On Raising Savages: Cultivating the Savage Heart
By Kris Green
King Xerxes approaches Leonidas. His chariot isn’t driven by horses but carried on the backs of slaves. In the movie 300, everything is over the top. Xerxes is tall and muscular with large hands and piercings and jewellery all adorned across his large frame. The camera draws back just a bit to see him tower over Leonidas, who’s spent a heavy day in battle fighting Xerxes’ men. The odds are against them. Three hundred Spartans versus thousands and thousands of soldiers.
“Come now, Leonidas,” Xerxes begins the negotiation. His voice is deep and resounding as he holds his hand out, calling the day of fighting a little misunderstanding. The offer is this: Xerxes says he would unite all of Greece. Everyone would bow to Leonidas if in turn, Leonidas bows to Xerxes.
Leonidas turns his back to Xerxes and says, “The idea of kneeling, you see—slaughtering all your men has left a nasty cramp in my leg, so kneeling would be hard for me.”
Xerxes scowls and threatens to remove the Spartans from the history books.
Leonidas holds strong, “The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant. That the few stood against many.”
There is something beautiful in this scene in 300. While the movie isn’t something I would recommend, with its graphic portrayal of ancient Sparta, it does bear something deeper. There’s a resonance of something that I’ve found in movies and in Scripture as an almost timeless necessity.
Leonidas in this scene is a lot of things, but unruly he is not. He is noble in his mannerisms. He is cunning and strategic in what he wants. He does not allow the threat of his entire people being erased from history to faze him. He maintains his composure under pressure, and when you think he might give way to some kind of outburst of emotion, he doesn’t. He is in absolute control of himself, maintaining that Spartan dignity.
As a father, I want to raise my son and daughter with this noble defiance.
What is it about savagery and freedom that are ultimately linked together? I can’t help but think of Elijah on top of the mountain calling out to the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. If you read it carefully, he’s taunting them. He’s mocking them. “Maybe your god is asleep! Shout louder!” He has no doubt in the Divine when he is on the mountain. He is patient, allowing God to be challenged only so that God may show his true glory. Elijah is free. When he does pray, he prays a simple prayer that God may be known to his people and their hearts would return to him.
In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are singing in a jail. That’s not the behavior of someone who is a prisoner, it’s the behavior of someone who is free. As they are singing, an earthquake shakes the jail and the doors swing open. The jailer cries out, thinking everyone has escaped and surely, he’ll be put to death. “We’re still here,” Paul shouts out.
Paul shows that it isn’t the prison that is the jail. Paul and Silas are truly free. They’re singing. The others in the jail haven’t left either. The true prison is the fear of other people. Paul, like the psalmist (Ps. 118), dares, “What can man do to me?”
It started out as nap time. Every little kid needs a nap time. Somewhere between ages three and four, the nap time isn’t a necessity. Even though he’s grown out of it, my son knows to stay in his bedroom for almost two hours only to come out in case he needs to go to the bathroom. It started out as nap time, and while naps are slowly going away, it’s clear he appreciates the time almost as much as his mother and I need it.
When these times of rest started, he’d play and do his thing in his room. But when he noticed the little girls across the street, he started waving at them and playing peek-a-boo from his window.
Sometimes, if they were still playing outside, he’d come out of his room at four and ask to go across the street. We went and then something happened. He didn’t speak. Something inside of him froze up, and he couldn’t open his mouth.
Maybe he didn’t have anything to say. Maybe he was so used to not having to talk to them that he didn’t want to say anything. But we saw it more and more with people outside of his little circle. We saw it and tried to address it with him.
“It’s okay to be afraid. It’s not okay to not do something because you’re afraid.”
Moses is called up to Mount Sinai alone to speak with God in Exodus 20. The people had just seen God’s miracles in Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. They had seen God’s might, and in experiencing God’s might, they also had seen God’s mercy by their own rescue from slavery.
However, at the foot of Mount Sinai, they look up and see the darkness. They hear the thunder and see lightning. Moses emerges out of the darkness holding two tablets. He reads the Ten Commandments.
It’s easy to read the Ten Commandments and think, oh that’s okay, we should be able to do that, I guess. But these were God’s top ten things the Israelites were doing that God needed them to change. When the people heard these commandments and saw the noises coming from the mountains, they were afraid.
