Humans are uniquely adept at poking, prodding, and dissecting any good thing to discover how they might employ it for evil purposes. Advances in medical knowledge, for instance, are used to create biological weapons. The Wright brothers could never have known how, 98 years later, their invention would be hijacked to murder over 2,600 people at the World Trade Center.
Our creativity, it seems, scoffs at boundaries.
We might suppose that if people were only more virtuous, this would help. And, indeed, we are right—but only partially. I would rather my next door neighbor be a virtuous, law-abiding citizen than a meth cook or sex trafficker. And, as a parent, I certainly want my children to exhibit temperance, courage, justice, and prudence.
Virtue, however, like all good things, can easily be weaponized. And not only can, but constantly is. Indeed, I would argue that, for churchgoing, rule-following, tradition-honoring, morality-applauding people, virtue often becomes the cancer that we deem a badge of honor.
Go Back to Hell, You Old Wart Hog
Perhaps no narrative exemplifies this better than Flannery O’Connor’s short story entitled “Revelation.” Ruby Turpin, the central character, considers herself superior in every way, to blacks and “white trash” and others not like her.
No doubt she also thinks herself humble.
In a medical waiting room, she carries on a conversation with another woman, all the while mentally judging everyone around her, especially a young girl named Mary Grace, who keeps looking up from her book and scowling at Mrs. Turpin.
Mrs. Turpin is suddenly filled with gratitude that God has made her the way she is and not like other people. A pang of joy runs through her! "Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!" she cries aloud in thanksgiving to God.
It was at that moment the book struck her in the face.
Mary Grace had hurled her book across the room, leaped upon Mrs. Turpin, and began strangling her. As they pulled the girl off to sedate her, Mrs. Turpin looked into Mary Grace’s face and asked hoarsely, “What you got to say to me?” She locked eyes with Mrs. Turpin and whispered, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
Later, back at home, a terribly shaken Mrs. Turpin, convinced this was a revelation, angrily attacks God while washing her hogs off with a water hose. “Go on,” she yelled, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell.” As a “final surge of fury shook her,” she roared, “Who do you think you are?”
Then, in a vision, Mrs. Turpin sees a great bridge, from earth to heaven, upon which souls are traveling. On it walk blacks, white trash, freaks, and lunatics. At the very end of the procession were her people. Respectable. Known for good order and common sense. Dignified and singing on key.
And then Mrs. Turpin saw it. She “could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away.”
Burning Away Our Virtues
Every time we weaponize our virtues to attack the inferiority of others, to pat ourselves on the back with one arm while lifting the other in a hallelujah to Jesus, we too are a wart hog from hell.
Who is Ruby Turpin but the embodiment of our age old desire to justify ourselves by comparing our goodness to others? “We belong to the superior race. We have done better for ourselves than others. We are morally superior.” Such are the grunts from wart hogs of hell.
So what does God do? He throws the book of the law in our faces. He lights a fire to burn away our virtues. It hurts. But it’s a necessary hurt. Because that is what happens on the long and painful road of repentance, humility, and the kind of virtue that loves and helps others, instead of judging them.
We ought to remind ourselves daily that it wasn’t the riffraff of society, the morally degenerate, the back alley dwellers of Jerusalem who orchestrated the execution of Jesus, but the most virtuous, law-loving, rule-keeping, religiously elite of Israel. Let us ponder that—and repent.
God’s love for us is not a namby-pamby patting on the head of his little kiddos who like to strut and preen in front of their mirrors of virtue. God’s love sounds like the roar of a lion, come to eat us for dinner and make us part of his body. He kills and he makes alive. He wounds and he heals. And in this ferocious love, he makes us into a new kind of people who, for all our greatness or smallness of virtue, prize union with him above all else.
The Spirit will indeed be at work within us to foster faith, hope, and love, along with temperance, courage, justice, and prudence. And the Spirit will also be at work within us to send Mary Graces into our lives when we forget that all virtue is a gift from God, not a human achievement, much less an entitlement.
The mission of Jesus was not to make a superior community of the virtuous—the ancient and modern Pharisees already corner that particular market—but to redeem sinners. Rich and poor, dirty and clean, train wrecks and do-gooders. There are no gold medals awarded at the foot of the cross. There we are all equally in need. And there we all equally receive grace upon grace from the God who can transform any wart hog from hell into a lamb of his kingdom.