It may be the fate of humans always to believe that we live at the most important time in history, that our moment is the decisive moment. But even factoring in this tendency toward collective self-centeredness, it is difficult to ignore that today we face multiple crises -- economic, political, cultural, and, most crucially, ecological -- which have the potential to make ongoing life on the scale we know it impossible. Predictions about the specifics of the trajectory are beyond our capabilities, but we can know -- if we choose to know -- that we must solve problems for which there are no apparent solutions and face “questions that go beyond the available answers,” to borrow Wes Jackson’s phrase. These threats have been building for the past 10,000 years, intensifying in the past two centuries to levels that only the foolhardy would ignore. The bills for the two most destructive revolutions in human history -- the agricultural and industrial revolutions -- are coming due, sooner than we think.
Never before in this world have we had such a need for strong, principled, charismatic leadership. In the United States, where such leadership is most desperately needed at this crucial moment, we can look around the national scene -- whether in politics, business, religion, or intellectual life -- and see that no one is up to the task.
Thank goodness for that.
It would be seductive, as we stand at the edge of these cascading crises, to look for leaders. But where would they lead us? How would they answer the unanswerable questions and solve the unsolvable problems? Better to recognize that we are at a moment when leaders cannot help us, because we need to go deeper than leadership can take us. Perhaps there are no inspiring figures on the scene because authentic leaders know that we are heading into new territory for which old models of movements and politics are insufficient, and rather than trying to claim a place at the front of the parade they are struggling to understand the direction we should be moving, just like the rest of us.
So, let us stop looking for leaders, stop praying for prophets. Instead, let us recognize that we all must strive to be prophets now. We are all prophets now. It is time for each of us to take responsibility for speaking in the prophetic voice.
I don’t mean this in the shallow sense of the term prophecy, claiming to be able to see the future. The complexity of these crises makes any claims to predict the details of what lies ahead utterly absurd. All we can say is that, absent a radical change in our relationship to each other and the non-human world immediately, we’re in for a rough ride in the coming decades. Though I think the consequences of that ride are likely to be more overwhelming than ever before, certainly people at other crucial times in history have understood that they had to face crises without definitive understanding or clear paths. The barriers to that understanding are not only in the world but in ourselves, and facing our collective failures is most important. A 25-year-old Karl Marx wrote about this in 1843:
The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles. For although no doubt exists on the question of “Whence,” all the greater confusion prevails on the question of “Whither.” Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it.
We should instead understand the prophetic as the calling out of injustice, the willingness to confront not only the abuses of the powerful but our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly -- both how our world is structured by illegitimate authority that causes suffering beyond the telling, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in that suffering. In that same letter, Marx went on to discuss the need for this kind of “ruthless criticism”:
But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover about the injustice of the world. It is to name the wars of empire as unjust; to name an economic system that leaves half the world in abject poverty as unjust; to name the dominance of men, of heterosexuals, of white people as unjust. And it is to name the human destruction of Creation as the most profound human crime in our time on this planet. At the same time, to speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves.
What can we say about this task of speaking in the prophetic voice? The prophets of the Old Testament offer some guidance.
First, let us remember that the prophets did not see themselves as having special status, but rather were ordinary people. When the king’s priest confronted Amos for naming the injustice of his day, Amazi’ah called Amos a “seer” and commanded him to pack his bags and head to Judah and “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amos rejected the label: