Friday, December 19, 2014

A scout's virtues: cleanliness

A scout is clean: He keeps clean in body and thought, stands for clean speech, clean sport, clean habits, and travels with a clean crowd.
That's a familiar enough sentiment but it is mostly familiar to us as the subject of mockery. To enter into a discussion of is to enter a target-rich environment.

But can you think of anything good to say about cleanliness?

By way of analysis, I'm going to juxtapose and comment on a couple of other quotes.

First, here is Jesus as quoted in Mark's gospel (7:15):
Nothing that goes into a person from the outside can make him unclean. It's what comes out of a person that makes a person unclean. 
That's from the International Standard Version. Most of the better translations say "defile" instead of "unclean". That's sort of helpful because we read "clean" in a relatively value-free way. The Jews of Jesus's time did not. (It should also read "man" and not "a person".) 

Scholars always tell us that the Jews of Jesus's time did not wash their hands before eating because they worried about germs. They did it as part of a ritual and believed that the person who did not wash their hands before eating committed an affront against God. Likewise, the person who would share a table with someone who did not wash their hands.

And we're not like that? We don't worry so much about affronting God anymore but we do have all sorts of superstitious rituals about cleanliness.

A man goes to a public washroom. He goes to a urinal and not into a toilet stall. He washes his hands even though he did not accidentally pee on them. He showered and put clean underwear on that day. There isn't a surface in that washroom that is even close to being as clean as the skin on his penis. The dirtiest, most germ-laden surface in the room is probably the handle on the door he will grab on the way out. After he was washed his hands! Because he has just washed his hands he has cleaned competing bacteria out and left them all clean and slightly damp and, therefore, the ideal surface for the germs he will pick up from the door handle.

Not that there is anything unusual about the door handle of a public washroom. Every other door handle he will touch that day is at least as dirty. But he washes his hands because he handled his penis. Later, he will take it for granted that the woman he loves and cares about most in the world will put it in her mouth. Weird, wouldn't you say? 

Please, keep washing your hands but realize that a man washes his hands after peeing for reasons that have much less to do with disease prevention than we tell ourselves. He washes his hands after he touched his penis because it's a simple act of respect driven by a sense that one does not share such intimate contact casually, even at second hand. 

Dorothy Day did more for poor people than you and everyone you know put together. Here is what she told young idealists who showed up wanting "to help the poor".
There are two things you should know about the poor: they tend to smell, and they are ungrateful.
You might just convince yourself, reading Luke's version of the beatitudes, that you should be poor (although you'll probably be a complete hypocrite about it even if you do). You probably won't convince yourself that it would be morally better for you to be smelly and ungrateful.

Is cleanliness related to gratitude? You might say not but taking the trouble to be clean for others is a way of showing them respect and respect is part of gratitude. That can sometimes remain true even when the cleanliness in question is merely a social convention and has nothing to do with any actual risk of infection.

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