I recently watched a documentary titled “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” The family in question, descendants of the Appalachian entertainer D. Ray White, are all notorious criminals. The camera follows them for several months, recording outrageous interviews and wild parties, births and deaths, prison visits and one sad farewell at the entrance to a rehab center. We meet murderers, thieves, and plenty of drug traffickers and addicts. When all was said and done, however, it was not the horrid lifestyle or its grim consequences that held my attention. What that left me thinking were the insights these white trash criminals had into human nature and the way the world works.
Towards the beginning and end of the documentary, there are several interviews with local lawyers and justices of the peace. One of these men was very insistent that while the Whites were not educated, they were far from stupid. Every one of them, drug addled as they were, was intelligent. And despite this native intelligence, they were all trapped in an endless cycle of drugs and violence.
Behind this lifestyle is a belief that the world is inherently a hard place. We have no control over the course of our lives, because those around us with more wealth and power are determined to use us for their own ends. And if we are not stabbed in the back by someone in authority, or struck down by some crippling accident, in the end death will come for us all. Life here is nasty, brutish, and short. All we have is our family, our wits, and a brief opportunity to work the system and enjoy the ride while it lasts.
It is not as if they are unaware that the fast and loose lives they live have consequences. Throughout, the Whites are quick to admit what they did to get themselves into any given mess. They do not even necessarily think those consequences are undeserved. This is simply how life is–you try to get away with as much as you can, and if you are caught, tough luck.
More striking is the fact that this family is quite firmly grounded in a Biblical view of the world. They are aware of heaven and hell, aware of Christ’s free offer of salvation. There is also no mistaking the fact that they are hell-bound, and know it. That is simply where they stand.
I find it funny that Christians will sometimes compare outlaws like these to more reserved upper-middle class pagans, and come out on the side of the more respectable sinners. The Whites have a real insight here. If life is hard and the world ahead is hell or annihilation, then living a quiet life is ridiculous. Eat, drink, and be merry. Get high on whatever you can find, get money however you can, fight whenever you feel like it, and sleep with whoever you can get. Tomorrow we may be dead, so live now. When Mamie White was asked what she wanted people to do at her funeral, she said, “Party their balls off. Blow pot in my face and snort pills on my head, and…f***in’ rock and roll, baby!” Death comes to us all, so live like you’re dying.
There is no doubt that the Whites pay for their wild ways in the here and now. Hangovers, heartbreaks, addiction, jail time, and lost family members haunt every one until they meet an early death. They may die thinking the party was worth the price, but that is hardly a world worth living in. I do not want to settle for that world, and I do not believe we have to.
As Mamie White and Jesco affirm, there is a God in heaven. He offers us salvation freely. And here is the thing: death–which haunts our heels every day we live–death claimed the very Son of God. But Jesus came back from the grave. He came back whole and healed, and he will never die again. The world was given into his hands, and nothing can any longer stand in his way. The Bible says that if we believe this, and if we confess that Jesus is Lord, we will be saved. Death no longer has any claim over us. Any suffering in this life is only temporary. There will come a time, at the end of all things, when those who follow Christ will be raised from the dead and given an eternal reward. That is a hope worth living for.
But someone who lives like the Whites, if they fall on their knees and repent and follow Christ, is still left with addiction and bad habits and a world of consequences. Because they are now the temple of God, they cannot keep living as they once did, and that is a big change to make. But Paul assures us in Romans that if we will to do what is right, it is no longer we who sin, but the sin that dwells in us. And we have been freed from that law of sin and death, so it can be conquered. Furthermore, Christ has promised to help us walk in righteousness if we simply ask him.
The Whites of West Virginia have a far greater insight into the human condition than many who live cleaner lives. But the consequences of that clear vision is a life that matches the despair they see. But the Gospel is an answer to that despair, a way out of Boone County and the world of drugs and violence they have created. Their lives pose a great question for all of us, and Christ is the answer. I pray that the Whites, and people like them, would come to see it.