On My Best Behavior
“He’d kill then thousand people
With a sleight of his hand
Running far, running fast….”
I don’t really remember much about Luke Woodham. He was 16 years old when I was just 9. He lived just some twenty minutes away from me, in Pearl, Mississippi, but we never would have crossed paths for any reason. As far as I know, we had no mutual friends. I can’t think of a single connection between he and I, yet I will never forget Luke Woodham for the one thing he will be remembered for.
On October 1, 1997, Luke murdered his mother, then went to his high school and opened fire on his ex-girlfriend. He killed two students, injured seven others, but more importantly, sparked a chain of school shootings that the world had never seen. In the ten years following the Pearl High School shooting, events such as the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings grabbed all of our attention like never before.
I’ll never forget Luke Woodham. He reminds me of what I can be capable of.
It is easy, when looking at this past week, to see people as being Monsters because of what they’ve done. James Holmes is a Monster for wandering into a theater and opening fire. Joe Paterno is a Monster for hearing about child molestation going on around him and choosing to turn a blind eye. Forget that Holmes was a fairly promising student, heading towards his PhD. Forget that Paterno was a beloved coach and mentor to thousands of football players and students over the years. They failed. They did things the rest of us could never do, and for that, they are Monsters.
I can’t help but think that maybe that’s not the total truth. I look at Joe Paterno, who was faced with the horrible knowledge that a friend of his was doing truly terrible things. But this was one of his closest friends. Would I be willing to turn my back on my friends when I discovered their glaring flaws? Could I possibly do that, risking becoming being the type of person who betrays their friends like that? Doesn’t being so willing to betray my friends make me a pretty bad person as well?
None of their actions are excusable. What Jerry Sandusky did and Paterno ignored can never be defended, but….could I honestly say that I would stand in Paterno’s shoes and do anything differently?
In his book Searching For God Knows What, Donald Miller draws the illustration of an alien coming to Earth and making his first impression of humans. He says that the alien finds us unique in that we’re always comparing ourselves to each other. Either we argue about which team is best in whatever sport, or maybe even which area of the country we’re from, but we’re always looking to compare ourselves to others. And when we look at these Monsters? We say that we could never stoop to that same level.
Where is mercy? Do we honestly see ourselves as that far superior, that we think we know when and where to administer mercy? We admire men like David and Paul, mighty men of the Bible, seemingly without ever mentioning the fact that they were murderers. They didn’t run dog fighting rings like Michael Vick. They were both directly responsible for the deaths of other people. Yet we admire them. They were shown mercy. Mercy that we would want to be shown ourselves.
I often wonder if David and Paul’s pasts ever haunted them. I remember times in high school I was a jerk, and those memories stick with me. I can’t imagine how I would feel knowing that blood was on my hands.
In these situations, when Monsters abound and it’s easy to decide who deserves mercy, I turn to the great theologian Sufjan Stevens. He wrote a song entitled “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” about the man who was loved in the community for being a clown at all of the charitable events, but in the process sexually assaulted and murdered 33 boys and young men. In the song, Stevens recounts how Gacy buried his victims under the floorboards of his house. If anyone was ever to be considered a Monster, it is Gacy.
Yet as he ends the haunting, haunting song, Stevens reminds me every time that mercy isn’t something I deserve either:
“And on my best behavior
I am really just like him.
Look underneath the floorboards
At the secrets I have hid”