What does it mean for us as Christians to prepare for possible hard times ahead? How do we reconcile the commandment to seek God’s kingdom first rather than worrying about our physical needs with the responsibility we feel to provide sustainably for ourselves and our loved ones? Can our faith motivate and direct our efforts to live an alternative to the consumer culture?
People have been asking these questions for a long time. Thoughtful and devoted people disagree about them. The partial answers here come from my own reading, reflecting, praying, and thinking. I am sure enough of them to shape my life around them. I know that does not give me the right to tell you to shape your life around them. If any of you have time and inclination to comment with some of the answers that shape your lives, I’d be glad to read about that.
I believe that faithfulness to God requires us not to put our trust in ourselves and not to make our personal safety our first priority. This can be difficult. The consumer culture teaches us that we exist to gratify our wants. The prepper culture sometimes gets corrupted by fear and teaches us to obsess over what we might lose in hard times, to stockpile emergency supplies and fortify our homes, and to believe that our precautions will keep us and our loved ones safe.
The Bible calls us to see life differently. In Matthew 6 Jesus makes the point gently: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body than clothes? Look at the birds of the air: they do not sow or reap or gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?….So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” In Mark 8:35 he says starkly: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will find it.”
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These are hard words, but they point to a truth that should be obvious, however we may flinch from it. We are all going to die. However prudent and brave and lucky we are, we are all going to die. So are all the people we love. We don’t have much choice about when that happens. Sickness, accidents, violence, and many other things could end our lives when we least expect it. When we try to deny this truth and surround ourselves with precautions against death, we impoverish our lives. If we shut ourselves inside to keep ourselves from perceived dangers, or if we go out with an attitude of suspicion, scanning for possible threats, we miss the beauty of God’s world and of the life that is given to us here and now.
We make ourselves unavailable to the neighbors whose lives we might be able to protect or to enrich. We lock ourselves into fear, creating tension in our minds and bodies that undermines our health, creating wariness in our communities that erodes trust, creating an attitude of desperate self-absorption that distances us from God.
The Bible also reminds us that we are members one of another (Ephesians 4:25). As Wendell Berry’s character Burley Coulter adds, “The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.” To hope to survive at the expense of others, to arm ourselves and decide to risk killing other people in hopes of saving our own lives, to hoard scarce goods and believe that we can be safe and have enough while those around us go without, is not only immoral but false; it ignores the fundamental fact of our membership in one another.
We can choose to live off-grid and prepare for hard times in a way that honors and protects this membership and that helps to build up God’s Kingdom on earth. Trust in God does not stop us from preparing, but it casts our preparation in a different light.
Jim Corbett’s book Goatwalking describes how he learned to live off the land in the arid Southwest, traveling through the desert with a small herd of goats and very little else. He writes, “As a survival technique independent of the market economy and land ownership, goatwalking works very well but is as self-defeating as any other self-centered activity. No one survives for long. As a way to cultivate a dimension of life that is lost to industrial man, goatwalking may put us in touch with a mystery more real than we are.” I think this is equally true of homesteading and other forms of off-grid living which free us from the distracting, seductive messages of the consumer culture. These practices require us to take responsibility for our own choices and to hold ourselves accountable, not to the man-made standards of the global economy, but to the created world and to its Creator.
Clearly we are answerable to the Creator for our use of the created world. In Genesis 2:15, Psalm 24:1 and many other passages, the Bible reminds us that the created world belongs to the Creator and not to us, that we are here to tend it and use it with care, not to use it up or lay waste to it. When God gave Israel the Law, he commanded them to give the land its Sabbath rests, and the prophets warned the people that if they did not honor this commandment, they would go into exile so that the land might rest in their absence.
I hear this concern echoed in Matthew 4:3-4: “The tempter came to [Jesus] and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”‘ Plainly these words carry many levels of meaning, but they remind me that in Genesis God spoke the physical world into being—seas and stones and all created things. This reminder is especially important in this time when technological advances and a temporary glut of oil allow us to reshape the world in the image of our desires, driving many species to extinction so we can cultivate those that we prefer, changing the climate with our careless burning of fossil fuels so that the familiar patterns which guided planting and harvest are no longer reliable, poisoning soil and water in our efforts to extract a little more cheap fuel. Faithful living requires us to scale back our wants and learn to work with the laws and materials of the created world, to take some care of our fellow creatures. Some of this can be done through legislation. Much of it must be done by simple, skilled, persistent physical work—the work of farming, carpentry, wildcrafting, homesteading, and off-grid living.
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We are commanded to trust God and not to worry, but we are also commanded not to live in a reckless way that constantly requires God to save us from the consequences of our own behavior. When the tempter urges Jesus to throw himself down from the highest point of the Temple and trust God to save him, Jesus reminds him of the commandment against putting God to the test. We need that reminder in our suicidal, unsustainable consumer culture.
It was estimated some years ago that if everyone in the world consumed as much as the average American, we’d need four planets to generate resources and absorb wastes for us. In the years since then, both population and consumption have gone up. This can’t continue long. We need to simplify our wants and learn to provide sustainably for ourselves and our neighbors from local resources. We can’t live in a way that guarantees our safety, but we can stop living in a way that practically guarantees dire shortages and danger for our global neighbors in the short term and for ourselves in the long term.
We are also commanded over and over to love our neighbors and to take care of their needs. This requires an attitude of generosity or recognition of our membership in one another, but it also requires the practical ability to help. (See James 2:15-17). We are better able to do this in hard times if we have learned the practical skills of subsistence, gathered good tools, and built up sturdy communities and fertile soil.
The farm where I live and work is part of a network of Catholic Worker communities that sprang up during the Great Depression, when many people were homeless, unemployed, and desperate. The Catholic Workers in the city established soup kitchens and houses of hospitality to serve the destitute, all funded and staffed entirely by volunteers. In the country they started farming communities so that people could provide for themselves and one another even in the absence of ’employment’.
Since the Depression some of the farms have closed. But in the last few years, food costs have risen and soup kitchens and food banks have noticed a sharp decrease in the supply of trickle-down food donated by grocery chains. New Catholic Worker farms are opening, and many city houses are seeking out garden spaces, recognizing that if they want to be able to feed their neighbors, they will need to learn to grow the food themselves.
Food isn’t the only resource that needs to be provided locally. As we come to the end of our efficiently extractable fossil fuel reserves, it’s reasonable to expect that the electrical grid will become less reliable. People who have set up renewable energy systems, increased the efficiency of their homes, and learned to meet their needs and enjoy their lives while consuming less energy, will be in a good position to help and teach their neighbors. As the global economy lurches from crisis to crisis and unemployment rises in many developed countries, there is a great need for people who can demonstrate what was obvious until a generation or two ago—that people can meet their needs and contribute something of value to society without taking part in the formal economy.
This is all part of the work that Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, described as creating a society in which it is easier for people to be good. I believe this is an important part of seeking and building up the Kingdom of God.