We live in an age in which a number of “prophets” are envisioning a better future for our country and devising strategies to get there. In my experience, spiritual activists seem to be at the forefront of many of these social movements.
A prophet is one who speaks by divine inspiration, often critically evaluating an existing society and putting forward a vision of a future society. The moral vision of “what isn’t working” and “the way it should be” aid a people to understand their world and change it in accord with spiritual principles and visions of society.
For example, in 750 BCE, the Old Testament prophet Amos indicted Israel for the various forms of social injustice that existed within that society, including indifference, inequality, hypocrisy and conspicuous consumption. He spoke of a future social world in which justice would “roll down like waters” and “righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Lately, I have been reading the writings of David Korten and James Gustave Speth (among others). Both of these prophetic thinkers call for radically democratic political systems in which power is shared and balanced and opposition is encouraged and celebrated. They call for an economic system that is sufficiently regulated to ensure both the protection of consumers and the sustainability of the Earth. They envision a system in which wealth is redistributed generously to support the health and well-being of all citizens. And they want a social world in which all citizens are treated with dignity and respect.
I could name dozens of other prophetic voices echoing these same concerns and envisioning similar futures. When we “speak truth to power,” as the Hebrew prophets Amos and Jeremiah urged, we can tap into the spiritual roots of our political activism.
The Sacred as a Source of Inspiration
Experiences of the sacred are a source of a prophet’s sense of mission, her or his passion for justice and the courage to challenge the powers that be. For me, the sacred is our human response to the wondrous mystery of the unfolding of creation as feelings of awe, wonder and humility.
Some of these new prophetic voices are inspired by spiritual traditions that proclaim a “reverence for life.” By this is meant something more radical that the idea that every human life is sacred. Rather, what is proposed is that the universe is alive and humans are enmeshed in webs of existence.
This “systems perspective” is leading to a profound shift in our perception of reality. A resurgence of wisdom traditions is occurring around the globe. Central to these changes is the notion that humans do not have “dominion” over nature but are merely a part of it.
What’s Not Working
By all standard indicators of a healthy country, the United States has fallen behind other industrialized nations. According to Speth in his recently published America the Possible compared to other “advanced democracies,” including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, the Nordic counties and Canada, the United States has:
» the highest poverty rate
» the greatest income inequality
» the poorest child well-being
» the highest military spending
» the highest carbon dioxide emissions
» the highest homicide rate
» the largest prison population
The litany of social problems our country faces is enormous. Our economy has been characterized by endless booms and busts, while fewer and fewer people are benefiting from the booms. Wealth has become extremely concentrated at the top, while the numbers of those who suffer continue to grow.
The endless consumption of finite resources, such as oil, is obviously impossible. We must use what we have much more efficiently. Moreover, we need to shift to sustainable energy forms.
Global warming is occurring rapidly because the atmosphere cannot absorb the levels of CO2 being pumped into it. Irreversible climate change lingers on the horizon.
People are less satisfied with life than they were 50 years ago. They feel overworked, in debt and stressed out.
Reading Korten’s outstanding book The Great Turning (2006) changed my life several years ago. I decided that working toward the sustainability revolution has to be part of my life purpose. Korten describes humans as facing a choice between two contrasting models for organizing our affairs: the dominator model of Empire and the partnership model of Earth Community.
Empire is the 5,000-year-old history of organizing human affairs by the dominator model of exploitation. Earth Community is a model of organizing human affairs based on our capacity to live in cooperative balance with one another.
Whether the new social order is called “American the Possible” or “Earth Community” is not relevant, nor whether the transition to a sustainable new economy is called “The Great Turning” or the “Great Transition.”
What is important is that many of us are clear that we are on the wrong path. Returning to “business as usual” is not going to cure our malaise. All of the attempted reforms of the past 30 years have been offset by the exacerbation of other social ills.
For the first time in human history, large numbers of people are acquiring a “reflexive” consciousness that allows them to see how their potential activities in their everyday lives help to constitute our social world. No longer operating on “autopilot,” they are reclaiming their power to create a better, more just world.
Getting to these goals will require a stronger democracy in which all people meaningfully participate in making decisions that affect their lives. This is not about fixing the existing operating system. It is about bringing forth a new era. We have the knowledge and technological means to choose the joys of a new operating system. It is only our self-limiting sense of what is possible that holds us back.
The leadership for birthing this new era will come from those who feel out of step with the values and beliefs of the institutions and culture of contemporary life. By giving real-world expression to the transformation they are seeking, they will manifest the new social order. The process starts with people finding the courage to break the silence by honestly speaking what is in their hearts.
We are in the design stage of building this new social order, which won’t be yesterday’s socialism or today’s American capitalism. In response to continual crises, large numbers of American are losing faith in the current system and will come together to develop a new set of ideas and proposals to build a better world.
The American people have it in us to use our democracy, our ingenuity and our vast resources to create a new America for our grandchildren. Many call this the “New American Dream,” and it entails a new meaning to the historic “pursuit of happiness,” one probably more in line with our original forefathers’ intentions. In a context in which all can reach their fullest potential, our country will attain glory again.
How Things Should Be
A vision of a better future social world is our imagining of “how things should be.” These are often sacred visions that best emerge in collective dialogue and with spiritual practices that involve deep contemplation. Any vision of a just society must be based on careful analysis of the widespread and unnecessary suffering in our current society.
By 2050, the peoples of the United States shall have marshaled the energy and resources to address the major challenges outlined above, including economic justice, global security, environmental sustainability, radical democracy and participation in civil society.
Severe poverty will be eradicated. Employment will be guaranteed for all who want to work. The United States will have outstanding health-care and educational systems. Discrimination based upon race, class, gender, sexuality, age and ability will be eliminated. Our child welfare shall be a shining model for all the world to see.
The Great Transition is necessary and possible. A transformation to a new economy, one based upon ecological sustainability, economic democracy and basic social justice, must occur soon to save our planet. Many ecologists state that our window of opportunity to save the planet is 10 to 15 years, if: the current operating system is not working; the financial crisis of 2008 revealed deep flaws in our approach to economic policy since 1980; laissez-faire neoliberalism has failed; and market interventions can prevent economic collapse.
Moreover, the fetish of nonstop growth is a recipe for ecological ruin. We must focus on the things that really matter and apply our core human values to what is valuable. This will demand that we rethink much of what has been taken for granted.
May courage be with us all so that we might commence the high and holy work of transforming our social world in a responsible way. No more may we ruin the Earth. Never again shall we allow such gross human inequities. May we no longer have throngs of marginalized, silenced and displaced masses huddled on our streets. Allow us to have that courage to change that which must be changed. A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour has come. Amen.
— Wayne Mellinger, Ph.D., is a social justice educator, writer and activist based in Santa Barbara. He is on the board of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).