My record as a prognosticator is pretty bad. Fifteen years ago, I predicted (based on sociological data describing how large populations react to significant social events) that, as the millennium approached, we could expect increasingly bizarre behavior by certain segments of the population. Specifically, I said that a number of groups would equate the end of the century with the end of the world. Mass suicides might occur; the stock market might crash; some people could become totally irresponsible and indulge themselves in an orgy of self-gratification, etc. At the time, I assumed that dispensationalists would be the main culprits, generating a frenzy of apocalyptic scenarios as they anticipated the Second Coming. Well, I was dead wrong. The Rapturites seem to have spent their fury in the eighties and have, for the most part, been fairly quiet about the new millennium.
Furthermore, until fairly recently, culture as a whole seems to have adopted only the mildest form of millennial fever. There was that cult who committed suicide awaiting the mother ship's arrival, and several movies have had a millennial theme, as has one popular TV horror show. But as far as accurately predicting the future, I'd have to say I was close, but won no cigars. People have not YET become as crazy as I thought they would be. Perhaps we are still too far away from the end of the century for the insanity really to show. So I guess there is still a chance I might get that cigar after all. But I am not holding my breath (and I never inhale).
Yet lo and behold, before our very eyes, there does appear to be one stream of apocalyptic thought that just might qualify as genuine millennial madness: the growing concern over the infamous Y2K computer bug. And just to show that God still has a sense of humor, the predicted sociological paranoia comes mainly from those within my own theological camp! Just in case you are one of the two or three people in the industrialized world who have not heard about this, Y2K (computer shorthand for "Year Two Thousand") refers to a problem computer programmers had in the old days when memory was hard to come by. To save memory, dates were written in two digits instead of four. Thus when the date turns from 99 (for 1999) to 00 (for 2000) computers will assume it is the year 1900, and will not calculate dates correctly. Some will give out false information. Others will shut down completely. A real fear is the systems' effect; e.g., although Company A's computers work fine, they may be dependant upon Company B's computers which do not work. Hence, all sorts of potential problems could seriously affect life as we know it, including air traffic control towers that cannot properly direct traffic, water companies that cannot clean water, power grids that shut down because the computers think no maintenance has been done for a hundred years, etc.
All of the above are genuine concerns. Both industry and civil governments are taking this very seriously. Billions are being poured into solving the problem; but some experts question whether there is enough time and are enough programmers to do all the work. Some companies are already talking about "triage," i.e., they cannot fix ALL the problems so they are concentrating their time and effort on the most crucial systems.
Thus, if there is a widespread problem caused by a computer failure, it COULD have disastrous results. Banks could close down; welfare and Social Security checks may not be printed; gasoline may not be distributed. Therefore food, clothing, and other essential services might be either curtailed or stopped altogether.
Evaluating the "Experts"
As uneducated laymen who lack the necessary technical expertise, we face a serious problem in knowing how to evaluate the "experts." Some experts are predicting an almost complete breakdown of society and saying that the only sane option is to liquefy one's assets and move to the hills to escape the resulting social disintegration. Others expect Y2K to have a potentially serious effect on the Gross National Product until all systems are brought into compliance, with the result being more of a tremor than an earthquake. Who is right? Adding to the problem of evaluating the experts is that there are no brute facts, only interpreted ones. Every expert has his own axe to grind. Therefore, before anyone buys off on the Y2K disaster, or pooh-poohs it as just another paranoid delusion, he needs to carefully consider what may be motivating various experts to take the positions they take. There is also the arrogance of those who presume to know the future and therefore insist that Y2K will be the judgment of God for America's sins. They appear to be basing their technical evaluation, on a theological foundation: Since America deserves judgment, and, since God's judgment will surely and eventually come, Y2K MUST be that judgment. I have criticized this attitude rather strongly (obtain my essay, "Gunfight at the Y2K Corral").
