Christianity and survivalism: some thoughts

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 Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and Gregory 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 Quodlibeta


Layman said…
I am no student (or member) of the "survivalist movement" but I have read a number of "survival" books and seek to be prepared for the breakdown of the provision of goods, services, and protection that our Western society usually delivers so well. When I lived in Texas, this was the result of living in the path of hurricanes but lasted for only a few days. Where I live now this would most likely be due to an earthquake with the potential for a longer interruption.

I think there is an excluded middle in your post. Some of the uber survivalist are single men who may actually have the option of running to the hills. As a father of minor children, that would hardly be practical to me. But you as a single man seem to think in terms of having the same ability to put aside all encumbrances in service to the community. I do not think it is so straightforward.

Many will have put aside some extra water and food not to ensure their own survival, but as added security for their children. If someone attempts to steal said provisions, do you suggest they are bound not to oppose them? To what extent does a Christian father sacrifice the lives of his children to share meager resources with others? Does a father act immorally if he uses force to prevent the rape of his daughter? The murder of his son?

Also, I agree that Christians in these circumstances should work to help the sick and the wounded, but how far are you willing to go? Providing what food and water and medicine one can, to be sure. But what if looters threaten to steal those necessities or harm those in the Christian's care? For example, if looters were to steal what food, medicine, and water that had been scrounged for an aid station, is it our "Christian duty" to stand by and let them?

God established governments to keep "good" order, explicitly granting them the responsibility to use violence towards those ends. (Rom. 13:4) If government breaks down, does this mean that "evil doers" have a Bible-mandated free shopping spree? If there does not happen to be a police officer available to use force to prevent the murder and rape of those you have taken under your care, would you be acting immorally in using force to protect? Or perhaps you think police officers act immorally when they use force in these circumstances?

I am not sure that concentrating the helpless with much desired supplies in one location while refusing to protect either is fulfilling one's Christian duty.
Anonymous said…

These are certainly difficult problems and I certainly haven't developed a general prescription for how one would face such dire circumstances. I certainly hope we're never faced with that kind of choice. I will just say two things here though: pacifism as Yoder and Hauerwas in particular understand it does not mean 'doing nothing' in the face of imminent violence. It does mean not resorting to violent force in response to violent force. Yoder argues that circumstances are rarely as one-dimensional as 'use violent force or watch your loved ones be raped, beaten, etc.' There are always nuances to the situation that a discerning, Spirit-inspired pacifist can take advantage of.

Whatever the truth about this problem is, though (and I stress that I haven't worked it out myself yet in detail), I was trying in this post to criticize the anti-Christian assumptions by which survivalists justify their use of violent force: excessive individualism, one's own right to survival at the expense of everyone else, the impulse to withdraw from society and try to ride out the storm on one's own. I think Christian ethics mandates that Christians be in the thick of things, trying to work in a time of crisis to bring communities back together, or forming them where they didn't even exist in the first place, even at the cost of our lives (our Master, after all, gave his own life to bring us together to form the Kingdom of God here on earth).

Obviously this mandate will play out differently for different people. I certainly appreciate the difference between those who are young and independence and those who have wives and children to look after, and I wouldn't dare claim to pronounce judgment on how they should balance their duty to their family with their duty to self-sacrificial service. But I do still think that the fundamental principles of a Christian response to a breakdown of social order as I laid them out in my post are sound.
Jason Pratt said…
Great article and comments so far!

(I'm also glad you put it up because I'm running behind this week. {g})

I'll try to comment on this later; my novels obviously have a strong topical link to the ethical dilemmas of a general breakdown in society.

Until then, you've got a missing link JD. ("survivalism can easily be conceived as a religious movement; see ••here••")

Layman said…

I am skeptical that every situation is so multi-dimensional that violence is never the most able means by which the innocent are protected. I think pacifists should face that fact head on if they want to be taken seriously. The reason they do not, I suspect, is because it would render their belief system so unattractive in our present culture that it would find few adherents.

Sometimes it reminds me of the prosperity gospel folks, though with a more morally attractive goal perhaps. I heard a pastor say that Christians could simply choose not to participate in a recession or depression because God has plans to prosper us. My mind went immediately to a book I had just read about the post-Crusade conflict between Christian and Muslim states in the Med. Thousands of Christians were snatched from their homes by Muslim raiders from the sea. Many spent their entire lives (which were usually short, admittedly) chained to the benches of Muslim galleys, beaten and ill fed, and forced to help the raiders continue their terror. I don't think they could have elected not to participate in their captivity.

