Bums, Anarchy, and Homicidal Fictions
Religion & Liberty Online

Bums, Anarchy, and Homicidal Fictions

"I'll just walk the earth."
“I’ll just walk the earth.”

It may not be very pious (although there is a very memorable apocryphal quote from Ezekiel 25:17), but Pulp Fiction is perhaps my favorite movie.

There’s a scene where Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), two hit men, are in a diner discussing their future.

Jules contends that he and Vincent have just experienced a miracle, and he plans to change his life accordingly. After finishing their current job, Jules says, “I’ll just walk the earth.” Vincent, who does not agree that their lives were miraculously spared, is incredulous: “What’cha mean, ‘walk the earth’?” To this Jules responds, “You know, like Caine in Kung Fu: walk from place to place, meet people, get into adventures.”

Vincent just can’t understand this. “You’ve decided to be a bum. Just like those pieces of [expletive deleted] who sit out there who beg for change, sleep in garbage bins and eat what I throw away. They got a name for that, Jules. It’s called ‘a bum.’ And without a job, residence, or legal tender, that’s exactly what you’re going to be: a [expletive deleted] bum.”

A recent essay from Peter Berger examines what is often unexplored in social thought: the experiences of those at the margins. I’m referring to those who are not marginalized because they are oppressed; those types get a good deal of attention, although perhaps not of the quantity or the quality that they warrant.

What I’m talking about are those who in some way live at the margins on purpose. In “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!” Berger takes a look at a few different types: the flea market vendor, the cowboy, the hobo. He writes that these and other types (such as the Roma in Europe) exemplify a kind of practical anarchism, to be distinguished from ideological anarchism. “Anarchism as a political ideology typically begins with senseless murders and ends in tyranny,” he writes, but “there is a root insight, not in anarchist theories, but in what could be called an anarchist sensibility. The insight is that most institutions are based on fictions, often homicidal ones, and that individual freedom is a precious and precarious commodity that must ever again be defended–both against the coercive institutions of modernity and against the more subtle coercion of traditional community.”

Berger begins his essay by examining folks who tend to populate flea markets. The flea market culture is “peculiar.” Drawing on the work of Arthur E. Farnsley II, Berger notes that “the quality that sticks out is a fierce devotion to individual freedom–‘not to freedom to do whatever you want, but to freedom from being forced to do what you do not want.'”

My uncle, who once was involved in a check-cashing business, which are often derided as closely akin to those usurious payday loan stores which I myself have criticized, told me something that has stuck with me about the kinds of people that patronized those establishments. They tended not to own cars or to have bank accounts. They preferred to be independent in this way, not tied down to the responsibilities of owning a vehicle or accountable to a trail of paper. When they needed to go somewhere they would use a cab and they pay for things in cash. As Berger puts it, “they are distrustful of any institution–including large business (some keep money under the bed), government and church.”

This strikes me as really important insight. We see people living in certain ways and we automatically assume things about them. We see bums and we think that they must have been oppressed, and that if only they were given the right opportunities they would choose to live just as we do. As I’ve said in many cases this is true; there are those who are involuntarily marginalized because they are oppressed.

But in many cases this is not true. Some people choose to live like bums. Believe it or not, some people would really rather travel around from place to place, scrabbling to find a place to sleep and a bite to eat, than to live in a home with all the modern conveniences. They have opted out; they live off the grid. And that’s the way they want it to be. In such cases what they really want is not to be ‘saved’ or integrated into society. They just want to be left alone.

The extent to which this kind of practical anarchism represents an accurate view of the human person and society is highly debatable. But it is essential to realize that such cultures exist, and can even be said to flourish to some extent in their own way.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.