Reading Time: 8 minutes

(Content note: Child sexual assault, suicidal ideation, and self-harm.)

Meet 35-year-old David Helm, an Air Force Tech Sergeant who just got sentenced to 25 years in prison after his court martial trial for various charges: desertion, rape and assault of a child, and indecent filming of a woman without her consent (and subsequent broadcast of the images thus taken). The charges involved two people, one of whom was underage according to charging documents.

Spoiler alert. (Credit: Xavier Buaillon, CC license.)
Spoiler alert. (Credit: Xavier Buaillon, CC license.)

A paramedic stationed at Scott Air Force Base, David Helm disappeared last May just before his trial for the sex assault charges. Dude simply got on his motorcycle and left his base, telling friends that he was going to go see his family in La Follette, Tennessee one last time.

I can easily imagine he was looking down the double barrels of conviction and imprisonment. At such an impasse, many of us would want to see our loved ones and spend some dedicated time with them during our last days of freedom. It doesn’t sound like anybody was all that shocked to hear that he might choose to go home one last time before he was put on trial, given the situation.

But David Helm did not actually go to Tennessee to see his family. He didn’t show up in Tennessee at all–and didn’t return in time for his trial, either. Authorities began a nationwide manhunt to locate the fugitive.

Turns out he hadn’t even embarked on a huge quest to clear his name, like the hero did in that awful Christian movie Persecuted. (speaking of which: ZERO PERCENT on RottenTomatoes? Obviously it’s all a demonic plot to silence and, well, persecute TRUE CHRISTIANS™!)

He had actually headed for Las Vegas, Nevada.

He had decided to go complete his personal Bucket List while he was still young enough to appreciate it.

He got stopped just outside Reno on June 8th about a week after his desertion, his grand quest interrupted by a Highway Patrol Officer who’d noticed that his bike’s taillight was out. Turns out Mr. Helm had had a grand old time in the area–he’d gone skydiving, taken a nice helicopter ride around the Grand Canyon, and rented an expensive sportscar to race around in Las Vegas. While he was handcuffed in the back seat of the arresting officer’s patrol car, he characterized these activities as his own personal “bucket list,” which is the term used to describe a list of things people want to do before they die, or “kick the bucket”. Hell, he still had stuff on the list he hadn’t done yet, he revealed to the trooper–including riding the Pacific Coast Highway and visiting a redwood forest.

Well, he got his court-martial anyway, with desertion tacked onto the sex assault charges. During this trial, his victims talked about the trust he had repeatedly violated–how betrayed they had felt, and how devastated their lives had been. The girl, especially, had suffered hugely; she felt that she was now a “slut” and described how she had almost killed herself as a result of his repeated attacks. Thankfully someone interrupted her before she could go through with it, so she was able to face her attacker in court.

Something about this guy’s smile twigged me.

I don’t know exactly why I thought this, but it looked kind of like a Jesus smile like preachers and hardcore Christians wear to look earnest, persuasive, and trustworthy. And it seemed like he wore that same smile in every single mug shot I saw of him. So when this story flew across my phone’s screen last night, I got curious about him.

Would you like to know what this guy said as his defense?

According to this news site, this is what he told the judge:

You never know what you did have until it’s gone. I do believe in God and I do believe there is a path to redemption. The demons I have fought against are not anything I would wish up my worst enemy. [sic sic sic]

He even managed a catch in his voice while he was saying it.

His defense attorney went on to beg the judge to “help [David Helm] toward the path of redemption.”

Mr. Helm’s defense attorney tried to make the case that her client had pleaded guilty, which obviously meant he had wanted to spare his younger victim from taking the witness stand, which means he is a wonderful guy and and certainly wants nothing but the best for his victims.

Sure he did, and I know that because of the phrase he used:

The Path to Redemption.

The “path to redemption” (or “path of redemption”) is something I’ve been hearing for a while now. In the early 90s, noted Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar wrote in his book Unless You Become Like This Child, “It is to the Cross that the Christian is challenged to follow his Master: no path of redemption can make a detour around it.” This “path” is explicitly presented as Christianity-oriented–something that only “God” can possibly help Christians with–in books like Shaking the Fundamentals by Jan van Lin, which is aimed at helping to reverse Christianity’s catastrophic and disastrous slide in numbers–painting “the path of redemption” as explicitly contrary to what its author views as the specters of dreaded secularism and ecumenicalism. Specifically, the idea seems like it initially started as a Catholic idea linked to the ritual of the Stations of the Cross. In that ritual, a Catholic church sets up 14 or 15 “stations” around their sanctuary (or sometimes outside, or involving travel from one church or spiritually-significant site to another), each station representing part of the story of Jesus and his Crucifixion. Believers go around to each station in a specific order, and at each one there’s a slightly different lesson for the believers to contemplate.

Outside of that conceptualization of believers following the symbolic path of Jesus to his eventual (supposed) resurrection, the idea of “a path to redemption” is not well-defined–and what few definitions you’ll find aren’t very meaningful. One author thinks it means a way of “transforming human thoughts back into cosmic thoughts.” I’m linking the Google Books reprints for a reason, but especially this one – go take a look at it and luxuriate in the sheer amount of cosmic-sounding woo coming off this guy’s writing like animated steam lines from fresh-laid horseshit. I’m not sure there is a single solid concept in a single description in his book.

