On bums

Dear Hannah,

Protestants (and especially Calvinists) enjoy telling us that we're all bums to God.  They have no other way of making us understand how far below Him we are morally, so they have to find a way to make us think of someone who's morally far below us.

The average murderer, whatever he's done, isn't quite enough because he doesn't quite capture the filth of the hobo; and although I've heard pastors (and even the prophet Hosea) liken us to prostitutes, this still doesn't quite express the matter as they want us to see it.  The bum gets right to our senses.  Gets right to the blackened dirty grimy jagged fingernails and the horrible rotting-animal breath and the stench coming out of God-only-knows-where that makes you want to gag; and the mind --- who knows what comes out of his mind?  Those words, sometimes incomprehensible and oftentimes vile; the actions you can't trust; the pissing on the street with his undies around his ankles; his lying on bags of garbage in alleys; his harassing of women and the potential for much worse all collide to give us a picture of someone so undesirable that we know he's outside in the middle of winter and we let him possibly die out there anyway.  No search party is made for this person -- this somebody's son or daughter slash once-baby; nobody goes out of their way to find him and bring him where it's warm and safe and comfortable; and nobody does it because nobody cares; and nobody cares because caring about his soul means you will have to deal with his body.

Yes, pastors use this man to raise us to the position of God and to put someone in our place; to get us to feel the indomitable sense of repulsion that an all-perfect God has toward sinners.  I saw one of these vagrants the other day in a grocery store, and he smelled so bad that everyone around him went silent; and the money he handed over came from hands so filthy they became suspect; and the cashier analyzed him cautiously and the bagger distanced himself warily and the transaction went on painfully until he finally left and the everyone went back to their business as usual -- with the benefit of a slightly more appreciative stance toward each other.

A bum is enough to make everything stop these days -- just the stench of one, which is remarkable because that is exactly where all of us came from.  Humanity in a sense was a bum.  And if we're not careful humanity will be a bum again.  We've hung on with a death-grip to every step we've evolved away from vagrancy, and the slightest departure from the art of escaping bumliness is often enough to throw our friends and families into a panic.  To prove this try not brushing your teeth or washing your hands; or letting your hair grow too much or not trimming your nails; or not washing your clothes or not sleeping in a home or not pissing in a toilet.  None of these things are morals, but they approach so closely to morality in the human experience that to go back to where we came from, to be "natural" in a sense, is almost to make yourself an animal.  No -- it's worse.  Nothing smells like a bum, not even a chimp.  An unkempt human is the worst smell in the world, and proof (at least to me) that we were not born for this world.  All the other animals can handle the smell of their kind without soaping and enjoy it.  The English, as some continental once around the dawn of the 20th century, thought that soap itself was civilization.  In my opinion they were almost right to think it.

Humans of all the animal kingdom are the most helpless at birth and potentially the smelliest in adulthood.  In all cases the difference is made by art.  We don't go jacketless in winter because we were never really built with a fur that could stand it; and it seems that everything about us requires a crutch that we make for ourselves.  Our fur is our mind, and the inklings of infancy will never supply a jacket.  And so we rely on our parents instead.

The in-between stage we experience known as childhood exists as little more than a learning of art; and whatever we get from our parents and pass to our children for assisting our every need and desire and addressing the ultimate poverty of our existence is known as our culture*.  The raw and universal sentiments, the disgusts and the lusts and the pain and the pleasure are there at our birth; and what we're supposed to do with them, if we're raised right, will be known and followed carefully by adulthood, in a pattern so rote that it becomes invisible until anyone violates it -- which unless we travel outside our hometown is almost close to never.

We have the audacity to wonder why anyone would fight over culture.  We should wonder how anyone could not fight over it.  It means almost everything fine in the world; and we can barely handle a man without soap.  Who can deal with men when our expectations are different?  A foreigner could mean anything, and Nature Herself makes pregnant women terrified of foreigners because foreigners behind the masks we know as our smiles mean the unknown.  God has made women that way because we wouldn't be here if they weren't.  Strangers aren't trusted because we all began with a raw and ragged will and desire, nothing guarantees we have left it behind forever, and a difference in culture could mean a threat to our person.  A man who looks strange can act strangely.  A belief that is different spells the difference between a comrade and an enemy.  To shake with the left hand is an insult when you wipe with it.  How much worse is it when someone doesn't think what's right!

Your father,

*Much has been written about the so-called culture wars with the implication that they're a recent phenomenon.  The truth is that there has never not been a culture war.  At every second of every day we're examining problems and thinking of different ways of approaching them.  In every church there's a schism, and in every country different nations.  We're constantly trying to define the groups we live in and fit them to our standards; and we believe that when we set the standard nobody is going to rise up and change it.

I've often wondered why anyone could consider himself a Catholic and be in favor of gay marriage.  In my opinion he ought to stick with thousands of years of agreement or get out of the church.  But how many of us differed in many other opinions and still called ourselves Christians?  Is it necessary for all of us to conform to a standard exactly?  And who sets the standard?  A gay-marriage-Catholic (or shall we call him a heretic?) supposedly has to answer to the catechism.  A Protestant can appeal less decisively to the Bible.  But who defines what exactly makes a Republican?  Who is it who says what exactly makes an American?  We're forced to live in the haziness of a title; we craft platforms and in the decision to stand on one each of us has a foot planted off it.  Solidarity is something we all want and we fight for but never quite have; and the pettiest squabbles are responsible for making us split.

Our conformos are our blessing and our curse.  When they're already doing something right they'll refuse to quit doing it; when they're doing something wrong they'll kill us for asking them to change it.  Humanity most often moves like a glacier, and Providence alone decides whether we live when it's for better or for worse.

**Our ancestors (however highly Americans think of them) were dirtier than us, and Mark Twain records that before the turn of the 20th century it was not all that shocking to have working men and the upper classes sit in different sections of a church. In some cases the representatives of Jesus Christ known as pastors were even terrified that a mixing of seating might result in the cleaner parts of the congregation leaving.  Mark Twain, of course, was against the idea of any Christian being unkind to the poor.  But the Apostles never had a nose for soap.


  1. Jeremy, what is this word "conformos"? I can't find a definition online.

  2. According to Urban Dictionary a conformo is "one who conforms." Pardon my slang.


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