For many years I said that we live in a “dying culture,” but I have abandoned that phrase. The dominant culture in the United States — hyper-nationalist ethnocentrism and a predatory corporate capitalism shaped by patriarchy and white supremacy, playing out within a broader human assault on the planetary ecosystem — is not dying. It is already dead. Of course the United States government and United States-based corporations continue to wield incredible power at home and around the world, and it may seem odd to refer to a society that can impose its will on so much of the world as a dead culture. Sick, maybe even dying, certainly in the last throes of imperial power—but dead? Yes, in the sense of the deadness at the soul of the culture.
Rather than saving the dominant culture, our task is not only to let it pass from the scene but to hasten that transition. Jesus recognized, in his own time, that a radical departure from the old was necessary. When a disciple agreed to follow him but asked that he first be permitted to go and bury his own father, Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” [Matt. 8:21-22]
It is time for us to stop trying to revive our dead culture, to stop believing that the nation-state and capitalism — born in, and still infected by, patriarchy and white supremacy — can be the basis for a just and sustainable future. It is time to go to a deeper level. Even with the economic and military setbacks of recent years, many in the United States hold on tightly to a delusional triumphalism — a belief that the United States is the ultimate fulfillment of human promise, that shining city upon the hill, a beacon to the world. The faith we need must give us strength to recognize we live in a dead culture and to speak this harsh truth.
Beyond that, it must allow us, first, to be decent to one another despite our knowledge that being heartless will be rewarded. Second, it must embolden us to confront systems that will be intensely resistant to change and will reward those who refuse to acknowledge the urgent need for change. Third, our faith must empower us to maintain these personal and political commitments with no guarantee that we can transcend and survive this dead culture.
The ultimate test of our strength is whether we can recognize not only that we live in a dead culture but also that there may be no way out. It’s true that throughout history cultures have died, empires have fallen, societies have been replaced by challengers. Through all that, the world survived. But consider the unprecedented destructive capacity of the United States military, the entrenched pathology embedded in our psyches through capitalism, the ecological damage already done, and the further damage likely to occur during a collapse — it’s no longer clear that by the time the United States empire collapses, the world will survive in anything like the form we know it. And as this future unfolds, we will have to cope with the delusions (both of grandeur and victimization) that power and affluence tend to produce in elites and the general public, which will undermine the clear thinking that will be so desperately needed.
The ultimate test of our strength is whether we would be able to persevere in the quest for sustainability and justice even if we had good reasons to believe that both projects would ultimately fail. We can’t know for sure, but can we live with that possibility? Can we ponder that and yet still commit ourselves to loving action toward others and the non-human world?
Said differently: What if our species is an evolutionary dead end? What if those adaptations that produced our incredible evolutionary success — our ability to understand certain aspects of how the world works and manipulate that world to our short-term advantage — are the very qualities that guarantee we will destroy ourselves and possibly the world? What if that which has allowed us to dominate will be that which in the end destroys us? What if humanity’s story is a dramatic tragedy in the classical sense, a tale in which the seeds of the protagonist’s destruction are to be found within, and the play is the unfolding of the inevitable fall?
No one can know for sure, of course. But what if? Do we have the strength to ponder that? In a let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-to-work culture, what if we were to roll up our sleeves forever and still not be able to get the job done? Most people would say we demonstrate our strength when we tackle such jobs with a can-do attitude. A demonstration of greater strength — maybe the greatest strength we can imagine — is to take on those jobs with an understanding not only that failure is possible but that it may be likely. This goes against the grain in a culture that assumes that success is inevitable. But there is no requirement in theology or politics that the prognosis always be favorable. There may be not only specific social ills for which there is no cure — it may be that we humans are just smart enough to get into trouble on all fronts but never quite smart enough to get ourselves out. What if the tragedy of human intelligence is that we are bound to create complex problems for which there are no simple solutions?
If we are truly strong — if we love with all our strength — we must face these questions. Strength is exhibited not by manufacturing a sense of hope that ignores reality but by facing up, while not succumbing, to a situation that may be hopeless. It doesn’t mean hope is unavailable to us, but that we have to find honestly what Albert Camus called a “stubborn hope”:
Tomorrow the world may burst into fragments. In that threat hanging over our heads there is a lesson of truth. As we face such a future, hierarchies, titles, honors are reduced to what they are in reality: a passing puff of smoke. And the only certainty left to us is that of naked suffering, common to all, intermingling its roots with those of a stubborn hope. [Albert Camus, “The Wager of Our Generation,” in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, (New York: Vintage, 1960), pp. 239-240.]
If we are to claim a stubborn hope, we must come to it honestly and act from it with integrity. That is what it means to speak prophetically. Never before has it been more important for all of us to find our prophetic voices.
This essay is excerpted from ROBERT JENSEN’s new book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, from Soft Skull Press.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center http://thirdcoastactivist.org. His latest book is Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007). Jensen is also the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his articles can be found online at http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~rjensen/index.html.