Saturday, November 25, 2006

Dark Journey Deep Grace

Author: Roy Ratcliff (with Lindy Adams)
Publisher: Leafwood Publishers
ISBN: 0-9767790-2-1

One phone call in April 1994 changed Roy Ratcliff’s life forever. The call came from a fellow minister who wanted to know if Ratcliff would preside over the baptism of an inmate who was incarcerated in a prison near his home. Ratcliff had never had any experience with prison ministry. Nevertheless, he agreed to drive to the prison and meet with the prisoner. Upon being satisfied that the prisoner had a proper understanding of baptism’s purpose, Ratcliff would make all the necessary arrangements. Ratcliff just needed one more piece of information: who was the prisoner making the request? The answer: Jeffrey Dahmer.

Ratcliff, like everyone else living in Wisconsin in the 1990s, was familiar with Dahmer’s horrific story of torture, murder, necrophilia and cannibalism. When Ratcliff met Dahmer in late April 1994, he was surprised at Dahmer’s quiet demeanor, his fairly lean frame and his small hands. Satisfied that Dahmer understood the meaning of baptism and that his desire was sincere, Ratcliff made arrangements for Dahmer’s baptism in May 1994.

After Dahmer’s baptism, Ratcliff continued meeting with him for weekly Bible studies and discussions. Little did they know that, in late November 1994, their friendship would be severed by Dahmer’s brutal murder at the hands of another prisoner.

His friendship with Dahmer changed Ratcliff’s life in several ways. First, the responses of other Christians to Ratcliff’s ministry with Dahmer challenged Ratcliff to think deeply about the concepts of mercy, grace and justice. Some Christians encouraged Ratcliff’s efforts, others believed Ratcliff was being conned and still others believed Dahmer was too evil to be forgiven. Second, Ratcliff’s belief in Dahmer’s sincerity and his friendship with Dahmer led him to believe more deeply in God’s unconditional love. Third, following his ministry with Dahmer, Ratcliff became involved in several other prison ministries, activities that he is still engaged in a dozen years later.

Ratcliff states unequivocally that God can and does forgive the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world. Ratcliff also states unequivocally that divine forgiveness does not expunge the need for earthly justice. Ratcliff believes that people who cannot understand these distinctions are confused about the natures of both God and society. Social justice required, rightly, according to Ratcliff, that Dahmer should serve out his sentence regardless of his spiritual condition. Ratcliff reports that Dahmer also accepted his penalty as a just one. Neither of these men ever viewed spiritual conversion as a “get out of jail free” card. According to Ratcliff:

“A gross misunderstanding of what Jeff’s baptism
accomplished was apparent.

No one said Jeff was no longer guilty of his crimes.
He would not be released from prison, nor should he be,
dependent upon his baptism.

Baptism does not take away crimes. It addresses sins.
The issue in baptism doesn’t concern justice in the society.
It concerns the forgiveness of God. . . .
Jeff’s crimes cry out for justice. . . .
No one understood this quite as well as Jeff” (pp. 85-86).

Dark Journey Deep Grace is a profoundly moving story, an unpretentious chronicle of an unlikely friendship that developed around a seemingly unlikely faith. Christians who enjoy stories of personal testimony will find this book interesting, as it offers insights into the spiritual lives of two men, Ratcliff and Dahmer. They should also find it uplifting, because it offers the promise of present and future redemption to all people, regardless of their past transgressions. Finally, readers of any faith, and even people with no faith, who read this book will be challenged to reconsider their ideas about God, evil and justice.

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