Timothy McVeigh’s “Invictus”

By Wayne Jackson

Timothy McVeigh is dead. His ashes were secretly deposited into Earth’s bowels, to return to the dust whence they came (Gen. 3:19; Eccl. 12:7). His soul has entered a new domain where there is no place for arrogance, defiance, or “coping” with the environment (Lk. 16:23ff).

To the very end McVeigh exhibited no public remorse. According to a news report, he requested the “last rights” of the Catholic Church after he was strapped to the execution gurney – even though he was a professed agnostic.

The fact is, it would not have mattered, at that point, if the Oklahoma bomber had expressed mere regret. Judas Iscariot entertained “repentance” at the end of his life (see Mt. 27:3). But the Greek word metamelomai (translated “repented”) denotes mere “remorse” or “regret”; and this is not the noble “repentance” of deep conviction that would result in a change of one’s life (see Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000, p. 26).

The betrayer of Christ was characterized as the “son of perdition” — an idiom meaning one who is deserving of, and destined for, perdition (hell). The Scriptures state that he “perished,” ending up in “his own place,” i.e., the place he prepared for himself, following his suicide (see Jn. 17:12; Acts 1:25).

At the end, McVeigh chose not to verbally make a personal “last-words” statement; he did, however, through a spokesman, express the following sentiment (taken from William Henley’s famous poem, “Invictus”):

“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

Our readers may be interested to see the full text of Henley’s composition. It reveals the depth of contempt for things sacred that the poet harbored, which disposition obviously was also reflected by the rebel who murdered 168 souls and wounded 500 others in Oklahoma City. Henley’s poem, penned in 1875, reads as follows:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance,
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Henley’s anger and irreverence issued from a life of intense suffering, with which he was unable to cope. At the age of twelve, he was stricken with a tubercular condition that resulted ultimately in the amputation of his left leg. He would have lost the other leg had it not been for the innovative treatments of Dr. Joseph Lister. Henley’s joints were affected and his body was plagued with horrible abscesses. His legs withered while his torso continued to grow; he suffered excruciating pain for many years.

His poem reveals much about the hostility that developed in his heart because of his plight. Here are some brief observations.

(1) He saw life as an environment of “black” despair.

(2) He wallowed in self-glorification, applauding his “unconquerable soul,” while vaguely acknowledging the possibility of “gods” of some sort. The tragic fact is, his soul was conquered by the hardships of his life.

(3) He suggested that under chance’s bludgeonings he had not “winced” or “cried aloud.” What is the anguish of this composition but a wincing cry?

(4) He arrogantly boasted that his head was “unbowed.” The implication is too plain to miss.

(5) He was “whistling in the graveyard” when he alleged that he was “unafraid” to die, whereas, in the same stanza, he shudders at the “horror of the shade.”

(6) He disdained the “strait gate” (an obvious allusion to Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:13-14), and he ridiculed the “punishments of the scroll” (the Bible), boldly affirming that he is “captain of his [own] soul” — which reflected a “declaration of independence” from God.

With this sentiment as his own epitaph, it is not difficult to conclude that there was not a shred of remorse in the remnant of Timothy McVeigh’s conscience — to whatever degree he still retained one (cf. Eph. 4:18-19; 1 Tim. 4:2). He now awaits a judgment before the real “Captain” of his soul (2 Cor. 5:10).

We cannot conclude this brief article without appealing to the well-known poem (“My Captain”) by Dorothea Day, whose response to Henley’s piece seems especially appropriate — in light of the recent publicity given the final line of the poet’s most famous work.

Out of the night that dazzles me,
Bright as the sun from pole to pole,
I thank the God I know to be
For Christ the conqueror of my soul.

Since His the sway of circumstance,
I would not wince nor cry aloud.
Under that rule which men call chance
My head with joy is humbly bowed.

Beyond this place of sin and tears
That life with Him! And His the aid,
Despite the menace of the years,
Keeps, and shall keep me, unafraid.

I have no fear, though strait the gate,
He cleared from punishment the scroll.
Christ is the Master of my fate,
Christ is the Captain of my soul.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.