Sunday, July 11, 2021

Murder Most Foul

1916 was not an easy Christmas for Rosa Spangler of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It's not just being in the hospital – though that was irksome. No, the reason was the headline on the front page of Christmas morning's paper. Her second-cousin John W. Rudy was dead. And it was a grisly and tragic tale. That tale takes its beginning twenty-seven years earlier, in December 1887. Back then, John was a 29-year-old married (but separated) father of four, working as a carpenter in construction at a home along the Philadelphia Turnpike east of the city. On the night of Sunday, December 4, a local dog howled uncontrollably in the dark. The next morning, after a heavy midnight rain, came the worst of discoveries: a body in a nearby field. Someone had been murdered – hacked and beaten in the back of the head, then dragged 25 feet away from a bloody stone that used to prop open the stable door. And the body was none other than that of John's own father Christian Rudy. Living across the street in the county poorhouse, Christian had been partly paralyzed since 1875, able to walk only with a cane; he got his exercise coming for regular visits with his son John at the nearby job site. Some said they'd seen John there just the day before, around sundown, though John had no business there on Sundays.

It was John who claimed to have first discovered the body that Monday morning, shouting at 9:30 that his father had surely been killed by other poorhouse residents intent on picking his pockets for tobacco. That was John's story. But people had questions. The tobacco and a coin or two were still found in the body's pockets. John had seemed awfully anxious that morning. Not long before the alleged discovery, John had been seen dragging something through that very field, and acting secretive if he felt anyone looking at him. And before that, not so long after sunrise, John's boss had caught him, “trembling and pale,” scraping furiously at the stable floor where spots that looked like clotted blood were found – and John had had a key to the stable over the weekend. Blood residue was indeed later recovered from the stable and from John's hatchet.

So for all John's protestations of innocence, he was promptly arrested, charged with his father's death, and put on trial in June of '88. It took the jury just a few hours to reach their verdict: “Guilty of murder in the first degree.” John's appeal was rejected, and in January '89 came sentencing. Death by hanging. The judge told John, “Look at once to the gracious and forgiving mercy of God your Creator, who alone can remit the guilt of your atrocious crime.” John's lawyers circulated a petition, calling attention to another local murderer who'd gotten his sentence commuted. By April 1890, the petition had over eight thousand signatures, including eleven of the jurors who'd convicted John. That July, the Board of Pardons gave in, sparing John the death penalty. The sheriff admitted he'd always believed John would get his sentence commuted. He'd been assigned a lucky noose, you see. Woven by the mayor of Philadelphia himself, every inmate sentenced to hang from it had escaped that sentence of death so far – John was the third in a row.

On the platform to catch a train to Philadelphia, John was smiling, surrounded by well-wishers coming to shake his handcuffed hands. Once he was admitted to Eastern State Penitentiary, his wife Caroline wasted no time filing for divorce. She remarried later that year. No member of John's family ever visited or wrote. John would spend twenty-three years in the penitentiary, fourteen of them in solitary confinement. But he was a model prisoner, once even risking his own life to rescue a guard from another convict's violence. After a long battle, John got a pardon. Released in January 1914, John caught a taxi to a church to give thanks, and that evening he took a train to Lancaster. John's first night out of prison was sleepless – too much space, hard to adjust. His ex-wife refused to see him. It's said he briefly met his children, all now grown. By this time, John was grandfather of 11. John soon settled on a farm in Christiana, getting work as caretaker of a bungalow on the Octoraro.

But the next two-and-a-half years would not be easy. He struggled to rediscover a sense of independent agency. Nothing quite fit. For a while, he relied on a cousin who owned a hotel. He tried starting over in New Jersey, then bounced back to the county. In September 1915, John took up lodging with another cousin – Rosa Spangler – while he got work as a tobacco packer. But he grew increasingly restless. Rumor had it he was making trips back to the penitentiary gates, asking to be readmitted. Rosa admitted John would “sit around and brood for hours” and “mumble to himself.” In the week before Thanksgiving 1916, he abruptly moved out, without explanation. He threw himself deeper into the bottle. People said he'd turned resentful over gaining his freedom, even wanting revenge on those who'd helped him. Rosa started getting threatening letters day after day. Neighbors saw him lurking around the neighborhood.

