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Who Owns the City?

July 29, 2016

This morning I was listening to MSNBC fawning over Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party in general in their post-convention analysis.  “Analysts” who just a few weeks ago were appalled by Clinton and zealous in their support of Bernie Sanders suddenly realized that Clinton was the one they had loved all along and they were gleefully explaining how wonderful it was that she was nominated.

And then I heard it.  Then one of them invoked the magic words “a city on a hill” to extoll the virtues on a Clinton-led America.  Surely, once she was elected, the world will marvel at our goodness and virtue and look to the good old USA, the greatest nation in the world, for leadership in the days ahead – unless of course we elect Trump.

I am sure there were a good number of Republicans, and in particular evangelicals, who gasped in horror on hearing those words, so sure were they that the phrase “city on a hill” was their property.  After all, Ted Cruz used the same phrase in launching his campaign.  Evangelical culture warrior Eric Metaxas claimed it for the religious right with his “rousing call to arms” in his book If You Can Keep It.

So who owns the city on a hill?  There has been something of a tug of war over the phrase in American politics.  John Kennedy invoked it in his 1960 presidential race.  Ronald Reagan grabbed it back in 1980 and used the phrase right up to his 1989 farewell speech.  By 2000, when George W Bush began to use it, it seemed as if the battle was won.  The phrase was owned by conservative evangelicals (almost all of whom were Republicans) as they trumpeted the idea of American exceptionalism.  So it must gall Metaxas and others to hear Democrats and, even worse godless progressives, trying to take it back.

There are two basic sources for the phrase “city on a hill.”  The first is Matthew 5:14, where Jesus says “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”  Then in 1630 Puritan pastor John Winthrop, while still onboard ship headed to America, gave the sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” using the phrase in application to the New England colony to which he was headed.  So you can see why those who see themselves as Winthrop’s heirs might feel they own the phrase.

This led me to want to actually read Winthrop’s message and, thanks to the internet, it is freely available, as is commentary and background.  (Warning:  Before you read any commentary, in particular current-day extrapolations from it, read the sermon itself without reading any footnotes or explanations.)  If you do you will see one thing is clear – far from being a call to American exceptionalism as it is preached today; far from being an exaltation in how wonderful and special our country is, it was a warning.  I can’t help but think that those who heard it trembled.

The background is that in England, after the founding of the Anglican Church, there was a struggle in just how far from Catholic theology and structure the church needed to go.  By the early 1600s the significant faction that became known as the Puritans came to feel that things would not get better; that the change has failed of its promise.  And so, by the thousands, they chose to leave and come to the New England Colonies to start over.  It is estimated that over 20,000 made the move.  Winthrop was rightly convinced that the whole world was watching; that much of that world was rooting for the Puritans to fail; that if they did fail to establish a just and godly society everything they stood for would be brought to shame.

The full message of Winthrop’s sermon is not found in that one phrase.  It is not the “look how special we are” of American exceptionalism.  It isn’t even the “you need to do what I say or God will turn his back on us” of Metaxas’ book.  The full message is in what Winthrop actually urged his congregation to do.  Since they were going to be a city on a hill whether they liked it or not, how should they act?  Here are some warnings he gave in the stilted language (to us) of that day that I have slightly modifed:

  • God wants to have his men give gifts to his other men, instead of giving gifts himself.
  • The rich should help the poor, instead of God directly, and therefore the rich demonstrate their work to God.
  • People who are able to help others that are in need, should.
  • Physical wealth can hinder serving God.
  • He talked about love in these terms: “First: This love among Christians is a real thing, not imaginary. Secondly: This love is as absolutely necessary to the being of the body of Christ, as the sinews and other ligaments of a natural body are to the being of that body. Thirdly: This love is a divine, spiritual nature free, active, strong, courageous; permanent…. this makes us nearer to resemble the virtues of our heavenly father… Fourthly: It rests in the love and welfare of its beloved.” By having met all four requirements of this love, this body of people known as the Puritans would be knit together by the bond of love.”

Yes, Winthrop thought that Puritan America had the opportunity to be exceptional.  But I can’t help but think that his view of an exceptional America doesn’t fit in with the kick out the Hispanics, ban the Muslims, clamp down on the ghettos, criminalize those who are different, take power through voting, “we don’t want your kind here” views of his contemporary followers.

It is always a risk to take the words of a man spoken nearly 400 years ago and apply it to contemporary politics.  But watch out Republicans; watch out evangelicals; the Democrats want to be the “city on a hill” and they think they are, and can be.  The challenge, wherever you stand politically and in your faith, is to develop and live an ethic that draws people to you almost in spite of themselves.  If we can’t do that we will not be a city on a hill.  We will be a beleaguered fort desperately trying to keep out the very people that we are called to reach.

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