I could have been a serial killer

Caleb Mathis

9 mins

John Wayne Gacy was a monster.

Over the span of six years in the mid-1970s, he sexually assaulted, tortured, and murdered at least 33 teenage boys in the suburbs of Chicago. Gacy buried 26 of his victims in the crawl space beneath his home. When he ran out of space there, he began dumping bodies elsewhere.

That’s horrific. Unconscionable. I’m just like him. And it terrifies me.

There’s an idea in modern psychology known as “othering.” It’s what happens when you mentally classify another human as “not being one of us.” It’s a separation mechanism. A way of understanding who you are by recognizing what you are not. A way of dismissing and distancing yourself from humans you find undesirable—it’s encouragement of your humanity at the price of theirs. And it’s exceedingly popular. We’re swimming in a world that is distinguished at drawing lines—at othering—around issues like race, socioeconomic class, immigration status, country of origin, politics, religion, or sexuality. And that’s a short list.

I generally consider myself a good human. I try to love others. I try to be accepting, even when I disagree with you. I don’t force my opinions. I even let my neighbor borrow our lawn mower.

And so, from atop my high horse, I want nothing else but to “other” John Wayne Gacy. To classify him as a wretched, deranged sociopath. To rightfully send him to the execution chambers. To wipe his name from the earth and never speak it again. To declare him a waste.

But the Bible stops me cold in my tracks.

There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Wait. What?

The writer, Paul, is quoting from the ancient book of Psalms in a letter to believers in Rome. And with those ancient verses he totally annihilates my ability to “other” anyone else—even a serial killer. There is no one righteous. Not you. Not me. Not John Wayne Gacy.

Honestly, I’m kind of pissed about that. God, how dare you put me and a vicious serial killer on an even playing field? No, I’m not perfect. But I’m not that. Look at what he did. I’m so much better than that. C’mon. Seriously?

And before I know it, I sound like my twin toddlers, blaming each other for the mud on the carpet when both their shoes are caked in it.

A little mud or a lot of mud, the carpet is still stained.

When I care to notice the mud on my shoes, when I remove my othering filter, some things come into terrifying focus. Gacy was sexually abused as an adolescent. So was I. Gacy developed an addiction to pornography. So did I. Gacy lived under the crushing motivation that he had to earn the love of other people. So have I.

What I’m saying is that I could have been John Wayne Gacy. I honestly believe that. No, I don’t have murderous tendencies. No, I don’t sexually exploit people. No, I stay out of my crawl space as much as I can—it’s nasty and creepy in there. There’s one reason I’m not Gacy. His name is Jesus.

Paul, the letter-writer I mentioned above, knows something of what I’m feeling. He spent his early life destroying the church. He was a terrorist, traveling from town to town, murdering those who believed Christ was the Messiah. A spirit realm encounter with Jesus flipped his life upside down. Overnight, the persecutor became a pastor; the murderer became a nurturer. And he knew he didn’t deserve the grace he’d received. He didn’t deserve a second chance. He wrote these words in a letter to a church in the ancient city of Corinth:

I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.

I have three toddlers, all ages three and below. We watch a lot of “Moana.” And while I’m a huge fan of the music, especially that song by David-Bowie-the-crab, there’s something that troubles me about the film. The story has us believe that the answer to all of our questions can be found within. Look deep inside, find your true self, and then you’ll be free. The apex of the film finds our heroine raising a green rock to a lava monster, singing, “This is not who you are. You know who you are.”

Yes, I do know who I am. I’m the lava monster. That’s exactly who I am. And to be clear, I’m not talking about self-loathing. There are loads of positive things about me. I’m giving; I’m creative; I can be funny (with enough alcohol). But underneath it all, I’m also selfish; I’m impatient; I can lose my temper. And but for the transforming grace of God, that’s where I’d stay. It’s only His power and influence that has brought me freedom from the same things that drove Gacy to utter madness: sexual abuse, addiction, the crushing weight of perfectionism. With all due respect to my favorite Polynesian warrior princess, it has been the light from outside me that has changed my life, not something I found inside.

Jesus said it this way:

If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.

What I’m trying say is simply this: The light is not in me. It never has been. It never will be. When I live my life by what’s inside me, I stumble. I make mistakes, hurt the ones I love, and generally leave a path of destruction in my wake. Rather, it’s been the light outside me—Jesus—that has paved the way for any good thing in my life, that has given me freedom over experiences and mistakes that led others to unspeakable ends.

Let me be clear; not everyone who experiences sexual abuse or watches porn or struggles with perfectionism becomes a serial killer. Obviously. But those things can become slippery slopes. And when we don’t put a stop to the slide—when we even embrace it and encourage it—there’s no way of knowing where we’ll end up. When we feed the lava monster, you only get one thing: a bigger, scarier, more powerful lava monster.

Despite everything else in his life, the biggest negative influence on John Wayne Gacy during his formative years was his father. The senior Gacy recognized that his son was different—pudgy and an average student at best—and his answer was to beat it out of him. His physical and verbal abuse was ruthless and relentless, from elementary school until the son left home as an adult. The father accused the son of faking epilepsy to gain attention. He blamed the sexual abuse on the child and not the family friend who perpetrated it. He constantly compared him to his sisters and found him lacking. Gacy’s number one goal in life was to earn the love his father would never give.

I don’t know your dad. But I know mine. And he was (and continues to be) the epitome of love, of support, of belief in me. And it set me on a course that separated me from Gacy. He loved me when I was unlovable. He noticed that I was different and embraced me. The brokenness that worked its way into my life broke his heart, too. He didn’t blame me for abuse. He didn’t compare me to others. He never told me I had to earn his love. It was always there, and mine for the taking.

I’m talking about my earthly father, yes. But even more, I’m talking about the spirit I pray to as Father. The same God who changed the life of a terrorist named Paul. The same God who sent his son to earth so that none of us would be able to “other” anyone else around us. The same God shining a light into our lives so we don’t have to look inside. I call him Father. And His love has made all the difference. And I believe, no matter where you find yourself today, He wants to father you, too.

We all have a lava monster inside. But that’s not the end of the story. Take it from a terrorist. He knows better than anyone else:

Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.

That’s grace for me. For you. And, yes, even for serial killers.

Want more to chew on? Read this larger excerpt from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. Or listen to the haunting song that inspired this article—and pay attention to the crushing last lines. Or send this article to a friend and have a conversation: Where do you “other” others? Where have you been othered? Where do you need the most grace? Where have you seen the “light from outside” shining in your life?

Caleb Mathis
Meet the author

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

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