The Benedict Option In Trump’s America
Emma Green reports a fascinating story about non-orthodox Christians who are responding to the Trumpening by taking their version of the Benedict Option. Excerpts:
For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
These communities show just how hard it is to live without fossil fuels, a government safety net, or a system of capitalist exchange. They struggle with many of the same issues that plague the rest of America, including health problems, financial worries, and racism. At the center of their political lives is a question that every American faces, but for them, it’s amplified: whether to save the world or let it burn.
Their answers are different, but they share one thing. They’ve seen what modern American life looks like. And they want out.
The Christian anarchist green couple discovered something interesting:
As they’ve built their project, they have also found themselves caught between two worlds. “Among people who are wanting to live the same lifestyle—being fossil-fuel free—there is a lot of push against Christianity,” Rachel Sarah said. “It’s almost like anything is okay except Christianity, because that’s oppressive.”
They’re hopeful that Trump’s election will spur more people to think critically about their lives. “Times like this really awaken people,” said Rachel Sarah. “Since [the election], we’ve started to feel really hopeful.” Trump’s election left Nicolas feeling sick to his stomach, he said, but he sees an upside. “When there’s a Democrat in power, social-justice-minded people go to sleep, because they feel validated by what they hear on NPR,” he said. The couple says they’re feeling more “awake” now, too. Trump’s election is “like a crescendo for the Christian anarchist call,” Nicolas said. “If we are citizens of another kingdom, and the empire is getting pretty ridiculous, it inspires us to take our convictions more seriously.”
Read the whole thing. The folks in the story live in bona fide communes, which is not something that I’m interested in doing, or capable of pulling off at this stage in my family’s life. The Benedict Option — the book, I mean, which I hope you’ll pre-order — does not call for intentional communities, though it certainly welcomes small-o orthodox Christians taking that route if they can make it work. I see it as more workable for Christians to do like the Tipi Loschi, the lay Catholics of San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, who all live in their normal houses and apartments in the city, but come together for school, Bible study, mass, community meals, sports activities, service work, and other things. Marco Sermarini, their leader, texted this photo over the weekend:
It’s the “Studium Sanctae Luciae,” a university-level study course within the community. On this day, they were studying what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say about suicide and euthanasia. Marco says that Father Cassian Folsom, who recently retired as the abbot of the Norcia monastery, is helping them launch this initiative. Gang, I cannot wait for The Benedict Option to hit bookstores so you can meet these Christians in Italy. They are ordinary people, not communards, but they are living together in real community, and doing all kinds of real and important things to strengthen their faith contra modernity. They’re not just talking about it; they’re making it happen.
The people in Green’s story are not all Christians. All of them are greens, though. What they have in common is having given up on normal activism as a way of changing things. They have been inspired by a 2012 essay by Paul Kingsnorth in Orion, in which he said:
And so I ask myself: what, at this moment in history, would not be a waste of my time? And I arrive at five tentative answers:
One: Withdrawing. If you do this, a lot of people will call you a “defeatist” or a “doomer,” or claim you are “burnt out.” They will tell you that you have an obligation to work for climate justice or world peace or the end of bad things everywhere, and that “fighting” is always better than “quitting.” Ignore them, and take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray. Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.
Two: Preserving nonhuman life. The revisionists will continue to tell us that wildness is dead, nature is for people, and Progress is God, and they will continue to be wrong. There is still much remaining of the earth’s wild diversity, but it may not remain for much longer. The human empire is the greatest threat to what remains of life on earth, and you are part of it. What can you do—really do, at a practical level—about this? Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place. How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?
Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one. Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills. Only by doing that, rather than just talking about it, do you learn what is real and what’s not, and what makes sense and what is so much hot air.
Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be. Value it for what it is, try to understand what it is, and have nothing but pity or contempt for people who tell you that its only value is in what they can extract from it.
Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature. Advanced technologies will challenge our sense of what it means to be human at the same time as the tide of extinction rolls on. The ongoing collapse of social and economic infrastructures, and of the web of life itself, will kill off much of what we value. In this context, ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm? Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?
The whole essay is here. Again, Kingsnorth is a green who writes for greens. How would we adapt his basic stance as those who may or may not be greens, but who are more interested in preserving the cultural ecology of Christianity in a technology-mad world that is as hostile to it as it is to the natural world? This is the challenge of the Benedict Option. This is what we have to start working on, now.
What I’m asking here is how would you re-write Nos. 2, 3, and 4 to address the threat to orthodox Christian culture that Kingsnorth sees to the environment? For example, when Kingsnorth calls on greens to “preserve nonhuman life,” then prescribes “rewilding” settled places, a Ben Op way to interpret that would be to preserve and restore artifacts of traditional Christian culture that have been pushed to the margins of extinction by modernity. Kingsnorth asks fellow environmentalists: “How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?” The Ben Op version of that question might be: “How can you create or protect a space for expressions of traditional Christian culture (e.g., prayers, liturgies, art, customs and practices, literature, etc.) to breathe easier; how can you give some aspect of Christian culture that wasn’t invented in the last 100 years a chance to survive our appetites?”
