The Call to Prophecy
When we think of the great biblical prophets, we might be tempted to think of people concerned mainly with wholly religious or purely spiritual matters. But in fact, all of the prophets were highly involved with the political and social issues of their day. They did not make the neat division between the religious and social/political realms that is the cornerstone of modern secularism. They commented freely on the prevailing social and political issues, denouncing, for example, usury (e.g., Ezekiel 22:12) or the abuse of the poor (e.g., Amos 8:6) or the consolidation of land in the hands of a few (Isaiah 5:8), and many other social issues besides. And they were particularly involved in the foreign policy issues of their day; Israel and Judah were, after all, small fish swimming among the great sharks like Egypt, Babylon, and Persia; foreign policy was a matter of religious and national survival. The idea of a religious quietism, a concern only with the next world, would be quite foreign to them.
Christians by virtue of their baptism participate in the prophetic office of Christ. Now, we all play the prophet at times, predicting the outcome of an election or the direction of the stock market. And because most people, myself included, have a very selective memory, we tend to think we are better at it than we are. We tend to remember (or even invent) the times when we got it right and ignore the times when we made foolish prophecies. So it is a good habit to write down our own prophecies so that we can examine them later and see where we went right or wrong. To do so risks exposing our own foolishness, but that is the greatest corrective to one’s thinking. Seeing where we went wrong is the best education for getting it right, eventually. And so, at the risk of making a complete fool of myself, I offer some very specific near-term prophecies.
Let’s Get Specific
Republicans Win the Mid-term
This is the easiest call to make. Although it is typical for the President’s party to lose seats in the mid-term elections, the more important factor is how people perceive the economy and their place in it. And there are good reasons for people to believe that not only is the economy improving, but their own personal finances are along with it. By at least some estimates, in March the median family income of $61,227 has finally surpassed the previous high it reached in 2001 of $60,665 (inflation adjusted). And the massive tax cuts, combined with increased federal spending, means that billions of new dollars are flooding the market, causing at least the appearance of a boom. Debates on whether Obama or Trump should get the credit are irrelevant from the standpoint of electoral politics; the guy in office always gets the credit or the blame, deserved or not.
Further, you can’t beat something with nothing, and the Democrats seem to have a whole lot of nothing. They have no identifiable leader, and I suspect most people, even most Democrats, couldn’t tell you what the Democratic program was. To be sure, it has something to do with DACA and healthcare, but no one can say precisely what. It has something to do with racial and gender equality, but these issues cannot override economic well-being, whether that well-being is actual or merely perceived. And the Democrats are too easily tied to issues which, rightly or wrongly, make many people queasy. Surprisingly, most people can get through the day without worrying too much about which bathroom a transgendered person ought to use.
Finally, Trump is doing what all presidents in trouble do: turn to the area in which he has the most control, foreign affairs. Summits with Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin give Trump a chance to look “Presidential” rather than, as he often does, like a spoiled rich boy who can control neither his emotions nor his Twitter addiction. He may even be up for a Nobel Prize, and he might even deserve it, or at least as much as Obama did, who got one before he had actually done anything at all.
For these reasons, and unless the effects of a full blown trade-war kick-in before November, the Republicans will do well, and will do so even without help from any foreign power. And before November is out, look for the Mueller investigation to be quashed, and all its records to be destroyed or classified out of existence. Mueller himself will be lucky to escape imprisonment on Trumped-up charges (pun intended), and luckier still to avoid being held incognito at Guantanamo. He and his staff cannot be allowed to remain at large, telling all and sundry of what they know.
The Collapse of 2019
As I write this, the economy is in its second longest expansion ever recorded by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the independent organization officially charged with dating economic cycles. The current expansion, which began in June, 2009, has gone 107 months. The longest expansion was the period from March, 1991, to March, 2001 (120 months). Kennedy/Johnson also shepherded had a long expansion (106 months) as did Ronald Reagan (92 months) and George W. Bush (73 months). What these expansions all had in common was that they were led by an expansion of government spending, often (for Reagan, Bush, and Kennedy) accompanied by a tax cut. It was classic Keynesianism, regardless of whether the political rhetoric was conservative or liberal: increase the deficits to pump up the economy, and ease off when it gets better. The government becomes the “consumer of last resort,” buying up what the economy could produce if only ordinary businesses and consumers could afford to buy it.
