A while back, I wrote a post exploring the connections between Jesus’ teachings and minimalism. Much more could still be said on the subject — I’ve since realized that I overlooked a bunch of Scripture passages that point to a minimalist lifestyle.
However, I recently read Sharon Astyk’s superb book Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation, which challenged me to rethink things a little bit. (That’s my idea of a great book, by the way: one that forces me to reevaluate conclusions I’ve reached without making me feel angry or defensive).
As the title suggests, one of the book’s primary subjects is food storage. Of course, right off the bat, this subject made my brain start humming. Is food storage consistent with a minimalist lifestyle, I wondered? More importantly, does it fit in with life in the Kingdom?
My childhood familiarity with the Scriptures has always given me the general impression that storing possessions is bad. After a quick search on the word “store” in the Bible, for instance, I found these well-known passages:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19).
“Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matthew 6:26).
Jesus also tells the story of a rich man who has such a great crop one year that he can’t store it all. He decides to build himself a bigger barn in which to store it and then take it easy for a couple of years. In response, God says to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” Jesus explains, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).
So food storage = bad?
Naturally, I’m discovering that the matter isn’t nearly so simple.
The Case for Food Storage
Astyk, drawing from her Jewish faith, makes some very compelling arguments for the merits of food storage.
In her introduction, she makes a case for the revival of what she calls “the welcome pantry and the welcome table.” For Astyk, the main purpose of having a full pantry is so that we always have something we can share with the people who come to our door.
“We think of the pantry as a measure of personal security – and it is,” she writes. “But it is also a measure of our capacity for generosity” (p. xvi). She explains, “A reserve of food means that our pantry is never so empty that we cannot share a little” (xvi).
“We live in a world of need,” Astyk observes. She reminds us how many people go hungry ever day around the world and even here in North America, and notes that these numbers are rising.
“That rising tide of unfed hungers makes us see the world in terms of scarcity,” she observes. However, “the welcome table and the welcome pantry run contrary to this. They remind us that the summer comes round again, and that we have on hand sufficient to share, even if our sharing is plain” (xvii).
This is the important key to Astyk’s idea of food storage, and what makes her book remarkable: her repeated emphasis that “that reserve is for sharing, not for holding close” (p. 308).
And this totally resonates with Jesus’ parable about the man who builds bigger barns to hold his surplus of grain: he’s not storing it to share; he’s storing it so that he can “have plenty of grain laid up for many years.” He intends to “take life easy; [to] eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19). It’s all for himself.
But back to Astyk. She points out, “Every faith that I know of has elaborate laws of hospitality and generosity. It is worth remembering that these faiths . . . grew up not in worlds of wealth and privilege but in times of vulnerability and uncertainty, when we were far poorer than we are now” (xviii).
Every faith demands that we welcome the stranger, even — or especially — in the face of our own hardships. And so we are wise and generous if we aim to have a stocked pantry so that we can help those people in need.
Moreover, if a time of need hits your community, and public food reserves become strained, Astyk argues that it may be your moral prerogative, if you have the means, to have a reserve of food of your own so that you are not taking food from others who do not have the means. She mentions folks like the elderly and disabled in particular. In other words, we should try to leave community reserves for those who need it more than ourselves.
The other major topic of the book is food preservation – that is, preserving food (using various methods) in times of plenty (like summer) so that they can be used in times of lack (like winter). Food preservation enables us to eat locally-grown foods year-round, so that we don’t have to rely on the unsustainable food system currently at work in North America.
Together, then, food preservation and food storage help diminish the power of the toxic, wasteful, destructive food systems of today in favour of more sustainable ones, which is a moral issue as well as a practical one.
Further Questions Regarding Minimalism
I must confess that it has crossed my mind before that extreme minimalism might have some ethical issues attached to it. With extreme minimalism, might we not end up relying on the preparedness of other people? Are we not simply asking other people to do the work of buying and maintaining the tools we might need?
Does minimalist living sometimes encourage us to take advantage of others?
(One way I have responded to these questions is to remind myself that most people in North America have WAY more stuff than they need which ends up going to waste. So taking advantage of their excess could actually be considered a moral act. It’s not my fault most homes contain seven times the amount of toys their kids need. But it frees me up from having to bring along toys for my own kid.)
And in the comments to one of my posts on minimalism, Lily pointed out how striving to live a simpler, more sustainable life actually prohibits minimalism to a certain extent. Growing, preserving and preparing your own food requires a fair amount of equipment and space. Like Lily, I own canners, a dehydrator, a Kitchenaid mixer, two freezers, etc. These are, I believe, helpful tools for building a sustainable food system.
And in fact, Sharon Astyk addresses this very issue: “For someone who is hostile to consumption, I have a lot of stuff. I live in a big old farmhouse full of stuff. I’m not really sure how to resolve this contradiction, or how I feel about it” (p. 285).
She adds, “I admire people like Peace Pilgrim and Buddhist monks who had with them only what they could carry. But of course, when Peace Pilgrim rested, she rested in the homes of people who had pots and pans and blankets. The Buddhist monks rely on charity from those who have more. The minimalist aesthetic works for some, but depends on there being community and public resources and those who have something to give” (p. 287).
Astyk has decided to try to create one of those homes that is able to welcome and sustain guests.
And I think I want to, too.
I still strive for minimalism in many areas of my life. However, in response to these reflections, I’ve come up with a couple of reminders for myself:
- Motives matter. If I’m storing food and possessions with the mindset that it’s only for myself, I’m not being Kingdom-minded. I probably need to let it go or change my attitude.
- What I’m collecting and storing matters. Are they merely status symbols, or sources of self-validation or a sense of security? Or are they really valuable tools?
- The amount of stuff I own matters. In terms of things like equipment, am I going beyond what I can reasonably use myself? Could someone else benefit from it more than me?
These are some of my reflections. What are your thoughts?
Images courtesy of chiostrun and smittenkittenoriginals.
For further reflection: consider the Parable of the Friend at Night (Luke 11:5-8).