On the afternoon of December 24, 1916, around 4:00pm, Rosa heard a knock at her door. John was there. He wedged his foot into the doorway, and when she tried to shut him out, he pushed through, barging into the hall, breathing out the telltale signs of rum. With a bandaged right hand, he reached into his pants and drew a five-shooter Smith & Wesson revolver. As he aimed it at her head, Rosa grabbed his wrist, shoved his arm aside with all the adrenaline-fueled strength she had, and tried to wrestle his gun away. During the scuffle, as she repeatedly batted his aim away from her head or heart, at last he pulled the trigger. A .38-caliber ball shot from the barrel through her right forearm. With her left hand, she wrenched his arm down as hard as she could, and as a second shot fired, the ball grazed her leg, and the discharge at such close range set her skirts afire. Rosa screamed for help, shoving John back and slamming the door on him as he staggered out.

While Rosa ran to her kitchen to extinguish her burning clothes, John – hearing the door lock against him – backed up onto the icy sidewalk. Having failed, John pressed the revolver to his own head, in full view of the next-door neighbor. Over his ear, John pulled the trigger twice in quick succession, and two balls lodged into his brain. Collapsing on the ground, onlookers quickly gathered around his bleeding body, furiously grousing that they'd lynch him if he weren't so clearly already dying. An ambulance was shortly on the scene, taking him to St. Joseph's Hospital. And there he lingered six hours after the deed, until – at 10:20pm on Christmas Eve – John Rudy's suicide at last took full effect, releasing his soul to face its judgment.1

Now that makes for a bad Christmas. There's a reason, you know, why God says what he says. And what God said from Mount Sinai – words John Rudy just couldn't seem to abide by – was, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13) – or, depending on the Bible translation you read, “Thou shalt not kill.” God said it to Israel, but virtually every society in human history has known that this is one of the foundational rules of morality. In Hebrew, it's just two words, lo ratsach. It's narrower than 'kill' but broader than 'murder.' Don't go murdering or manslaughtering, and take care not to kill negligently either. That's what God warned in the desert.

When God spoke to Israel from the mountain, he didn't have to tack on an explanation. He'd already explained long before. In the early part of Genesis, God blotted out humanity in a flood, he said, because “the earth is filled with violence through them” (Genesis 6:13). And no sooner does the flood set its survivors on terra firma than God makes an everlasting covenant with them. He reminds Noah that he is himself the source and author of life. He alone has absolute authority over the life and death of all creatures, and the unilateral right to decree when and how life should be traded for death. Therefore, he demands an account from man and beast alike for life and death, and he sets clear boundaries over the lifeblood of every creature (Genesis 9:4-5).

The Lord assures Noah that, in this new world, he and his family – the whole human race – still carry the image of God throughout the world. For “in the image of God he made man” (Genesis 9:6). And that's a significant line. It means that human beings are to God what statues of the king were to the king of most ancient countries: a visible reminder of the extent of his empire. Those statues represented the king's authority. And just so, being like living royal statues, each human being is a representation of God's authority, a visible reminder of God's kingdom over all the earth. Doesn't matter whether the person is a prince or a pauper: God's image is the same.

And because of that, God takes seriously how his image is treated, because mistreatment of his image is an act of rebellion against him. Murder is an offense against God's image, an attempt to destroy a living emblem of God's very presence. That makes it “a sacrilege, and the worst of sacrileges.”2 To claim authority over one of God's living images, authority to destroy it in murder or even deface it with violence, is treason, is rebellion, is rising up against God himself. To murder another human being, any other human being, is as if it's an attempt to destroy the Lord and bring his kingdom to ruin. As Israel inherited this understanding, it's why they alone took no care whether the victim was prince or pauper: the crime is the same against each, for it attacks God.

