Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Some thoughts on Christianity and survivalism

These are truly momentous times we live in. The world is caught in the grip of the worst financial crisis in decades, governments and individuals are just beginning to come to terms with a future of diminishing natural resources (peak oil being just one example of the more general trend) and uncertainty and anxiety seem to pervade the cultural milieu. All these factors have renewed interest in the possibility of a systemic collapse of civilized order, whether through resource depletion, economic catastrophe, military escalation or all three, and the concomitant question of what life would be like on the other side of this collapse. Can we in the developed world really imagine a situation in which basic services like electricity, running water, medical assistance and food delivery to supermarkets were greatly reduced or non-existent? More importantly, what would be a proper Christian response to such a situation if it ever came about? What does Christian faith look like in a situation of perpetual crisis?

I want to frame this discussion with a theological critique of the so-called 'survivalist' movement. It goes without saying that survivalism is not a monolithic or even broadly consistent body of beliefs and practices, but it is possible to isolate certain common features. Examples: 1) the emphasis on developing self-reliance by stock-piling food and learning how to grow it for oneself, teaching oneself basic skills like first-aid, carpentry, etc. 2) the emphasis on the need to withdraw from mainstream society, to 'live off the grid' as it were and 3) the emphasis on the right to self-defense, the importance of learning how to use guns and the psychological readiness to protect oneself, one's family and one's stockpile of resources from those who failed to prepare and consequently become desperate enough to turn to violence and plundering to feed and clothe themselves. 

Of these three the first is undoubtedly the least controversial. In our overspecialized, overtechnologized world too many people have grown up without skills which were once considered essential to survival. We get our food dressed, packaged and ready to microwave from the supermarket or deli. We go to clinics for the diagnosis of the most common ailments and rely on over-the-counter drugs to soothe headaches, stomach-aches, colds and fevers and control our moods, completely ignorant of how and why they work. We call on plumbers and electricians whenever something in the house breaks down. (What's perhaps more important and troubling, we have divorced these services from any human connection. The cashier at the deli is a cypher to us. He/she just packages our food, mumbles how much it costs and swipes our card or hands us back our change. The electrician or plumber comes into our home, does a very specific job and then leaves, again without our learning anything about him/her. We have become so individualistic that extensive social interaction can become annoying or even aggravating, whereas it is still the norm in many parts of the world. But this is a topic for another post.) It certainly would not hurt anyone to learn some basic skills which relieves their dependence on an artificial and fundamentally vulnerable economic system. It should be praiseworthy from a Christian point of view to work with one's own hands and serve the community with one's skills and talents.

We start running into trouble with the other two tenets of survivalism. Though there certainly have been Christian monastic groups which felt it was their calling to withdraw from the world and its messiness, the mainstream theological consensus has always been that Christians were to be salt and light in a world drowning in darkness (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus warned his followers against hiding their lights (i.e. the good news of the inbreaking Kingdom of God) under a bushel, and in his final prayer did not ask God to take his disciples out of the world, but that He would protect them from the evil one (John 17: 15). Adherence to these principles was what motivated the Christians to remain in the cities to care for the sick when plague erupted in Roman times, whereas the other citizens would flee for their own safety (see Rodney Stark,The Rise of Christianity, pp.73-94 for documentation). The result was that many Christians did in fact succumb to plague, but overall because they cared for the sick Christians had lower mortality rates, leading outside observers to conclude that the Christian religion had the support of Providence. 

Christians are called to be God's emissaries in the thick of things. If civil order collapses and there is violence, hunger and sickness in the cities, Christians should be on the front lines, tending to the sick and wounded, organizing relief efforts and continuing to spread the Good News (indeed in times like this people are usually very open to hearing about God and salvation). Even if it means risking getting caught in the crossfire or succumbing to disease or accident, Christians have their mandate.

Related to this is of course the issue of gun ownership and self-defense. There is here wide disagreement in Christian ethical circles. Many ethicists embrace a radical pacifism which excludes meeting force with force, even in the face of great harm to oneself or loved ones (prominent supporters of this approach include John Howard YoderStanley Hauerwas andGregory Boyd). They can claim support for this position from the master Himself: "You have heard that it was said: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:38-39) But there are also many Christians who, based on the constitutional right to bear arms, insist on the legitimacy of owning guns and using force to prevent harm to oneself or loved ones. 

