There’s been a lot of creative how-is-the-world-reacting-to-Donald-Trump articles out there, including one on how people are fleeing the deluge, as it were, by living in rural off-the-grid communities. The Atlantic took a trip to several such places in rural Virginia and profiled people who were gravitating toward downward mobility.
I lived in an urban Christian community in the early 1980s and wrote a book about the community movement some 25 years later, so naturally I was intrigued to see who’s setting up household these days and inviting in guests. Community living is not for the faint of heart, believe me.
So, here’s how the piece starts:
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…
That interested me right off the bat in that I’d profiled the PAPA Festival, a gathering of Christian anarchists in Pennsylvania, for the Washington Post back in 2011. I hadn’t known that millennials were seeking to live in community, but I sure discovered some folks at the festival who were quietly reinventing the trend.
I wish the writer had unpacked what Christian anarchism stands for, as it’s a complex concept. What are they resisting? Government? Civilization? Are they involved in civil disobedience? The Christian anarchist emblem is the black-and-white symbol that appears with this article.
Communities like this have a lot of names, including homesteads, intentional communities, or income-sharing communities, which is really a way of saying “commune.” Louisa County, Virginia, is home to five such communities: Twin Oaks, founded in 1967, and its later spin-offs, Acorn and Sapling, along with two fairly new communities, the Living Energy Farm and Cambia. Taken together with the Downstream Project, which is located an hour or two away in Harrisonburg, these newer communities offer three rough models for what it means to create an alternative lifestyle in response to immense global challenges: to struggle at the edges of society, to remake it, or to build a haven for retreat. Unlike the rural communities of Louisa, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah explicitly wanted to build the Downstream Project in an urban context.
I attended a conference at Twin Oaks in 2010 and got to see a bit of the community there. It was impressive but odd and I was told there was a fair amount of turnover. One rule about living there stands out six years later: If you wanted to have a child, you had to get the community’s approval.
One comment about Harrisonburg: The people profiled there said they were living in an urban community but it’s hardly like living in nearby Washington, DC or Richmond. Harrisonburg’s population is around 51,000. Anyway, where is the religion in all this? Read on:
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.”
The opposite is true at church: While some in their Mennonite congregation are open to what they’re doing, she said, they’ve found little willingness among their fellow Christians to lift up climate change or the environment as theological issues. To them, though, the case for creating environmentally conscious communities is evident in the Bible. “The story of the Jews was that they are emancipated, tribal slaves [who] went out and tried to start their own society,” Nicolas said. “Anarchism is in the story: Simple, small-scale organization of societies, not huge, hierarchical systems.”
Yes, I can see how some Mennonites might have a tough time with this concept.
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.”
The next two communities were described as non-religious, which squares with my experience with the groups in that area. Although I think it’s pretty interesting that a few counties in central Virginia have hatched several communities, I wish there had been some geographic variety. I understand these were groups that the writer could drive to without ratcheting up the newsroom budget but in a perfect world, it would have been nice to have seen if communities in, say, Texas, are more religious than these Virginians.
Also, Trump’s election is not the only thing making people want to head for the hills. Friend-of-this-blog Rod Dreher has been talking for years about a "Benedict Option" in which some Christians, in unique situations, form communities as a way of dealing with a hostile society.
Near the end, the writer does remind us that communities have major religious roots:
Intentional communities are, in their own way, historical projects. The original “cities of refuge,” found in the Bible, were havens for people who had committed heinous crimes. In early modern Europe, religious separatists transformed this idea, establishing towns where they could await the imminent coming of Christ, writes the Williams College art historian Michael J. Lewis in his book, City of Refuge. Great thinkers have long told of socialist paradises and philosophers have pondered distant, lost societies. In all of these communities, historic and present-day, utopian dreamers face the same question: Are they willing to engage at all in politics as they are, or do they wish to build the world anew?
I’d argue that the cities of refuge were garden-variety Israelite towns that were simply granted refugee status, not something special built from the ground up. And of course the ultimate in faith communities are monasteries and convents.
Community is a complex and ever-present trend that will never disappear. After a major die-off of Christian communities in the early 1990s, I was aware of only a handful that had survived. As I was preparing to have my book published in 2009, I was amazed to find that new ones had sprung up around the country.
And so I hope people continue to write them up and ask the questions that I got to ask. Do religious ones tend to have more or less tenacity –- or problems –- than secular ones? Because of the sins inherent in every group of people, do communities carry the seeds of their destruction or do will they preserve civilization, as did the monasteries of the Dark Ages? Will many Christians be doing the Benedict Option post-Trump?
There are lots of stories there. I’m hoping more journalists will have their ears to the ground about these movements, because it wouldn’t take much for lots of people to start creating communities again.
The photo that appears with this piece is of a Communion service at the PAPA Festival, a 2011 gathering of Christian anarchists. It was taken by Julia Duin.