What's more, God warned Noah about the significance of bloodshed, for blood is the same as life (Genesis 9:4). When human blood is spilled, when innocent life is taken, it defiles the land. The blood cries out from the dirt for redress. So God will tell Israel that “innocent blood” should not be “shed in your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 19:10), “for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Numbers 35:33). Spilled blood is like a kidnapped power, raging to be free, crying out to God for rescue. It jeopardizes the community's well-being. It could lead to famine, to exile, to God's presence quitting the land, if it builds up. And so, as God's living images, humans are charged with responsibility to defend the earth from defilement, for “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6).

Building on this, God sketched for Israel a legal system to deal with crimes against this commandment. Murder was carefully defined: it was killing with an iron tool or a stone tool or a wooden tool, or shoving someone with malice, or striking someone down intentionally with your hand, or throwing an object at somebody, or any of the other ways of premeditated killing (Numbers 35:16-21). That was slightly different from impulse killing in the moment, where the victim is “pushed suddenly without enmity” or has anything “hurled” at them but without the killer “lying in wait” to do so (Numbers 35:22). And then there's accidental killing, like somebody tossing a stone and not seeing that a person's there until it's too late (Numbers 35:23). A determination of murder required the evidence of multiple witnesses to be established (Numbers 35:30), but if it was, the execution would be carried out by a strong relative of the victim, who bore the title “redeemer of the blood.”

But even someone who killed by accident had blood-guilt, and was in danger from the victim's blood-redeemer. So an accidental killer had an option. There were six 'cities of refuge,' all in different tribal territories for fair access: Bezer, Ramoth, Golan, Kedesh, Shechem, and Hebron (Joshua 20:7-8). All these cities were property of the tribe of Levi, inhabited by Levites. A manslayer being chased by a blood-redeemer was supposed to flee to the city of refuge and “explain his case to the elders of that city” (Joshua 20:4). Once he was safely inside, the blood-redeemer couldn't get him, and then a trial could be scheduled to decide whether the killer was legally culpable. He would “stand before the congregation for judgment” (Numbers 35:12), to “judge between the manslayer and the blood-redeemer” (Numbers 35:24). If they decided that it wasn't an accident after all, they'd “hand him over to the blood-redeemer so that he may die” (Deuteronomy 19:12). If they decided it really was an accident, then the killer would remain confined to the city of refuge until the stain of blood defiling the land had been expunged. Leave before that, and the blood-redeemer might still be waiting (Numbers 35:26-27).

There were three ways to purge the stain of innocent blood from the land. The first way was only an option for an unsolved homicide – a body's found with signs of foul play, but nobody can find witnesses or a suspect (Deuteronomy 21:1). In that case, all that can be done is for the regional elders to measure out which settlement is closest to the body, so that responsibility can be assigned (Deuteronomy 21:2). Then that city's elders would take an unworked heifer into uncultivated country – both symbolizing innocence – and would break its neck over running water, which would wash the bloodguilt back to God's hands (Deuteronomy 21:3-4). Then, with priests as witnesses, the elders would wash their hands of responsibility over the heifer (Deuteronomy 21:5-7), asking God to accept this heifer's life as atonement to “purge the guilt of innocent blood” (Deuteronomy 21:7-9), with the priests presumably answering on God's behalf that the defilement had been lifted.

The second way to purge the stain was for the murderer to be put to death by the blood-redeemer (Numbers 35:21). That does the trick: one blood cleanses what the innocent blood defiled. And so, where other countries might call for different family members to be substituted – you kill my kid, I kill your kid – Israel says no: “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20). Nor, like in other countries, could a rich murderer just buy his way out of trouble: “You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death” (Numbers 35:31).

But we need a different way to purge the stain, the land-defilement, for the blood of accidental killings where it wouldn't be good to have the killer put to death. And the solution here is that the killer stays imprisoned in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest: “He shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil” (Numbers 35:25), “but after the death of the high priest, the manslayer may return to the land of his possession” (Numbers 35:28). The killer can't buy his way to early freedom (Numbers 35:32) – he has to stay until the stain is dealt with. But the high priest's very job and office was all about absorbing and carrying the guilt and sin of all Israel. So once the high priest dies, his death itself abolishes the bloodguilt from the land, setting the killer free to return from exile and go back home.