Personally I feel that, if one is to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, one must embrace a certain kind of pacifism, but that is too big a topic for this post. What I want to focus on instead in my critique is the presupposition of individualism which underlies the survivalist movement. This is not just limited to the emphasis on self-reliance mentioned above, but extends to a deeply troubling perspective on human nature which contains a kernel of truth but also stands in serious contradiction to basic Christian beliefs. The kernel of truth is well summed up by Satan in the Book of Job. When God insists that, whatever Satan assaults Job with, the latter will continue to trust in God, Satan confidently replies with, "Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life." (Job 2:4) This includes any sense of decency and of common cause with one's fellow beings. There are certainly heroic examples of people who sacrificed their own safety and life to help others in a crisis, but there are also appalling examples of people resorting to violence and depredation to avoid starvation or death in a catastrophe (the Bible itself contains particularly grim images of parents cooking and eating their own children during long, brutal sieges, and even selfishly withholding that food from their starving neighbors!). The Joker confidently informs Batman in The Dark Knight that "When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other. They're only as good as society allows them to be."

That human beings can become very nasty in the fight for survival does not need argument. But survivalists often combine this recognition with a particularly chilling utilitarian calculus of the value of human life which exalts the survivalist (and perhaps his loved ones, if they are wise enough to pay attention to him and prepare in advance) over the benighted, foolish masses of people who do not pay attention to the signs of the times and will thus be purged in the coming catastrophes (if this sounds religious, that's because it is: survivalism can easily be conceived as a religious movement; see here). Great emphasis is laid on learning to outwit and subdue the poor simpletons who try to raid your stockpile of food. The survivalist becomes a Nietszchean uber-mensch, standing above conventional morality, or rather beneath it: the circle of benevolence which expands in a time of peace and prosperity to include those farther away from one's immediate family contracts back in on itself: it's every man for himself for the survivalist, and he takes that notion very seriously. 

Christians simply cannot subscribe to such a view. The Christian life is a communal one, and Christian ethics is fundamentally universal in scope, as indicated by the quotations from the Sermon on the Mount. If God makes the sun shine on both the evil and the good, and lets his rain fall on both the just and the unjust, we as Christians are called to such all-encompassing benevolence as well. Who is my neighbor? Not just the one who shows me favors. As Jesus rightly challenges us, "What reward do you have [for only being good to those who are good to you]?" Instead, our neighbor is anyone who needs our assistance and to whom we show mercy. Who are our loved ones (father, mother, brothers and sisters)? Those who hear the word of God and keep it. The Christian response to a crisis situation must be one, not of running off to the hills in our gun-protected bunkers, but of helping people come together as a community to face the problems which arise. In the end, that's the only practical response as well. Holing up in the mountains is only viable until you run out of food and supplies or are over-run by hungry crowds who didn't see it coming. Even if you have a homestead with land for growing crops, animals for meat, cheese and wool, a source of clean water and other amenities, that only makes you a more conspicuous target and in any case it is nearly impossible to imagine complete self-sufficiency in the context of a single family on a single homestead. Only a community of people working together has the potential to maintain a decent standard of living and defend itself against external dangers. Christians should be aware of this and be on the front lines of any such endeavor, even if it means giving up our lives to bring people together or defend the helpless.

There is much, much more that should be said on this issue, but let me close with an interesting observation on the Sermon on the Mount. Few people realize that the context for this challenging, perfectionist code of ethics was apocalyptic (see here, pp. 5-7): whatever Jesus believed about the imminence of the final judgment and confrontation between the forces of light and darkness, his ethics presupposes a crisis situation for his followers: the formation of a radical new community through the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God and the possibility (even inevitability) of confrontations between the kingdoms of this world, and of those kingdoms with the Kingdom of God. Jesus' disciples are to expect persecution, hardship and martyrdom for their trust in him. But in spite of that, they are called to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect. A collapse of civil order is the occasion for an even greater display of Christ-like sacrificial love, precisely when it seems hardest to envision (and make no mistake: it is hard to contemplate; I myself am not yet fully convinced that I could display such love in a situation where my life or that of my loved ones was threatened). The outcome, though, as history makes abundantly clear, is that God's name is glorified and His Kingdom advances. The Church has always flourished in times of crisis, and if a time of crisis is indeed upon us (I don't think it's inevitable, but it's certainly plausible) that memory should sustain and encourage us to take up the work of God's Kingdom in an uncertain, troubled, fallen world.

P.S. Here are some helpful reflections for Christians facing a time of trouble due to resource scarcity (the article is framed as a Christian response to peak oil, but it can apply to any widespread crisis situation)

Cross-posted with CADRE Comments

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