten by maggots, dying in the gutter. She held his hand and stayed with him until he passed away. Later, when asked why she did it, she said, “They are unwanted. I want them. Besides, he died with a smile on his face.”

I need more information about this man, dying in a gutter, straddled by a tiny nun.

For instance, what circumstances had brought him there? Maybe he’d lived a bad life and deserved to be there, and Mother Theresa was interrupting the karmic consequences. It’s possible he was just a victim of circumstances; in the wrong place at the wrong time, and someone robbed him or struck him with a car, and left him there. Maybe he had a mental illness or a chemical imbalance and had no choice but to be there. Was someone searching for him? If so, when they found him would they kick him and spit upon him, or embrace him? How many how walked by him that day, en route to the temple or the market, and looked away?

Whatever the case, this worm-eaten man lay dying in the gutter – and grace found him.

That’s not enough; it’s too unresolved, too open-ended. I need more information.

What happened when Theresa came alongside him and extended her hand? Did he flinch? Did he turn away, shake his fist and curse God? Did he confess a sin or issue an apology? Did he try to brush aside the maggots in one final attempt at dignity? Did he catch a glimpse of Christ hanging next to him, turn and mumble some words, like “Jesus, remember me…”

Whatever it was, he died with a smile.

This is the intersection, the crossroad; where heaven meets earth, where God hangs next to thieves to offer one last chance; where grace skins its knees climbing down the gutter to retrieve one last soul.

Mother Teresa was called the Saint of the Gutter. She searched the gutter for that is where humanity dwells and mercy is needed.

Had she encountered Jeffrey Dahmer there, she would have given him no less.

Sometime in March 1994, a package arrived at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin. It contained a Bible and 12 study courses and was addressed to Jeffrey Dahmer. A 69- year old woman named Mary Mott had sent the package after hearing an interview with Mr. Dahmer wherein he expressed a need to find spiritual peace. Almost a month later she received a response: Jeffrey Dahmer wanted to confess his sins and be baptized. Shortly thereafter, upon Mrs. Mott’s referral, a  local minister by the name of Ray Ratcliff began meeting regularly with Dahmer, studying Scripture, praying and talking. The minister eventually became convinced of Dahmer=s sincerity. Several months later the serial killer professed faith in Christ and was baptized in the prison whirlpool. Not long after that, another inmate beat him to death.

I need more information about this man – this butcher, this pervert – who’s going down into the baptismal waters, calling out the name of Christ.

Why did he do those hideous things? I want to look into his brain, like the scientists, and find an answer. Was everything working properly? Maybe there was a chemical imbalance or a deficiency of some sort. Maybe he had a bad childhood and didn’t get enough love or eat his greens. Was he insane? How could he eat a human heart if he were not?

The one thing I do know: Serial killers can’t get to heaven. Can they?

“Everyone that calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”


“Jesus, remember me…”


“Today you will be with Me in paradise.”

Heaven’s full of earth’s wreckage – worm-eaten, sin-twisted souls, who turned, however faintly, towards Him. The audacity, the insanity, the hilarity of it, is the possibility that grace can find its way into the darkest of places – that the faintest cry can nudge open the pearly gates.

It’s true for politicians and panhandlers, lawmen and lawbreakers, saints and serial killers.

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Becky Doughty August 2, 2012, 9:09 AM

    Today you made me cry. Very powerful and thought-provoking words. Isn’t Christ the greatest Controversy of all? Grace and mercy are close seconds….

    Thank you for pulling this one out of the files – I needed it today.


  • Keanan Brand August 2, 2012, 10:23 AM

    I remember listening to radio interviews of the man who ministered to Dahmer, and struggling mentally to accept the notion of salvation for someone so horrific.

    Yet I knew that God’s acceptance of such a man meant there was still hope for my father, who lived his life angry, apart from God, blaming and running. Outside of war, he hadn’t killed anyone, but he was more lost than a serial killer.

    About ten years later, Dad was homeless, living in his truck or sleeping on someone’s couch. Alone in a friend’s house, he asked God, “If You’re real, prove it.” The voice he heard in reply — “I am here” — sent him frantically searching every room, but he knew, even as he searched, Who had spoken.

    I am no-words-can-express-it grateful for the grace and mercy of God.

  • Erica August 2, 2012, 1:06 PM

    Love this post, because it is a challenge to our walk and our emotions.

  • sally apokedak August 2, 2012, 1:08 PM

    What a lovely article!

    All it takes is what the thief said–“I’m guilty, You aren’t. Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That’s the gospel right there. Jesus died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God.

  • John Robinson August 2, 2012, 4:01 PM

    Daggone, man, you can WRITE!!

    That touched me, Mike. It really, truly did.

  • Tim August 2, 2012, 9:21 PM

    This holds up to the light, and honors God. Reads well, flows like music.

  • Nicole August 3, 2012, 6:44 AM

    Amen. Again. Truly great post. Thanks for the re-run. It never gets old.

  • Jessica Thomas August 3, 2012, 7:55 AM

    I hope Jeffrey Dahmer’s conversion was sincere, and if so, I might want to meet up with him in heaven for a chat over tea. Oh the people we will be surprised to meet there.

  • Guy Stewart August 3, 2012, 1:11 PM

    This says to me that in God’s eyes, I am the same as Jeffrey Dahmer. My sin is no less because it IS sin against a perfect God. Thank you for reminding me to get off my soapbox, stop pronouncing summary judgment, clean up the backed up sewer in my own basement, and silently move on to whatever humbling job is next.

  • Virginia Ripple August 21, 2012, 12:13 PM

    I loved reading this. In fact, it made tears come to my eyes. Grace is such a beautiful thing and we so often want to deny it to those we deem undesirable. Thank you so much for sharing. With your permission, I would like to repost this on my blog. Please let me know if that would be okay.

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