Many, many people in our camp are getting scared. There is simply no other word for it. I have talked with a number of people who say that we must sell our homes, move to rural areas, and prepare for the breakdown of society as we know it. However, when those who hold so tenaciously to the worst case scenario are pinned down, precious few of them have actually put their houses on the market, or made definite plans to move. For all their seeming dedication to the "Y2K Is the End of the World As We Know It" scenario, they are NOT fleeing to the hills. Why?
Rich People Have More Options
The answer I think is simple. Rich people have many more options than poor people. Rich people can own better cars, live in better homes, and send their children to more prestigious colleges. There is nothing wrong with this. If a man has labored lawfully, tithed, provided for his family, been generous to the poor, etc., he certainly has the right to do with his wealth whatever he chooses. He can buy yachts, sail the Caribbean, have a summer home in Maine, or whatever. God has prospered his labors and he can enjoy the fruits of that blessing in any lawful way that pleases his heart.
In the same way, if a rich man wants to hedge his bets for the future, he can buy the best medical care, and take out enormous insurance coverage on his car, home, boat, summer cottage, and life. Again, there is certainly nothing wrong with this. Money won't solve all his problems, but it can help give him some security in an insecure world. (Money can't buy happiness, but it does make misery more comfortable!)
Therefore, if a rich man is convinced that Y2K could be a time of great social upheaval, and that the cities will be dangerous places to be if the lights go out, he certainly has the right (and the resources) to move to a rural community, buy gas-powered generators (and a big, subterranean gas tank), stockpile a year's worth of food, and convert his savings into cash and hard currency. Meanwhile, because he IS wealthy and is NOT dependent upon his weekly paycheck, he can ride out the next 18 months in relative comfort and security at little real cost to his future. Oh, his wealth may not grow very much during the time he is sitting on his horde, but if the predicted disaster does not occur, he can always convert his wealth back into the banking system or the stock market as he sees fit. In other words, the rich man's wealth allows him peace of mind at minimum cost.
But poor people don't have as many options as rich people. And their peace of mind comes at a much higher price. In a modern, industrialized society, we make our living based on the division of labor. People today have very specialized skills that often took years to develop. Quite frankly, if they cannot sell those skills, they have no options. Furthermore, regardless of what they should or could have done, most American Christians are still in debt. They don't own a house; they rent to own it from the bank. They may have consumer debt in the form of credit cards, car payments and school loans. Right now, they can survive because the paycheck for their very specialized skills is enough to feed and clothe their families while they are still paying off their debts.
Do you get the picture? If they move to a rural area, they somehow have to find work. Houses and land in rural communities are considerably cheaper than in urban areas. But they are cheaper for a reason: Most people don't want to live in rural areas because there are no jobs for them. So what is this highly trained specialist going to do to keep body and soul together if he moves to the country? Take, for example, a friend of mine who is a computer specialist. He thought about moving to a rural area (not because of Y2K, but other reasons). However, the best job he could find IN HIS SPECIALTY paid under $6.00 an hour. My friend has a wife and five children. When he added in the cost of RENTING a house, paying utilities, and buying food, he simply could not provide his family even a SUBSISTENCE level lifestyle! Never mind his college bills, or the mortgage on a house, or paying off the car. He literally cannot afford to live in the country.
Instead, he moved to an urban area where he is now making almost ten times the salary offered by the company located in the country. Granted, his living expenses also went up, but not by the same margin (in fact, many utilities, staples, services, etc., are cheaper due to greater competition). Hence, he was able to pay off his debts, buy a house (and will be able to pay it off in under seven years), and provide not only basic necessities for his family, but begin laying up an inheritance for his children.