Sometimes we have to face life as it comes rather than as our belief system would like it to come.
Layman said…

I am not trying to take away from your point that Christians are to be community minded in emergency scenarios. I do have questions about what that means and how helping keep or restore order might fit into such a scenario.

I like Stark's theory, but if I remember correctly it suffers from a lack clear evidence about the cause and effect (not that Christians served the sick during these times). I would be interested in a sociological perspective of how communities responded to the black death in the middle ages or to Viking raids along the British coast or river ways in Europe. There are obviously many other disaster scenarios that could be studied or used as thought experiments to flesh this out.
Anonymous said…

You're right it would be interesting to mine history for examples of how Christians responded to major societal upheavals or disasters. I might look into this more extensively when I get some time.

I also agree that pacifists do themselves a disservice when they refuse to consider scenarios where the only alternative to horrific suffering for yourself or loved ones is the exercise of force. I haven't fully made up my mind on this issue. One thing to think about though is the actual effectiveness of force or the threat of force in a crisis situation. Even if you have a gun and sort of know how to use it, things can go very wrong if you introduce it in the midst of an extremely tense standoff with looters or rapists. It might have a deterring effect or it might escalate the situation. I imagine that for many ordinary folks (including myself), effective application of force other than brute strength/tackling/use of heavy object is not really an option.

Is there a place then for people with the skills and sense of mind to protect those in need and deter the predators who take advantage of them? Yes, of course, they're called police and the military. I see no problem with the idea that in a survival situation former policemen or marines or national guards would step up and help their communities stand together and ward off unprovoked violence and predation. But then the question arises how do you distinguish the Joker-like hooligans and anarchists from those who are simply desperate for food or shelter?

Maybe this comment space isn't really the place to work out a full theory of Christian survivalism. I'm just throwing stuff out there trying to get a handle on what ethics would look like in a situation like that. What I refuse to accept (and I know you're not implying this, Chris, this is just a general comment) is the idea that if society breaks down, every-man-for-himself is an acceptable ethical stance, or that desperation (on either your part or others) justifies predation on our fellow human beings. If that is unacceptable, self-sacrifice in some form or another becomes obligatory.
Layman said…

In case I come across as eager to exercise my right of using deadly force, we are talking about extreme circumstances. Of course it is a rare situation where the use of deadly force is the best way to prevent imminent harm to an innocent. Thank God. I've come marginally close to being in such a situation only once in my life. The only thing I can imagine worse than having to do so is letting what evil may transpire if I felt I had no other choice but did not act.

As a practical matter, I agree that anyone considering the use of deadly force must take into account their lack of training or potential for misreading or misplaying a situation. But that fact calls for caution and sober judgment, not incapacitation.

In a survival situation, there likely will not be enough former policeman or military to go around. Or they may have the ability but also have the desire to serve their own interests. Besides, I have known former military members whose ability in the use of firearms, for example, is much inferior to my own. But these are the kinds of interesting questions raised by an extreme scenario.

I agree that at no time is every-man-for-himself an acceptable ethic.
Elliot said…
An interesting and well-stated post. I do find myself thinking of the biblical flood story fairly often these days: about how people were merrily eating and drinking, taking and giving in marriage, and then the flood swept them all away. Even if it's a myth, it's a very insightful portrayal of human nature in the face of catastrophe.

Whether the problem is peak oil or climate change or something else (nuclear threats have not vanished) I think there will be a tremendous need for Christians to take their calling to heart in this generation, to act in a prophetic role, warning people, as leaders helping communities through these changes, and as exemplars in acting peacefully and justly in the midst of turmoil.

I'm inspired by prominent individuals who also happen to be Christians, like Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and, yes, even Al Gore, who are working hard to persuade us to change our habits *now* so that the crisis is less extreme, and also for political change - the efforts of McKibben and Berry, especially, apply just as well to peak oil as to climate change. McKibben's book "Deep Economy" is very thought-provoking on how we could put the developed societies on a more localized, sustainable footing. He calls for the courage and tenacity of the civil rights movement, and that also involved many Christians.
Jim S. said…
This reminds me of a great post-apocalyptic novel Lucifer's Hammer by Niven and Pournelle. At one point a community is talking about whether they can allow other people to come in since they barely have enough resources for themselves. Then the local Reverend says, "I was a stranger, and ye took me not in. I was hungry, and ye fed me not. Is that what you want to hear at Judgment?"

The survivalists ended up winning the day though.
Anonymous said…
A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself; but the simple pass on, and are punished.

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