A few years ago the concept filtered down from those sorts of high-flown religious works, which seem more aimed at fairly-well-educated ministers, to the flocks. Now you can find evangelical sermons about it, in this case linking the idea to the story of Exodus–kind of too bad that nothing in Exodus seems to be an accurate retelling of history, huh? But here’s another that prefers linking the “path of redemption” to the story of King David and using it to outline how scandal-ridden pastors can make good. Even Mormon teachings touch on the phrase, though they explain it about as well as the evangelicals do. It’s turned out to be popular as well with Seventh-Day Adventists, who here explicitly link the Egyptian Pyramids’ construction to their conceptualization of “the path of redemption,” but see also here wherein a once-troubled young man raised SDA describes his own turnaround and this rather confused-sounding SDA-related Bible study (I think) about the end of the world (I think–your guess is seriously as good as mine).

Generally, it seems to me that Christians mean it to be some kind of blueprint for how they can atone for doing something naughty in their god’s eyes, sort of like how you hear them talking about “reconciliation”. It’s a sort of disciplinary process, one that is sometimes imagined as between them and their god, sometimes between them and other people, and as with quite a lot of Christianese, it’s not a good idea to assume that the words in the phrase mean what you think they mean.

Unsurprisingly, David Helm “grew up in a Christian family,” said his mother Angeline Helm, who is just positive that “it’s the devil trying to get us down, not him” and claiming that his current pattern of sex abuse, which again was going on for years before he finally got caught and which involved at least two victims that we know of, as well as egregious perversion like assault and child sexual abuse, is “a freak thing.” The Facebook page of a woman with her name who lives in La Follette, Tennessee indicates that she’s currently a member of a Seventh-Day Adventist Church in that area; she seems quite fervent. When her son uses the phrase “path of redemption,” therefore, I’m quite sure that he is almost certainly using the term in the way I see other Christians using it.

Like a lot of Christian phrases, this one isn’t unique to fervent Christians, obviously. But I submit that it has a very specific meaning for them, one that goes beyond the secular meaning of learning to do better. The use of the phrase is invested with spiritual significance and a sense of divine approval of their contrition and attempts to reform themselves–and a sense that divine help is needed–even mandatory–for the reformation to be completed.

So what did David Helm mean when he said he was on a path of redemption?

Obviously the claim of sudden repentance and desire to atone is a Hail Mary pass–a last-minute, last-ditch, rather obviously desperate attempt to make the folks running his court-martial think he was very, very, very sorry for what he’d done. It shouldn’t surprise us that someone who seems as out-and-out predatory and sickeningly unrepentant as David Helm might try to fake contrition and farm for sympathy.

But I think it’s more than that.

If the Air Force had any religious persuasion at all, it would be Christianity–and specifically conservative Christianity. Until very recently, its oath of service required its people to swear allegiance to “God”–and that change was hotly contested by Christians who were infuriated that their version of Bubba Jesus no longer utterly dominated and controlled the United States military.

At this point, the Air Force is so notorious for forcing its brand of Christianity down its people’s throats at every turn that a watchdog group (the Military Religious Freedom Foundation) now exists to police and monitor its behavior–and constantly finds examples of the Air Force’s lack of compliance with the United States Constitution and its leaders’ general confusion about exactly what religious freedom laws actually entail.

The conclusion seems inescapable to me:

I think that David Helm was not only desperately trying to look contrite, but also deliberately using a dogwhistle term that he was sure the court-martial judge would recognize and respond to.

That his lawyer picked up, repeated, and reinforced the phrase tells me even more strongly that this choice of phrasing was not an accident at all. “Help him, your honor. Help him toward the path of redemption,” said that lawyer. She did not define what the “path of redemption” was. I’m sure she didn’t think she needed to. She knew as well as Mr. Helm did that the judge would understand just fine what it was, and what it was meant to signify.

Between that and the specific mention of demons and the exact way he distanced himself from his deeds by blaming the supernatural  for provoking him somehow, it seems quite clear that he was positioning himself as a Christian and hoping that his religious dogwhistles would gain him some sort of leniency from a fellow tribemate.

Too bad for him that it didn’t work.

The prosecution pointed out just how bizarre it was that David Helm claimed he was contrite, but had openly discussed why he’d fled from his court-martial: “This little girl was thinking of ways to kill herself,” Captain Aaron Jones said, “while this man thought of things to tick off his bucket list. That’s the real David Helm.”

After a one-day trial that seems shockingly short by civilian standards, Mr. Helm was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Though his plea of guilty was framed by his hapless defense attorney as a kindhearted desire to spare his victims having to take the witness stand, in actuality it was a simple plea-bargain that had been arranged in advance to save him from the possibility of life in prison–and to avoid being tried on some of the other charges against him, like drugging one victim. He was also stripped of pretty much everything he’d earned in his military career.

One last sick, awful thing I want to mention.

One of the last things this TRUE CHRISTIAN™ did was to tell his adult victim, “Even though you don’t believe me, I never meant to cause you any pain,” and to the underage girl, “My heart will forever be broken by the horrors you feel.”

The idea of this creep gaslighting his victims like that makes me so pissed I’m just going to sign off here and go play video games for the rest of the day. (Dear Christianity: Can you please maybe not make any more huge scandals erupt so I can talk about my goddamned Love Dare piece? Just for one goddamned day? Please? Maybe? Because I’ve got diagrams.)

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...