Later Jews, and Christians too, saw in the commandment a ruling also against suicide. For while nothing could legally be done about it, still, none of us has authority to destroy God's image, not even in him- or herself. And so “no human being may take his [or her] own life,” because God here “forbids self-destruction.”3 Just the same, they saw that under the heading of 'murder' “come all the laws... about violence.”4 For don't the psalms tell us that the LORD rejects “the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5)? Doesn't God command us unambiguously, “Put away violence and oppression” (Ezekiel 45:9)? And so murder, suicide, violence – all are here ruled out.

And then we come to today. John Rudy is hardly the last man of murder, violence, or self-destruction that our country has seen. The murder rate in the United States has gone through its high periods and low periods, and thankfully we've been in a low period since the mid-1990s,5 but even so, across the whole United States, it's estimated the murder rate in 2020 may have been 25% higher than the year before, one of the sharpest jumps in our national history; and in at least some cities, rates have continued to climb so far in 2021. When was the last time you picked up a newspaper with no murders noted on its pages? In just the last week, internationally we've heard of the assassination of the Haitian president, we've been updated on a serial killer caught in Delaware and a murder-suicide in Mount Joy last month, and we've been reminded of 36 unsolved homicides in this county from the past thirty years. Some of us here may well know what it's like to lose a family member to murder.

As for suicide, we know those rates have been climbing nationwide for the past couple decades, with a 35% rise in suicides from 1999 to 2018. While the past year or two seem to have granted an overall decrease, they've been particularly bad years for soldiers and veterans – for them, suicide now takes four times as many lives as combat. Even the death of one of the past bishops of our church was ruled a suicide. Try as we might, we can't ignore it. Some of us here may well know what it's like to lose a family member to suicide, and all the pain and grief and anger and confusion that can leave behind for a lifetime.

And while we'd like to think of our county as a fairly peaceful place, the last month's worth of police logs and other articles have recounted several shootings, three stabbings, one fistfight, five face-punches, seven incidents of strangulation, two vehicular assaults, a string of arsons, a woman assaulting her children and their father, a man chasing a woman around with a knife, and one dreadful tale of a man entering another's house, beating the homeowner, and finally breaking his skull. That's all in just the last month around just this county! And all of it – every bit of that – is an offense against this commandment.

That's terrible, because God warns, in the Bible's final book, that “as for... murderers..., their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). Those who don't want their violent impulses to be held in check, well, there's a place where all restraints on violence are removed. It's called hell. And the more this world is filled with violence, the more it resembles hell. How do we respond?

Our answer is Jesus, “the Author of Life” (Acts 3:15). In him, the Eternal Image of the Father – the Word of God, the very Divine Speech that said not to murder – became written not merely on a stone tablet or on the page of a Bible but onto human flesh and human blood. Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to the command. He could be forceful, but never for even a moment was he ever violent. Never was he life-stealing; always was he life-giving. He was gentler than a summer breeze. He was peaceable in the face of the world's violence. He warned, though, that the generation that rejected him would be held guilty of the bloodguilt of all the prophets and holy ones murdered since the very beginning (Luke 11:49-51). And in response, the world's violence took hold of him. They chose to spare an actual murderer, Barabbas, but bring innocence incarnate to execution. As Stephen put it, “of the Righteous One..., you have now become betrayers and murderers” (Acts 7:52). Jesus – God – was himself made a murder victim. And in so doing, God took his stand with every murder victim from Abel to the last, everyone unlawfully killed – God stands with them, among their number, in solidarity.

And here's the good news in the tragedy. The blood of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24). Where spilled blood usually cries for satisfaction by death, Jesus' blood cries for satisfaction by life. His blood, the lifeblood of God, is the final purgative against defilement, to free from sins (Revelation 1:5), to purify the conscience from the works of death (Hebrews 9:14), to sanctify the people (Hebrews 13:12). Better than a blood-redeemer chasing down a mortal murderer, he came as the blood-giving Redeemer chasing out the Devil who was “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44), avenging on the spiritual powers of sin, death, and hell every one of their crimes against life. And he's also the sacrifice, he's our heifer broken over the stream of the Spirit in the wild country of the earth to purge all guilt of innocent blood away. So too is Jesus the Great High Priest whose death dissolves the bloodguilt of a guilty world and sets the captives free.