The "Retreat to the Hills" group, therefore, is not playing fair with the rest of us. Some people have talked about subsistence level farming; but this is from people who have never weeded a turnip patch, or milked a cow in their lives. Farming and ranching are specialized skills that take years to develop. How deep do you plant seeds? How much water do they need? What will you do about insects and vermin? What do you know about canning and preserving food? These are questions some people never ask. The rich man can sit on the front porch of his survivalist retreat, with his freeze-dried food and generator-driven icebox, sipping cool drinks and enjoying the blessings of God. Meanwhile, his city-bred neighbor two ranches away is living in dirt poverty, struggling to feed a starving family on the few bits of shriveled greenery that managed to survive the pests until harvest. And that all depends on whether the man actually had the capital to invest in buying a subsistence farm in the first place, not to mention having enough money to feed and clothe the family until the first crop comes in.
I think this is the reason most who have bought into the worst-case scenario are still sitting in the city, going to work every day, cashing that paycheck and paying those bills. They may want to move, they may be fearful not to move, but they simply lack the financial freedom to move. Even if they sold everything they had in the city, they still could not buy a farm outright in the country. And even if they could buy a farm outright, they would still need some kind of income to pay the utilities and taxes, and buy food and clothing until they produce some kind of crop. That assumes they can learn in one year the skills it took a farmer a lifetime to master. Thus, even if the worst Y2K scenario is likely (an assumption I am not willing to grant for a moment), the overwhelming majority of people just cannot head for the hills. It is simply not an option for them.
Does that mean that they have to become victims? No, certainly not. While we must recognize that all people bear responsibility for their own actions, and that living in debt has serious consequences, there are practical ways to provide some protection and security to our families. Am I giving in to Y2K paranoia by making these recommendations? No, these are just basic things every family did when I was a lad. Blizzards, thunderstorms, and hurricanes often disrupted our basic services. Every family had some way to comfortably wait out the time until services were restored. These suggestions are not necessarily Y2K related but, in fact, deal with general preparedness for ANY emergency situation.
First and most important, get out of debt, cut consumer spending, and pay off, if possible, mortgages, cars, and credit cards. Some have suggested that if Y2K hits hard nobody will be able to hold you accountable for these debts, so why worry? I don't fear Y2K, but I do fear God. And refusing to pay debts is theft. Hence if Y2K doesn't get you, God certainly will.
Second, start now building an emergency food supply. Every time you go to the market, pick up some extra canned goods, dried rice, corn, etc. Stockpile them in a cool, dry place, protected from insects and vermin. Right now, food is really quite cheap. Just a few extra dollars a week in the food budget could mean three months' supply in a disaster situation. If nothing happens from Y2K, you can give the food away later to the poor or eat it yourself. Make sure you have a gas grill with extra tanks of fuel for cooking (unless you have a wood-burning stove). Also make sure you buy some means of purifying water. Dried foods without water are inedible and unusable. You can purchase a water purifier from any camping store for a minimum amount of money.
Third, don't forget to make sure you have candles or lanterns in case the lights go out. During summer in the Midwest, one can almost guarantee that at some point a lightning strike is going to shut down power in the area. A few candles and lanterns turn a disaster into a homey, nineteenth century adventure (and help you find the bathroom in the dark!). If your heating system is electronic, then you will have to find some way of keeping warm in case the power goes out. Propane heaters are not that expensive, and if you live in the North, they are absolutely necessary.
Fourth, start saving a certain amount of your paycheck in cash, even if it is only $25.00 a week. Secure the cash in a safe. If the banks DO go down, for any reason, try to have enough cash for at least a month's expenses. If you can save more, do it.
Fifth, purchase a firearm, and, if possible, get a concealed carry permit. City folks will find this extreme, but those of us who grew up in rural areas grew up with firearms as a natural part of life. I can still remember my brothers having to stay up late at night sitting in the corn patch with a .22 rifle to scare off the raccoons (and the pelts brought in hard cash!). Since most people today come from cities, shooting skills are becoming increasingly rare. Firearms are a part of our history and culture where free men take personal responsibility for their safety. You have a constitutional right to own one, so get one before it is too late. Even today, the police cannot protect you, but can only investigate if you are the victim of a crime. Hopefully you'll never need one, but statistics show that firearms are used lawfully by average people millions of times a year to protect themselves. I personally recommend a semi-automatic, 12-gauge shotgun. Practice with it until you can handle it safely and shoot it effectively. Make sure you take your wife along, and even your kids. If things ever do get rough in the future, that weapon may be the difference literally between life and death. Bad guys are not stupid. If they have a choice between robbing an armed citizen, or an unarmed citizen, they will go for the guy without a gun every time. Don't forget to buy a reasonable amount of ammunition (the key word here is "reasonable"; you are NOT going to be engaging in firefights).
