Most people do not attend hourly to the sins of the world

Who eats the sin-eater's sins?

Most people do not attend hourly to the sins of the world

This piece appears in my book Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia and was excerpted here in The Guardian. I was reminded of it this week because there's a character on season 5 of the series Fargo that is a sin-eater.

In 2010 a fundraiser was held to repair the grave of a man named Richard Munslow. In the century since Munslow had been buried in the town of Ratlinghope about an hour outside of Birmingham the stone that marked his life had fallen into disrepair. After a few months the £1,000 needed to hire a local stonemason was raised and the work was done.

“This grave at Ratlinghope is now in an excellent state of repair,” the Reverend Norman Morris, the town’s vicar, told the BBC at the time. “But I have no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with it.”

The ritual in question was known as sin-eating, the art of which Munslow is believed to have been the last practitioner. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century in the surrounding area and up through Scotland and Wales sin-eaters would have been a familiar sight if not one exactly sanctioned by the church. Having a monopoly on the redemption of souls they would have seen such a practice as muscling in on their corner.

The essence of Munslow’s duties was to perform a sort of shamanistic ritual in which a piece of bread and a bowl of ale were passed over the remains of the recently deceased. The sins of the deceased were – as any idiot will obviously understand – thereby subsumed into the meal and the sad bastard would dine on them taking the sins on as his own and ensuring that the dead would pass unmolested through the gates of Heaven.

Sin-eaters were commonly itinerant and destitute types traveling here and there until they were called upon in haste. Who but the most desperate would agree to such a one-sided metaphysical bargain in the first place? They were paid very little for the gruesome task and furthermore shunned as foul pariahs for their trouble when it was done. Each bite of bread and each sip of ale further curdled their own load-bearing souls.

Munslow was unique however in that he was said to be a well-established farmer in his time before getting into sin-eating. It was the loss of his four children that drove him to the practice it’s been written. Perhaps it was out of grief or perhaps it was an attempt to ensure their safe passage into the next life. You almost have to respect it. Unlike the other gig economy sin-eaters our man did it for the love of the game. All of a sudden the world’s collective goth girlfriends look like hacks in comparison.

Here are some things that happened in August of 2018.

On a Tuesday a woman being held in jail in Texas killed herself. She couldn’t afford the $1,500 she would need for bail. Meanwhile a GoFundMe for Peter Strzok a very well-off cop who lost his job for being rude to the president had raised almost $450,000 in less than a week.

On a Friday dozens of Yemeni children were bombed to their deaths by a missile fired by the Saudi-led and U.S.-supported coalition. It hit their school bus. As CNN reported the “500-pound laser-guided MK 82 bomb” was made by Lockheed Martin. A BBC reporter posted a picture of what was left of their belongings to Twitter and the image is an array of bright blue UNICEF backpacks strewn along the ground splattered with blood.

On a Wednesday a man named Joel Arrona-Lara was seized by ICE while stopped at a gas station in San Bernadino. He was in the process of bringing his pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth. The agents left her to fend for herself and the aftermath was caught on the security camera of the gas station. She’s crying and distraught and very very pregnant standing there next to the Doritos and shit.

“Mom forced to deliver without dad” the chyron on CBS LA read.

That same week a Houston doctor was sentenced to ten years probation after being convicted of raping a sedated patient in her hospital bed who was there after experiencing a severe asthma attack. Shafeeq Sheikh lost his medical license but would serve no time.

“Testifying in Spanish through an interpreter, the former patient said in the early morning of Nov. 2, 2013, she awoke to find a man at her bedside in a white doctor’s coat saying he needed to examine her. He pushed up her gown and touched her breasts in an ‘ugly way,’ and she pushed the call button repeatedly, she said. Witnesses testified that it had been unplugged from the wall,” the Houston Chronicle reported.

Sheikh testified that the sex had been consensual saying that she was the instigator and then his lawyer showed the jury images from Laura’s Instagram where she had posted a number of “sexy” photos as part of her job promoting a clothing boutique which is the universal signal that we all understand which means it’s ok to rape someone.

“He made a mistake, but he didn’t sexually assault her,” his attorney Lisa Andrews argued. “Here we have this Latina woman with her fake boobs that came onto that little nerdy middle-aged guy, and he lost his mind.”

Every so often a poll will come out that says something like 3 percent of respondents had “little to no awareness of Donald Trump” and we tend to scoff in amusement at that sort of thing like lol must be nice. But I wonder sometimes about those people—those beautiful, smooth- brained and innocent children of god—whether or not they’re on to something the rest of us aren’t.

Most people do not attend hourly to the sins of the world in its perpetual cycle of grief and misery on Twitter. Most people have better things to do with their lives than read 10,000 posts. Presumably if you are reading this you trend toward the heavier news diet than most if not quite on the Clockwork Orange eyeball torture feed I subsist on.

I wonder if there’s a better way to live without abstaining from the feed entirely?

What exactly is it we’re doing? Those of us who scroll through our newsfeed endlessly like an addict lifelessly pulling the lever on a slot machine waiting for information and sadness to spill out?

Certainly there are ways to effect change in the world—taking to the streets, protesting, boycotts, pressuring your representatives, helping register people to vote—but those of us on the barricades of the news cycle I think sometimes delude and flatter ourselves that by paying vigilant witness we’re performing some necessary function.

Sometimes I think like the destitute sin-eaters that I behold the grief of the world without respite because I have no other choice. Each sin I consume I can turn into a living. Much like them it’s a paltry one to be sure and we’re not much respected either. Other times I think a lot of us and this includes myself tend to be more like ol’ Bobby Munslow. We’ve been driven mad with grief and we know nothing else but to continue to compound it in a gluttonous feast. We gorge ourselves on the sins of others until it sickens us hoping without any sort of reliable proof that in the end it might help someone but knowing nonetheless that it won’t.