We Are All Prophets Now: Responsibilities and Risks in the Prophetic Voice
By Robert Jensen
Published in Monthly Review Online · August, 2007
[Sermon delivered August 5, 2007, at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Austin, TX]
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.1 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.2
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.3
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.
The Basics of the Prophetic
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:
Then Amos answered Amazi’ah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” (Amos 7:14-15)
Nor did the prophets seek out their calling. Jeremiah told God he did not know how to speak, claiming to be only a youth. God didn’t buy the excuse:
But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Then the LORD put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jer. 1:7-10)
Nor was it typically much fun to fill the role of a prophet. On this, Jeremiah was blunt:
Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me, all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, like a man overcome by wine, because of the LORD and because of his holy words. (Jer. 23:9)
And, finally, the Old Testament reminds us that to speak prophetically involves more than just articulating abstract principles which are relatively easy to proclaim. For example, these inspiring words from Micah are quoted often:
He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:8)
That is an eloquent way to summarize our core obligations, but at that level of generality it is one that virtually all would endorse. Cite that verse and everyone will nod approvingly. But remember that Micah also was calling out the injustice around him, often in harsh terms:
Your rich men are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth. Therefore I have begun to smite you, making you desolate because of your sins. You shall eat, but not be satisfied, and there shall be hunger in your inward parts; you shall put away, but not save, and what you save I will give to the sword. You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine. (Mic. 6:12-15)
The godly man has perished from the earth, and there is none upright among men; they all lie in wait for blood, and each hunts his brother with a net. Their hands are upon what is evil, to do it diligently; the prince and the judge ask for a bribe, and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul; thus they weave it together. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright of them a thorn hedge. The day of their watchmen, of their punishment, has come; now their confusion is at hand. (Mic. 7:2-4)
To speak with such passion requires a clarity in our own hearts, minds, and souls. To speak with that clarity to others requires that we have first examined our own lives. When we call out others, they typically ask us — and rightfully so — whether we have asked the same questions of ourselves. When we have asked and answered for ourselves, then we can find the courage to speak in that prophetic voice, knowing that we have confronted those questions and are willing to struggle with our own failures.
Our task is not to shine the light on others, but to shine the light through ourselves onto that which is unjust in the world. When we have been honest with ourselves, that light gains intensity and focus as it passes through us. If we have turned away from a ruthless criticism of ourselves, that light will never reach the world and will illuminate nothing but our own limitations and fears.
That process is not easy, especially in a culture that offers those of us who are privileged a steady stream of rewards for suppressing these thoughts and not facing these struggles. It is easy to turn away from injustice and turn to supermarkets with endless shelves of food, to glasses overflowing with wine, to television’s stories that lull us to sleep on those nights when food and drink have not erased completely our troubling thoughts of the world.
It’s also not easy to speak prophetically because in unjust systems the people who carry out the system’s orders usually don’t seem to be bad people. The corporate CEO who throws workers out of their jobs to increase profits also is a great softball coach on the weekends. The colonel who orders cluster bombs dropped in civilian areas, ensuring that children will die for years to come, also is a caring parent. The real estate developer who destroys habitat to put up McMansions also keeps a lovely garden at home. And all of them, no doubt, contribute generously to their churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Many of us, in fact, do jobs that we know contribute to the unjust distribution of resources and the steady erosion of the planet’s ability to sustain life. I don’t exempt myself from this; I work at the University of Texas at Austin, where — no matter how much critical material I teach in my courses — I help legitimate an ideological factory system that certifies students to go off in the world and fire those workers, drop those bombs, and destroy that habitat.
So how are we to find the strength to speak in the prophetic voice? The answer is in the collective. Unless one is truly a saint, it is difficult to resist all the temptations and confront self and others without support. We think of prophets as lonely figures who have stepped out, or been cast out, of a society for speaking the truth bluntly. But even if an occasional idiosyncratic figure can speak from such a solitary place, most of us cannot endure that kind of isolation. So, we must speak prophetically together, not in unison or in lockstep — speaking prophetically means speaking from one’s own heart, which will mean our voices are always distinctive — but in solidarity.
But even when we are surrounded by those who share our concerns for the world and for each other, there are always risks if we are to take up this role. To claim the prophetic voice that is in each of us, we have to assess those risks so that we can deal with them sensibly. Here I want to borrow from an exercise developed by Allan G. Johnson.4 At a conference for activists working on issues around racial justice, Johnson posed three questions about risk. My slightly modified version of his list is:
What are the risks you would have to take (or have taken) if you actively work for social justice in a way that is self-critical and challenges powerful institutions and people?
What are the risks if you don’t do that work?
If you take the risks in #1, in order to survive and thrive what do you need from:
institutions and organizations (public and private)
When people with relatively high levels of privilege do not make a conscious attempt to assess accurately these things, we tend to overestimate the risks of acting and underestimate the risks of not acting. In other words, privilege makes it easy to avoid our responsibilities. So, it’s important for us to consider these questions carefully, not just for what we learn about ourselves but to help us in reaching out to others. We need support, and others need us to support them, to understand the risks they face. We need each other to encourage us to take risks.
The Prophetic Path to Love
We live in a society that appears to be awash in political talk and religious activity. But, in fact, we live in a deeply depoliticized society, full of political chatter on cable TV but lacking spaces in which we can have meaningful discussions about how to address problems that politicians often ignore. We live in a largely soulless culture in which megachurches flourish, but many of us search for something beyond doctrine and dogma to help us answer questions that preachers often ignore. We live in a world in which politics is too often little more than public spectacle and religion is too easily cordoned off as a private matter.
In such a society, we don’t need more politicians who avoid the pressing problems that have no apparent solutions. We don’t need more preachers afraid of the questions that go beyond the available answers. And we don’t need a prophet. We need prophets, ordinary people like us who are willing to tap into the prophetic voice that I believe is within us all.
To speak in that voice is not to claim exclusive insight or definitive knowledge; it is not to speak arrogantly. To speak in the prophetic voice is not to proclaim the truth self-righteously but to claim our rightful place in the collective struggle to understand the truth, which we do in order to deepen our capacity to love. This we should never forget: We seek the prophetic voice within us to allow us to love more fully, something that Paul understood. When we call out injustice, when we find the courage to speak truths in a fallen world, it can be easy to be consumed by our anger and our grief, to lose track of that love. I know this, painfully, from experience.
So, as we go forward to find the courage to speak prophetically, we should hold onto these words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1Cor. 13: 2)
Let us seek knowledge. Pray that we stay strong in our faith in each other, that we help each other find the courage to speak prophetically. But, more than anything, let us remember to keep our hearts open so that we do not lose the capacity to love, always more. Let us leave here today taking seriously — as if our lives depended on it — a question posed in song by one among us who regularly dares to speak in the prophetic voice, Michael Franti:
“Is your love enough, or can you love some more?”5
1 Wes Jackson, “Toward an Ignorance-Based Worldview,” The Land Report, Spring 2005, pp. 14-16.
2 For more on this, see my 2003 interview with Wes Jackson.
3 Karl Marx, Letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843.
4 Johnson has written two widely used texts about power and privilege: The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005); and Privilege, Power, and Difference, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005). For more information, see www.agjohnson.us/.
5 Michael Franti and Spearhead, “Is Love Enough?” from the 2006 CD Yell Fire! That question also runs throughout Franti’s video documenting his trip to Iraq, Palestine, and Israel, “I Know I’m Not Alone.”