Sixth, make sure you take basic security precautions on your home. Install security doors on the front and back of your house, and make sure first-floor windows are protected. You can get nice, decorative door and window guards that your neighbors won't complain about. You cannot stop a dedicated crook from breaking into your house; but you can make it difficult enough so that by the time he gets through, you can welcome him "warmly."
Seventh, buy a dog. A big dog. A dog that barks loudly and has a strong sense of territoriality. You don't need a Doberman, Rottwieler or German Shepherd (most people will not take the time or trouble to train these dogs properly, and they can be dangerous). What you want is an animated burglar alarm that will make a big noise if someone comes onto your property.
Finally, the real key to surviving difficult times is belonging to a community of like-minded believers; i.e., people who trust you and whom you trust in return. This is what the local church is supposed to be. Therefore, everyone should belong to a church where he can count on his brothers and sisters in an emergency. You may have assets they need. They may have assets you will need. Together, you are ten times stronger than you would be alone.
If the church will not take these things seriously, try to form relationships with at least a few families you can count on. If nothing else, you'll enjoy some good fellowship and Bible studies together. Reading a few books together about outdoor survival skills, or spending some time at the range is surely preferable to watching the idiot box.
If Y2K turns out to be nothing, you have lost nothing by following the above guidelines. You've paid off your debts, learned to live frugally and prudently and have secured your property as best as the average person can. If Y2K turns out to be anything like the nightmare that some people are predicting, or if an asteroid hits the earth, or a terrorist blows up a major American city with a nuclear weapon, you are STILL as secure you can be. You are not running away, or impoverishing your future, or giving in to paranoia; you are just taking reasonable precautions.
Fear is a powerful motivating force and, like all the emotions God gives us, serves a useful purpose in a world cursed by sin. At the same time, fear can be abused by those who wish to control us. A wise and free man looks at the times and takes personal responsibility for his family's welfare. No man can judge how another uses his assets, as long as they are used lawfully. If someone desires to live in the country and make himself as self-sufficient as possible, more power to him. At the same time, be careful of those who want to play on your fear because they want to sell you something. The cause may be genuine, or it may be a sales tactic. The old phrase, "buyer, beware" is certainly appropriate here. But in all these things, the only real security is trust in the sovereign grace of God Almighty. When Rome fell, there was no warning given by "prophets" for the Christians to leave before the bad guys raped and pillaged the center of the ancient Christian world. When the Mongols invaded Europe and laid waste entire nations, there was no warning that Christians should flee to the New World. When the Black Death killed at least 25% of Europe's population, there was no elite group who had hidden knowledge that protected them. All these things were the judgment of God, and though through them he scourged and disciplined his people, he also used them to pave the way for reformation and national revival.
Therefore, let each man make what preparations he deems fit, for our nation is surely already under judgment and will continue to suffer until God grants us national repentance. It may be our calling to live in evil times, hard times. But God will remember his covenant people, he will defend them, and ultimately prosper them. Y2K may be a big deal, or it may be nothing. Terrorists might strike our shores, criminals may loot our homes, foreign nations might launch nuclear missiles at our cities. Or tonight, God might call us home in a car accident, heart attack, or brain aneurysm. The simple fact is we do not know. And thus all we can do is submit to our Lord, pray for his deliverance and live responsibly according to his law. That is our only real security in an insecure world.
For more information, see Peter Hammond's, "Security and Survival in Unstable Times" published by United Christian Action, PO Box 23632, Claremont, 7735, South Africa.
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.