They pleaded with Moses, “You go deal with God, just tell us what to do.” Moses implores them not to fear. But the people don’t listen. There’s a sad verse in the Bible where I cannot help but wonder what would’ve happened if the people trusted God more than they trusted their fear. But instead, verse 21 reads: “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.”
My son’s first day of VPK is dawning and we’re walking through his class and seeing the other late three and four-year-olds running around with their parents. The teachers have spoken to him a little and he was shy, but not completely mute as he had been in the past. It’s been six months of actively working to get him out of his shell without being forceful and without being cruel.
“Tenny,” I lean down, “is it okay to be afraid?”
Tenny looks at me and nods.
“Is it okay not to do something because you’re afraid?”
“No,” he says.
A few minutes later, the principal comes up and asks, “How was your summer vacation?” He stares at her for a second, and rather than wait for him, she tries another tactic, “Did you go swimming?” He nods. “What else did you?”
“It rained a lot,” he says in a soft voice. He has repeat himself.
It was a small victory. Like getting him to say, “Thank you,” to the nurse at the pediatrician’s office when she gave him a sucker.
It’s easy to say we want our kids to be good or our kids to behave or even our kids to be happy. But to raise savages feels like something completely different. It comes with expectations. It comes with boundaries and rules – or maybe the word I’m looking for is discipline.
Leonidas had a cramp in his leg from battle. But the success on that battlefield was not from luck, but hours and days and years of discipline preparing for war. Same with Elijah on Mount Carmel. How long did Elijah spend knowing and talking to God before his faith was stirred enough to do such a thing?
As a parent, I mold the prep time, not the bouts of greatness. Those are in the hands of my son and daughter. I want my kids to be savages. Not unruly, not biased or mean, but free to pursue what they want without fear. But in that, I want them prepared to face off on mountains and sing in prisons and even maybe fight a Persian or two.
The people of Israel look up towards Mount Sinai. They see Moses going alone. They listen to the fear and guilt in their hearts. Moses had just read a list of things they have been doing and are told not to do anymore. So, why didn’t they go up the mountain?
If it were easy, everyone would do it. Fear is the great enemy to freedom and ultimately the savage heart.
“No lesson today?” my son asks as we walk out to the pool.
Until he could swim without an aid, there was always a lesson. Often the lessons would be things to push him into confronting his fear. I’d make five little lessons and my goal was not to teach him swimming so much as confronting the fear inside his heart.
That’s not to say he didn’t need some basic skills. The lessons turned into me dunking him or taking the pool noodle and stepping away for him to swim to me or the wall of the pool. But little steps in the right direction were creating confidence within him.
We work on that confidence with direction. We create boundaries so that he knows what he can or cannot do. He knows what he’s allowed to do. He knows when to lean into something and when he has my guidance to pull back.
We don’t do many lessons these days because he’s pushing himself every time we get in the pool. He challenges himself and goes swimming now underwater, and sometimes he uses the noodle and sometimes he doesn’t. Not that he’s made it, but he’s found the freedom and trust to do what he needs to do.
Often, there are times where I need to get quiet and listen for God’s guidance in my heart. What is God trying to speak to me about today? Where is he leading me? What is he telling me to do? How is God fostering my own savagery? Sometimes I feel his voice loud in my heart showing me what I need to do, but sometimes, I feel a withdraw so that I am forced to act on my trust in him. It’s like sometimes God removes my pool noodle and stands there while I learn to swim.
“We don’t have to do a lesson today,” I tell my son as I open the pool fence and he stands looking into the water.
“Pool please?” he asks before getting in.
I nod. He giggles and gets in. He always comments on the temperature of the water as he grabs his mask and asks me to watch him as he starts working on diving underwater.
William Wallace, in Braveheart, stands before the French Princess who had been sent by the King to negotiate. As Wallace is direct, speaking about the atrocities committed against his people, the Princess is ignorant on how the King of England has been cruel to the Scottish people. One of her advisors says in French, “He is a bloody, murdering savage. And he is telling lies!”
While the movie is full of historical inaccuracies, you can’t help but lean in when Wallace, responding in French, says, “I am not a liar, but I am a savage.”
Wallace keeps composed. He does not fight them. He entertains the notion of peace even though he seems to recognize its disingenuous source. This does not mean he backs down from saying what he means and meaning what he says.
