In my long and continuing pursuit of understanding the sources of evil in our world, I recently asked Mindy Corporon, whose father and son were murdered last year at the Jewish Community Center Campus in suburban Kansas City, to talk about her understanding of evil and what fuels it. She graciously agreed and I reported our conversation a few weeks ago both here on the blog and in this National Catholic Reporter column.
But I also wanted to see what someone who has committed clear acts of evil might say. So I wrote to a serial killer and asked how he had come to understand evil "from your unique perspective as an imprisoned convicted murderer who, many would say, increased the amount of evil in the world by your actions."
It turns out that Dennis L. Rader, known as the BTK (bind, torture, kill) killer who murdered 10 people between 1974 and 1991 in the Wichita, Kan., area and who now is serving 10 consecutive life sentences at the El Dorado Correctional Facility in Kansas, has thought about this matter of evil in some detail.
"By nature('s) chances," he wrote to me in a 7-page, hand-written letter, "I believe I have a 'bad brain'(;) the brain control(s) everything we do. I was raised in a Christian atmosphere type home, no abuse & always loved and care(d) for. It's possible some social event or what my brain picked up started me on the Dark Path; with a bad brain, you have biological roots that can lead to crime and violence. This is all by chance." (In the photo here of the top of the letter from Rader, I have blurred out his prisoner number and specific prison address. Also: Sometimes Rader's syntax and sentence structure is a little hard to follow. I've tried to make his meaning clear in the quotes.)
He also described how he compartmentalized his life so that no one, not even his family, as we learned later, imagined that he was the BTK killer:
"For the most part I have always been a Christian. I know that('s) hard for people to understand and it's part of that "Evil" you wrote about. . .In layman terms, many criminals live in a compartmentalized world. We wear either a 'White Hat' or 'Black Hat", going back and forth all the time. Everybody does this, but people like me go to the extreme 'Black Hat.' With the 'White Hat' I can be family man, scout leader, compliance officer, church leader, husband, father & many more and really do & truly feel I'm doing good, for all. You and the rest of the world knows my 'Black Hat' by now, thus 'Real Evil.'"
In my letter to Rader asking him if he'd be willing to tell me his understanding of evil, I mentioned that after his arrest, I had interviewed his pastor, Mike Clark, at the Lutheran Church near Wichita where Rader was quite an active member. And I explained to Rader that Clark had told me that as a result of his experience with Rader, Clark had come to believe in a personified devil.
"I respect his opinion but I frankly think that answer is a little too simple," I wrote to Rader. His response:
"What came 1st? God or Evil (Chance), like the chicken & the egg. I know you spoke of 'too simple,' but the world breaks down into simple terms. With no 'mistakes' (evil one of them, or bad things) there can be no forgiveness, and you have to have 'love' for to forgive, thus God, or many religions (whichever you choose) has that 'Big Love', the greatest Love, to overcome or understand 'Evil' & 'Bad things' or overcome them.
"Both 'Evil' & 'Bad things' come from the pandemonium of chance in our world, and it is only 'evil' that we label it, man alone. . .So, Evil is really a manmade feeling and Pastor Clark is somewhat right, almost a 'personified devil', but it('s) a concept, I believe, and not a physical thing you can see, the same of God, a true and wonderful good concept. Both of these concept(s) are spiritual, and to be honest, man held spirits, yet I feel like Pastor Clark did (--) there's something else mystic beyond man's concept."
Rader's notions about the causes of evil struck me as largely devoid of any concept of personal responsibility or choice. As he writes:
"So, by nature and chance bad things happen to all in some form(;) if you live a perfect life, somewhere along that life span somebody you know or events are either evil or bad happenings, then you die, a bad thing. . .So, God doesn't have control of nature and chance, thus, no control on 'evil.' With Evil out there, there('s) a good chance someone is going to wear a 'Black Hat' at times(;) some wear very powerful hats, like 'Hitler' for example."
Rader's theology at least doesn't blame God for evil and suffering, but it also seems to let humans off the hook.
In his somewhat rambling way, in at-times hard-to-read handwriting, Rader eventually comes back to questions about his own life:
"Was it Good or Bad for the universe to start? Back a split microsecond before it happen(ed), did that spirit create the 'Big Bang', and then set the stage to watch good and evil play out until the earth is consume(d) in Fire(?). . .If the spirit did create the Big Bang it formed man, in time, to control some of the evil or bad things, for it must have a living heart or understanding. . .
"In all this, where do I fit in(?) Well I think I have an understanding of evil or my source (Brain). I understand as society we have to have a place for 'Black Hat -- Bad Brain or Social Misfits'(;) less evil if off the street. I'm at peace with world, and spending my time as the court system requires. Yet, I feel more in the prison system could be done to help people like me."
Rader has been cooperating with an author who is writing a book about his 10 murders, and he says the book has been "okayed and sanction(ed) by 'The Victims Famil(y) Trust.'" The author is Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology and program director of the masters program in criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.
In his letter to me, Rader praised Ramsland's work:
"Finally, to help control evil and bad things, people like Dr. Ramsland, we owe them much gratitude for help(ing) to explore and come to terms with better understanding of the criminal mind, thus helping mankind. They are actually 'good spirits' in the flesh. Every book they author or event they help out bring(s) mankind closer to control of criminal evil, but you notice I said control(;) there will always be a lo(o)se end by chance!'"
I am no criminologist or psychologist and am not qualified to make any judgments that such experts might themselves make after reading Rader's letter to me.
But from my own understanding of faith and evil, it seems to me that Dennis Rader is as baffled by the old question of theodicy -- why there's evil in the world if God is good -- as others are, including theologians.
As I've noted before, the theodicy question is the open wound of religion in that there are no fully satisfying answers to the causes and purposes of evil and suffering. But I do find in the answers Rader wrote to me a propensity to look outside of himself for answers and causes but considerably less willingness to look at his own choices and responsibility.
His talk of nature and chance strikes me as a way to avoid the harsh truth that the old Prophet Jeremiah identified in verse 9 of chapter 17 of the book named after him in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here's that verse in the King James Version: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"
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BONO VOTES FOR EQUALITY, TOO
The vote in favor of same-sex marriage in Ireland has the blessing
of U2's Bono, it turns out. The landslide was quite remarkable in a country where homosexuality was a crime not many years ago. Good work, Ireland.