No. 3, “Getting your hands dirty” — that’s easy to translate into a Ben Op idiom. Kingsnorth writes,
Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills. Only by doing that, rather than just talking about it, do you learn what is real and what’s not, and what makes sense and what is so much hot air.
This is what the Tipi Loschi are doing: not just talking about what we can do to ensure the survival, even the thriving, of orthodox Christianity in the West during this a post-Christian era, but actually getting their hands dirty creating the spaces and institutions to make that happen. In this excerpt from The Benedict Option, Marco Sermarino gives an example of how the spirit of creative entrepreneurship played out in their community in the example of the Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton that they started a few years ago:
When he returned home, Marco told his wife they had to start a school. They had three months to do it. “Many people thought I was crazy, and maybe I am, but we started on the fifteenth of September,” Marco said. They had four students, two of them Sermarini children. Today there are seventy students in both a middle school and a high school.
The success of the Chesterton school inspired the Tipi Loschi to dream big. “When we discovered that we could do one strange thing, we started to think about how many things we could do in an uncon- ventional way,” says Sermarini. “We knew that we couldn’t live a reg- ular life with a Christian coating, but had to change the roots.”
Going against Italy’s educational stream, the Tipi Loschi found not only success with their school but inspiration to be countercultural Christians in many other ways.
“Many times in this life you will think it’s impossible to have any other kind of order,” he continues. “But if you start changing things, and moving things where they are meant to be, and if you put God over all of it, then you will be amazed by how many things fall into place.”
Elsewhere, Marco told me that not everything the community has tried has worked. They learn from those defeats and move on. The point is that they don’t just sit around like a bunch of intellectual Christians theorizing; they get their hands dirty.
No. 4, “Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility,” is entirely consonant with a return to metaphysical realism (roughly, the idea that matter matters in the divine economy, that there is a divine order embedded in nature, and we can’t just do whatever we want to with the created world — including our bodies.)
Someone said to me not long ago, “Well, I guess Trump winning screws things up for the Benedict Option.” It took me a second to understand where he was coming from. I told him by no means! People who think the Ben Op is a strategy for staying Christian under a Democratic president are unserious. Had any of the GOP candidates been elected, we still would have needed the Ben Op. That Trump is about to be our president ought to ramp up Ben Op concerns almost as high as they would have been under President Hillary Clinton. True, we might not have to worry as much about the Supreme Court as we would have under Hillary, but let’s not kid ourselves: nearly every single day for the next four years, we’re going to be waking up to a fresh mess. It is hard for me to believe that we are going to emerge from the Trump administration in a better place. A better place than if Hillary Clinton had been president? Probably. Maybe. But good grief, if saying, “Welp, at least he’s not Hillary” is all it takes to distract you from the cultural decline and fragmentation consuming us, then you are not paying attention.
You should pay attention. Don’t forget your Alasdair MacIntyre:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point.
Here’s where I am on the Trump administration. I am glad he is becoming president, and not Hillary Clinton, mostly because religious liberty stands a better chance under his administration, but also because this progressive march towards using the government to tear down traditional religious and social structures will likely halt temporarily. That said, I am unwilling to see my sons go off to fight whatever wars Trump starts, and I have no faith that his administration will accomplish at best anything more than a slight slowdown in the inevitable. I would love to be proven wrong, but I don’t think I will be. Trump is what he is, and what he is not is a restoration of any kind of traditional Christian cultural order. To be fair to Trump, he never claimed to be, but so many of my fellow conservative Christians, accustomed to looking on the GOP as the protectors of social conservatism, have convinced themselves that Trump is the answer.
Look, we support Trump when he does things that are consonant with our values, and we oppose him when he does things that are not. But in every case, we have to use this time to prepare. These are not normal times. Think about what you’re doing when you shore up the imperium instead of building up local forms of community that can withstand the imperium’s overreach, and its dissolution. I’m not a left-wing environmentalists, but Paul Kingsnorth and the left-wing environmentalists in Emma Green’s story are onto something important.
UPDATE:Wise advice from Peter Leithart. Excerpt:
Self-protection doesn’t seem a high-minded political agenda. Christians are other-directed, and rightly so. But that can turn into political masochism: We defend everyone but ourselves. That’s a practical problem, and also a theological mistake. Protecting Christian interests is a legitimate Christianinterest. …
One way to measure Trump’s presidency is: Will believers be freer to be believers under Trump than they have been for the past twenty-five years? Will Trump threaten the tax-exempt status of Christian colleges and ministries that reject same-sex marriage? Or will he challenge the fascist regime of group-think and group-speech? It’s pretty clear already: Trump may not share our convictions, but he shares our enemies. And that’s not nothing.