Francis Thompson - Sinner or Saint?
So, have you ever preached a sermon using an historical figure to be your main illustration of Christian virtue and devotion, only to find out later that he was Jack the Ripper? Well, it happened to me this week! So, apparently I read all the wrong websites when I was researching Francis Thompson. I was reading from websites on 19th century British Literature, great English devotional writers and blogs on theological poetry. Apparently, if I’d expanded my horizons a bit, I’d have found out that there are a few people who believe that they can make a credible case for the fact that Francis Thompson, the man who wrote ‘The Hound of Heaven,’ was actually Jack the Ripper, the notorious serial killer from late 19th century London. So, this begs the question - if I had known, would I still have used Francis Thompson as my main illustration of God’s redeeming grace and mercy this last Sunday?
On Sunday, we talked about Psalm 139, the towering Song of God’s unfailing love, which pursues us like the Hound of Heaven described by Thompson in his famous poem. We began our time in God’s word by pointing to a painful reality at work in our society today, the depersonalization and dehumanization of anyone who disagrees with us, looks or talks or votes differently than we do - the marginalization of those who may seem irrelevant or unnecessary to us. We noted the increasing trend, in our consumeristic world, of reducing people to numbers, and even ‘scapegoating’ people we dislike or despise, heaping our anger and derision upon them as we subjugate them to the margins of our society. All of this led us to Thompson, who spent years on the streets of London, homeless, destitute, cast out and strung out on opiates. Francis Thompson was exactly the kind of person that we ignore, depersonalize and dehumanize in our society every single day.
And what about Jack the Ripper? Where do psychopaths and serial killers and mass murderers come from? What causes someone to plot and carry out the murders of multiple people? What kinds of conditions exist in the family and social lives of a person who walks into a school and shoots down defenseless humans and laughs about it? The study of serial killers and school shooters is complicated and there is no consensus on how psychopathic or sociopathic behavior comes to be manifest in a person, but I have a theory I’d like to throw into the mix. The difference between Jack the Ripper - psychopathic serial killer, and Francis Thompson - transcendent spiritual poet, is genuine community and human dignity. One statistic I read today said that 85% of serial killers come from an unstable home life. School shooters almost always share a painful back-story of bullying and isolation. In a word, these killers suffer from depersonalization - they are cast out, separated, told they don’t matter, unloved and uncared for, scapegoated, dehumanized and marginalized. Sound familiar?
Was Francis Thompson really Jack the Ripper? Probably not. But say that he was - say that this homeless man, after 3 years on the streets of London, completely alone and isolated, nameless nobody, hungry and hopeless - decided to take out his frustration, in a drug-induced fog, on other nobodies in dark, disease-infested alleys of a city that had turned its back on him? And what if, while we’re speculating, God sent his servant Wilifrid Maynell to find this wretch of a man, clean him up and lift him out of addiction and set his feet solidly on the foundation of God’s divine will and way? Wouldn’t a story of transformation like this, from Jack the Ripper to Francis Thompson, from brutal serial killer to saintly spiritual poet, be one of the great stories of all time? And it wouldn’t just be a story about God and God’s amazing grace. It would also be a story of the Church’s role in the restoration and redemption. It would be a beautiful example of how God’s people can participate in humanizing the homeless and helpless, dignifying the dirty and dazed, lifting up the left out and unloved.
Help us Loving Lord, to be the kind of church that can love even one like Jack the Ripper, and continue to make us the kind of people that can love in such a way that the Francis Thompson’s among us might become poetic prophets rather than maligned murderers.
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