For William Wallace, he has seen the English oppress his people since his childhood. For most of the Scottish, it was easier to try to ignore it or suck it up and deal with it. Wallace embraced savagery as the path to freedom.
In the beginning of the movie, when he’s a child, Wallace’s uncle takes him away from Scotland after his father and brother had been killed. When the uncle learns of young Wallace’s ignorance in Latin, it is going to be one of the many things the uncle will rectify. We see young Wallace disappear from the screen with the knowledge he is going to learn a lot more than just Latin.
When we see Wallace again, he is a savage. But he also acts within the boundaries of the world around him. He is the product of years of discipline at the hands of his uncle. We don’t typically see those years in the movies more than just a throwaway montage. Those are the years to establish what kind of adult your children are going to be, by showing them the difference between right and wrong and teaching them about the world they live in. We either do our best to make it count or don’t.
Jesus had seen the money changers long before he made a whip and chased them out of the temple. It was tradition to go to Jerusalem at least once a year, and with relatives living nearby, it might not have been out of the question for him to visit more than once a year.
When Jesus chose to chase out the money changers in John 2, it was a deliberate act. The theologian who tells you that Jesus made a whip of cords and cracked it above people’s heads so that he did not hurt anyone misses the point. He turned over tables. He whipped at people. Did he hit someone? Maybe. He scattered the coins and caused a ruckus.
It says that the disciples remembered the psalmist when he wrote, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Zeal is not a tame word. It’s not a word to describe the actions of a domesticated person. Zeal is the actions of a savage.
It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day existence. Wake up. Go to work. Get home. Repeat. Zeal is a word used for someone who is fully alive. Zeal is for someone who is passionate about something outside of themselves.
Many of my well-meaning friends think zeal is quoting the Bible and preaching to people. It’s not. It’s living a godly life without regard for what people think. It’s being passionate about loving God and loving people. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”
It’s hard to do this, but when you find that place where the soul meets the divine, you find the path of zealousness because you have found God. There is a savagery in it because no longer does it matter what other people think or say. You care about what they say or think because you love them, but you’re not restricted because of their opinion. It’s a place of freedom.
The conflict in these examples throughout this essay is a war between freedom and oppression. Freedom ultimately draws out the savage to fight for it. The Spartans are facing an invading force. Elijah is facing not only religious but political difficulties, taking it to a standoff on top of a mountain. The story of Moses hints more at what freedom looks like to the average Christian. Rather than go to a temple and perform sacrifices, we have the honor of going into the thick darkness where God is because of the sacrifice of Christ. Fear keeps us at the foot of the mountain. Freedom presses us forward.
Paul expounds in Galatians 5 that ultimately sin is slavery. I normally prefer to use the word evil. So, let’s try that: evil is slavery. The evil that lives inside of you, that is taunting you to do things big and small, is slavery. You’re either fighting against it or living for it. Fear is only evil when it keeps you from doing the right thing.
Except the ultimate savage, the bringer of our freedom, Christ, died for our evil. It is his death that the evil in our lives if forgiven and in his resurrection that we find the power and strength to fight that evil, to stand against the evil in our daily lives and say, “I’ve got a cramp in my leg from fighting…”
As a father, I want my kids to be mindful of the evil and fear in their lives and actively work against it in all savagery. But the need for their freedom comes from a deeper place inside. I want them to know they can fight and pursue anything they want.
No, they’re not waging war or standing against the oppressed. But for a three-year-old, learning how to swim feels just that way. For a shy kid to open his mouth is akin to taunting the prophets of Baal on the mountaintop, even if it’s just to say hello.
A few months ago, my boss asked me what I thought was keeping me from moving on to the next step. I told him it was me. I’m the biggest adversary to my own success. I’m the thing in my way to my victory. My evil keeps me from being free.
Being shy isn’t evil, but it isn’t freedom either. These essays are my pursuit of helping my kids grow savage. I want them to be able to fight their evil with a vigor that comes from a relentless pursuit of Christ. I also want them to fight for their own improvement. I want them equipped to do what they need to do to grow, to develop, and to become who they want to be. I want them to learn how to be fully alive.
People who don’t know them may call them a little strange. They may look at them thinking they’re a little off. But that’s okay. I want them to be savages, not nice little kids who never get in the way of anyone. Because ultimately, I know when they pursue the savage freedom that their heart is calling out for, they will discover God along that path. To people who don’t know them, they’ll be savages.
But they will be free.