A Carsick Piglet and Western Hatred of the Past

In my senior year of high school some friends and I accidentally climbed a mountain without the necessary tribal permissions. We were summarily chased out of the area by a group of tribesmen armed with bows and arrows and machetes. Thankfully, a long flatbed Mazda truck came along just in time for us to hitch a ride out of the offended tribal area and toward the capitol of the province, where we lived. We had made it out and we relaxed, thinking the excitement was over. These flatbed trucks were ubiquitous in the highlands of the Melanesian country I grew up in. They were perfect for transporting sacks of coffee beans or groups of villagers to and from the town markets. The one we had caught was loaded up with maybe twenty villagers, a few sacks of produce, and one piglet. For some reason the piglet’s devoted villager “mama” (pigs are a valuable and often much-loved commodity in this country) decided that it was time for this little piggy to take its first trip to the market.

The ride started out pleasant enough. The thrill of a near-escape, the sun shining down, the tribal melodic chanting rising and falling in ancestral rhythm as we wound down the dirt mountain roads. But then the little piglet started feeling carsick. Unfortunately for me, the piglet and his mama were sitting right next to me, our backs to the metal sidewall of the truck bed and our legs crossed or squatting on the worn wooden planks of the floor. Soon the little pig couldn’t take it any more and promptly vomited his lunch onto the floor of the truck bed. Immediately villagers and missionary kids all grimaced in unison at the foul little clumpy puddle now in front of us. Even with the fresh breeze from the moving truck, the smell was overpowering. Who knew such a small swine-ling could cough up something so horrifically potent? The piglet’s mama, sensing the need to do something, grabbed an empty plastic rice sack and started smearing the vomit in concentric circles on the floor, in a vain attempt to try to clean it up. The rice sack was the kind made from weaving small strands of plastic together, which meant it was basically worthless for soaking up any of the vomit. In fact, this effort likely made things worse, the vomit being merely rubbed into the wooden planks.

It wasn’t long before the little piglet started feeling sick again. Desperate to prevent another throw-up puddle, the piglet’s mama firmly latched her hand around the pig’s little snout, determined to keep it shut. The piglet, alarmed by this development, started screaming and thrashing its head back and forth, and proceeded to vomit into its mouth. Instead of a new puddle on the floor of the truck bed, those of us close by were hit with a spray of flying vomit, machine-gunned across our torsos. Shock and dismay ensued. To make things worse we drove into a rainstorm, which meant the villagers pulled out the customary blue tarp which we held over our heads as a makeshift roof, effectively creating a blue sauna of colorful odors – piglet vomit being the preeminent flavor.

I’ll never forget that scene – there under the blue light of the tarpaulin, the rain pounding on plastic, the piglet’s mama still scrubbing away fruitlessly.

It’s a scene that comes to mind when I read Colossians 2:20-23:

[20] If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—[21] “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” [22] (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? [23] These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (ESV)

It is utterly futile to fight the flesh with religious human rules (“Do not handle, taste, touch”), just like a village mama vainly trying to clean pig vomit with a scrunched-up plastic bag. It simply won’t work, and will likely make things worse as the uncleanness gets spread to new areas. No, to fight the flesh we must fight it with a new heart, made alive through faith in Jesus. And once we have that new heart we must fight by continuing to daily “put on” Christ, remembering his promises, believing them, and acting based on them. Only when we persevere in this gospel-powered battle against the flesh will we see lasting victory against the indulgence of the flesh.

[1] If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. [2] Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. [3] For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. [4] When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. [5] Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. [6] On account of these the wrath of God is coming. [7] In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. [8] But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. [9] Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices [10] and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. [11] Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:1-11 ESV)

As I listen to the pagan pundits of Western culture, I am also reminded of this futility. The new Western morality continues to be built, law upon law, in an effort to stamp out certain evils. Thus, Westerners are told that they must not be racists, they must not be sexists, they must not be -phobes of any stripe, etc., etc. And some of these line up admirably with biblical morality, depending on the definitions. The problem is that there is no actual power in our pagan Western morality to change the human heart or the flesh’s addiction to indulgence. The flesh loves to indulge in hating others, among other things, but the culture continues to declare more and more segments of humanity off-limits for hate. Yet the culture provides no internal power strong enough to change the source and roots of the hate itself. Thus the only possible outcome is that the hate is smeared around, like so much pig vomit on the floor, and forced to find another outlet, another channel for release.

I believe this is one reason why westerners hate the figures of the past so much. In a world of ever-more specific subcultures that will “cancel” you if you say something that could possibly be interpreted against them, the dead present an easy target. After all, the dead don’t speak, and they certainly can’t shame you on twitter and get you fired. But whereas some might hesitate to dehumanize a contemporary, breathing human, most find it easy to dehumanize the humans who are already six feet under. Moreover, the humans of past ages lived when the popular morality differed significantly from ours. So we can feel morally superior and downplay our own sins under the cover of denunciations for the dead’s blindspots. It’s a massive game of hypocrisy. Everything we are told not to do to our contemporaries we are cheered on for doing against our great-grandparents’ generation.

Scratch a legalist, and you will find hidden and gross immorality. This saying is trustworthy (I may have first heard it from a Paul Washer sermon). Scratch a contemporary Westerner, with all their anti-hate rhetoric, and you will find hidden and gross hatred, especially for the humans of the past. Humans who were just like us, with their own blindspots, their own failings, their own progress. A humanity no more mixed than ours, full of pharisees and lawbreakers and those from both camps who were born again and working hard to advance the kingdom of God. In short, a humanity that can only be understood in light of a biblical anthropology, where all humans have dignity because we are made in the image of God, yet we are broken and capable of horrific evil because of our sinful nature and actions. We are, in the name of the Civil War novel, truly Killer Angels. This Biblical anthropology means Christians can have heroes from the past and openly acknowledge their grievous blindspots. It means we don’t have to take part in some kind of Maoist cultural revolution where we purge society of the memory of anyone associated with certain grievous sins like slavery. It means Christians can be model historians, showing our culture how to hold respect and lament for the actions of our dead heroes in tension. Not white-washing, not demonizing, just honest history that faces the good, the bad, and the ugly, and is open about what we owe our broken forebears.

I am a Baptist by creed, which means that some of my heroes (such as the Protestant reformers), may have wanted to have me drowned in a lake as they drowned the Anabaptists, “like so many puppies.” Does this mean I shouldn’t read and respect Zwingli and Calvin for what they got right? Augustine might have wanted to use the power of the Roman state to arrest me if I were to preach in public. Should I burn The Confessions? The founders of my alma mater may have found me an intolerable Yankee abolitionist. Should I demand we erase their names from campus buildings when every student, white or black, benefits financially from the endowment they fought so hard to establish, not to mention their theological legacy?

Instead of hating the figures of the past for their failings, Christians can model a better way, one which seeks to honor the complexity of fallen humanity soberly, giving honor where honor is due and yes, even adjusting public displays as appropriate. But there is a world of difference between putting a statue in a museum and cutting its head off. A Western culture that demands cleansing of public spaces of problematic names is a culture trying to cleanse pig vomit with a plastic bag. It’s not going to work. The hatred will not be cleansed and satisfied. It will merely be smeared around.

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