Trump is trying the same Keynesian hat trick. But what distinguishes this moment from the others is that while they started from recessions or stagnation Trump is starting near a market top. He is injecting the patient with opioids at precisely the moment he should be easing him off palliatives. Add to this corporate debt, which has surged to unsustainable levels, and consumer debt, which now begins with college debt (habituating the young to a lifetime of debt slavery) and you have the recipe for a first-class disaster. I believe that by the summer or fall of 2019, we will have a full-blown depression of the type not seen since 1929, with or without the complication of a trade war.
The End of Constitutional Government
In 1929 the United States had a lot of social capital to fall back on, and this was still somewhat true (arguably) in 2008. But I think few would say that today. All the social media has made us less sociable than ever. Indeed, Facebook feeds our own rage back to us, to magnify it and isolate us in our own private ideological bubbles. This has parallels with the crises of the 30’s, since it was only at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century that populations really become predominantly urbanized. At the onset of the great depression, large numbers had not yet adjusted to the urban landscape and hence experienced their own form of social isolation. In the same way, we have not yet adjusted to the World Wide Web, even as it traps us more and more in its endless threads. But these threads, technologically strong and complex as they are, cannot really bind us together.
In the United States, it was a close-run thing as to whether the country would go the way of Germany or Italy or Russia. Roosevelt was able to thread the needle between authoritarianism and chaos to produce a “New Deal,” a governing ideal that balanced competing interests and that held right to the 1980s. But I doubt there is a new “New Deal” in the making; I doubt there will be a way to thread this rather complex needle.That would take a united people and a bold leader with both intelligence and a respect for persons, laws, and process.
Trump has not shown himself to be a respecter of either laws, or process, or customs. Indeed, his most recently revealed letter to Mueller is really a claim that he is above the law; it is a claim that l’état, c’est moi. Those who once believed with Edmund Burke that “manners are more important than laws” have abandoned both manners and law and joined with Trump to turn politics into a primal scream. When real pain comes, these screams will only get louder. And these screams will be for a leader who can cut through the complexities of the legislative process by ruling in his own name. And this Trump is more than willing to do.
The problem is further exacerbated by the decline of the moral authority of our social and political institutions, and it is upon this moral authority that government ultimately rests. But neither the courts, nor the congress, nor the press, nor the schools, nor any other social institution commands the loyalty and respect of the public. Even marriage and family have become largely temporary and contractual arrangements. We have completed a march of destruction through all our own institutions, and in the desert that remains, the only thing that grows is tyranny. The end result is that there will be no elections in 2020, or if there are, they will be a sham, like the Russian “elections.”
The Next World War
More and more, people are trying to reject global culture and to reconnect with the local. Such localism could be, and indeed should be a healthy development. But it is not.
These problems are not unique to the United States. All across the globe, people have lost faith in the institutions that once sustained them. The globalization of American culture has alienated the rest of the world from its roots, just as it has done so to us. Each man feels that he is becoming a smaller and more insignificant part of an ever-growing and ever more indifferent and impersonal whole. And more and more, people are trying to reject global culture and to reconnect with the local. Such localism could be, and indeed should be a healthy development. But it is not. They only succeed in producing local and rivalrous versions of globalism. Instead of by-passing the factory farm to connect the small farmer with the land, or by-passing the corporate factory to connect the worker with his tools or to make their country more self-sufficientand less “global,” nations have sought to make their corporate factories and factory farms dominant in regional or global markets. The old globalism was at least guided by the polite fiction that “everybody wins”; the new mercantilism (to call it what it is) is guided by a grim calculus of winners and losers; Canada (of all places) must not take advantage of us.
To ensure that “our” side is the winner, all across the globe, people are searching for strong leaders that will “Make (fill in the blank) Great Again.” Impatient with the slow machinery of democratic politics, they long for leaders with quick solutions who can provide plausible scapegoats. We have been here before. When Hitler discovered the German Volk, whether or not such a thing actually existed, he initially succeeded in bringing a measure of prosperity to Germany and making the country less dependent on world markets. Had he left it there, he might have provided a merely interesting alternative, a provocative experiment. But the very logic of that kind of “localism,” the very logic of that kind of power, means it inevitably becomes rivalrous and bloodthirsty.
Since the Second World War, the great powers have avoided a general conflagration by carrying out their rivalries through third parties fighting on the peripheries: Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, Africa. The United States has invested a good part of its extensive military budget in “special operations,” the ability to intervene, on a low level and usually out of sight of the public, in “small” wars. And for a long time, this actually worked. Or at least it worked better than a nuclear-armed general war. But the constant warfare in the Middle East has exposed the futility of this approach. And what starts at the periphery eventually works its way to the center.