And the blood that Jesus bled, the blood that Jesus offers, the blood that Jesus pours out on us, is so powerful that even murder can really be forgiven. (Even John Rudy could have attained forgiveness and purification and holiness in his last hour, and I hope he did.) Some of the greatest saints had murderous backgrounds. From a Saul “breathing out threats and murder toward the Lord's disciples” (Acts 9:1), he made an apostle and martyr who offered up his blood as seed for the church's growth. Some of the very people who'd taken part in his own murder, Jesus welcomed into his body, inviting them to commune with his blood. And down through the ages, murderers and people of violence have often repented and been transformed from guilt-stained criminals to glory-crowned peacemakers. For Jesus declares there is healing in his blood, cleansing from all guilt, from all defilement. There is no life so shameful, no world so dirty, that the blood of Jesus cannot purge it clean.

And not only that, but up from the grave he arose! Jesus lives ever to pronounce the words of absolution, to assure us that defilement is ended wherever his death and life are shared, wherever his blood is applied in faith and repentance. And, having risen again, Jesus shouts a resounding 'Yes!' to God's promise of resurrection. For just that reason, he assures us that we need not fear those in our world who go around harming bodies or even killing bodies, because what murderers and people of violence can do to us, it can't touch our souls, so of them we need have no fear (Matthew 10:28). And Jesus promises hope for every body, too – especially those bodies in which the Spirit of Resurrection has dwelt (Romans 8:11). Every murder will one day be undone. Life will one day be given back. All the scars and bruises of violence will one day be wiped away or, better yet, transfigured into beauty and light.

And so the early church could testify that the grace of Jesus, poured out through his Holy Spirit, was enough to “bind peace to the hostile” and “give rest to the violent.”6 Whatever we've done or whatever we've endured, we can receive Christ's gift of purgation and promise. And even while still living in a world with violence, we are set free to step fearlessly forward as the bearers of peace, as spokesmen and spokeswomen for the vulnerable and downtrodden of the earth, confident that the murderous rampages of deadly devils will be brought to nothing by the Lord of Life. Secure in Christ, we fulfill the commandment as we follow him, sent out in Christ's own image “as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3), as peacemakers redeemed by his holy blood.  Amen!

1  For the tragic tale of John Rudy, see especially “Rudy's Trial for Murder,” The Lancaster Intelligencer (7 June 1888): 4; “The Rudy Murder Trial,” The Lancaster Intelligencer (8 June 1888): 1; “The Testimony Closed,” The Lancaster Intelligencer (9 June 1888): 1; “Guilty of Murder,” The Daily New Era (11 June 1888): 4; “To Die for His Crime,” The Daily New Era (26 January 1889): 1; “His Neck Saved,” The Daily New Era (9 July 1890): 1; “Off to the Penitentiary,” The Daily New Era (19 July 1890): 1; “The Rudy Pardon,” The Lancaster Intelligencer (27 January 1914): 1; “Sees Light of Freedom After Twenty-Eight Years,” The Daily New Era (28 January 1914): 1; “John W. Rudy, A Free Man, Returns to Old Home,” The Daily New Era (29 January 1914): 1-2; “Attempts Murder; Kills Himself,” The News Journal (25 December 1916): 1, 8; “John Rudy, Pining to Get 'Back to Pen,' Was Insane, Was on Warpath For Others,” The News Journal (26 December 1916): 1.

2  Philo of Alexandria, On the Special Laws 3.83

3  Augustine of Hippo, The City of God 1.20

4  Philo of Alexandria, On the Decalogue 170

5  See discussion in, e.g., Barry Latzer, The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America (Encounter Books, 2016).

6  Cyprian of Carthage, To Donatus

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