As the economy deteriorates, scapegoats will have to be found and destroyed. And domestic scapegoats, whether the Jews or the immigrants, will not be enough. Rivalrous nationalism seeks foreign enemies, and for a variety of reasons. Foremost is the fact that war is the greatest of all economic stimulus programs, as well as the greatest excuse for branding all opposition as traitorous. Besides which, tyrants can never resist playing with all the shiny toys they’ve come to command; at some point, grand military parades are not enough.
Foretelling the Present
We tend to think of the prophets as fortune tellers, gazing into a crystal ball to see the future in all its fine detail. But that is not what they did; they were not carnival performers. They looked not to the future, but to the present moment to see what the inevitable consequences of current actions must be. Rather than predicting the future, they were “foretelling the present” so that the people of their time could be called to repentance and a change of heart, a change that would lead to a change of futures. Prediction was not their role; they aimed to show where the current course of their nation led.
One thing and one thing alone changes the course of prophecy: metanoia, a change of heart.
Likewise, what I have outlined is not a prediction, but it is (I believe) a plausible outcome of our current course of events. Those who would play the prophet must risk playing the fool, and I would one hundred times rather be proven a fool than a prophet. One thing and one thing alone changes the course of prophecy: metanoia, a change of heart. We change history by changing our hearts.
The literary type of the prophet is the Ghost of Christmas Future in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Through this grim visage, Scrooge is given the grace of seeing his own future. But is that future necessary? Is the book of his life already written, merely waiting to be played out, like actors on a stage reciting parts they had no hand in writing? Confronting the silent specter who shows him his own grave, Scrooge asks,
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
The Spirit was immovable as ever.
We know that Scrooge does change, and his future changes as well. And not only his future, but the futures of those around him. But it is one thing to change the heart of a man; quite another to change the heart of an entire nation. But that is the burden of the prophetic office. It is not to accurately foretell the future, but to show the inevitable consequences of our present actions. So we must summon the spirit of the prophets and apply them to our day. But which prophet must we summon?
I think there was a time in the not too distant past when we could have summoned the great prophets of the 8th century: Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah. These were the prophets of Yahweh’s justice, who cried out to “let judgment flow like water, and justice like an overflowing stream” (Amos 5:24). These were the prophets of peace, who called for a greater reliance on Yahweh so that the people could “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Micah 4:3, Isaiah 2:4). These were not prophets of the Law, but of a change of heart. And in their call, they may have slowed down the dissolution of Judah and added another century to its life, even if they had little effect on the Northern Kingdom.
But we seem to be investing our wealth in new and shinier swords, and to be beating our pruning hooks into ever-more potent spears. So these are not the prophets for our day. Rather, our prophet is Jeremiah. For the disasters that Isaiah and Hosea foresaw, Jeremiah lived.
The Edict of Emancipation
No incident more illustrates the preaching of Jeremiah then the incident with the Edict of Emancipation. With Jerusalem surrounded by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, Zedekiah issued an edict freeing all the slaves, likely because he did not have enough free troops to man the walls. Judah had become a slave society, as the people fell into debt and servitude. Slaves do not make good soldiers; the question of what language the master speaks is not one worth dying for. In the meantime, the Pharaoh Hophra, who had egged Zedekiah on and promised support, finally got his army on the move. Nebuchadnezzar lifted the siege to face Hophra’s army. Seeing the invader move on, the oligarchs of Judah changed their minds; how foolish it had been to give up all that human wealth!
They revoked the edict.
It is then that Jeremiah pronounces his terrible judgment:
But then you changed your mind and profaned my name by taking back your male and female slaves to whom you had given their freedom; you forced them once more into slavery.
Therefore, thus says the LORD: You did not obey me by proclaiming your neighbors and kinsmen free. I now proclaim you free, says the LORD, free for the sword, famine, and pestilence. I will make you an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. (Jeremiah 34:16-17)
Nebuchadnezzar brushes off Hophra’s army and returns to Jerusalem. Only now there is no one to defend the walls, and the Book of Jeremiah is followed by the Book of Lamentations.
We too have abandoned the poor and come to believe that all things can be referred to the “free” market. We too grant great privileges and exemptions to the rich and resent the amounts we pay for the poor, resent the regulations and institutions that might protect the working person or the environment. And we feel nothing when infants are ripped from their mothers’ arms, mothers who are trying to escape the social and economic chaos that our own policies or our insatiable appetite for drugs has caused. And perhaps we feel this way about their children because our own infants can be torn from the womb with impunity. Will we do these things that Zedekiah did, and not suffer the same fate? I hope not. But if we are to avoid his fate, we must recognize its possibility and undergo a change of heart.