The Oft-Tarnished City on a Hill

In His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) Jesus said, “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” Invoking the image of a city on a hill in a 1630 sermon to the Puritans (while they were aboard ship bound for Massachusetts), Governor John Winthrop explained his view of A Model of Christian Charity. Winthrop called on the people assembled to “follow the counsel of Micah” (from Micah 6:8) by doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God.winthropThe image of a city on a hill represented Winthrop’s vision of what the new country could mean in contrast to the outside world. If the people were faithful, if they followed God’s leading, if they worked with one purpose and lived peacefully with each other. This vision was shared by many of these brave men and women who crossed a sea and launched into the unknown. The compact to which they pledged was grounded in Christian principles.

Unfortunately, Winthrop’s vision has suffered over almost 400 years so that people today suggest we’ve just been fed a bowlful of malarky, we’ve swallowed the lies of a previous age, we’ve rewritten history to whitewash all the despicable parts off the map. It’s this kind of thinking that caused a dust-up (between myself and a commenter) today over at the See, there’s this thing called biology blog. I decided it was worth explaining here my belief that Western Civilization has an “arguably better record” (a phrase I used in my comments over there and one that was deemed objectionable).

This won’t be an exhaustive treatise here. Nor will it be a ringing endorsement for every single thing that’s been done in the name of Western Civilization. I made the point on the other blog that speaking of our appreciation for Western Civilization should never be construed to mean a blanket endorsement of all that has gone on in the centuries from (as thetruthstrangerthanfiction commenter suggested) the ancient Greeks forward.cityOnHill

Here’s what it means to me. Western Civilization (yes, as the image-bearer of a city on a hill) was grounded in Judeo-Christian principles. A core value was their high view of human life, because man is made in God’s image. Linked to this, they declared that all men were created equal and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. Sure, they messed things up because all men wasn’t all-inclusive. But building a nation on these principles (equality, unalienable rights, etc.) was radically different from other places around the globe.

List the ills that have been perpetrated in the name of Western Civilization. Wring your hands, flagellate yourself ten times a day, every day, about this nightmare called Western Civilization. Decimation of the Indians? Humiliation of the Black race? Institutional biases of race, sex and any other perceived hate? “Endless wars for fallacious reasons?” The enjoyment of our higher standard of living because some think we’ve subjugated (and thus abused) the rest of the world? Blatant imperialist agenda of the US? Do I need to go on?

Okay. Once you’ve wrung your hands, flagellated yourself, whined and bemoaned what a terrible thing is Western Civilization and specifically, the US, what exactly has been accomplished? May I respectfully submit … NOTHING!!

For anyone wishing to be contentious, I am not Western Civilization. Nor am I the United States of America. I’m not even my state of Arkansas, nor my county, city, street. I represent one person only, me. But acknowledging that I am one person, I know there are many others on my street, in my city, county, etc., who are just like me. Adding us all up, we still don’t represent every human in the state or country and certainly not all of Western Civilization! But … and this is a significant but … all of us together are part of that shining city on a hill, and proudly so.athens_-_mount_lycabettus_-_20080729a

Yes, I am a member of Western Civilization, but I am not my government … and never was. Worse still, the government doesn’t heed my desires. Truth be told, I don’t think my government epitomizes the vision of a city on a hill. It hasn’t for some time. But those people on my street, in my town, etc. Yes, they embody the vision Jesus and Governor Winthrop (and later Ronald Reagan) embraced, a city on a hill that shines abroad its beacon of hope and freedom and humanity and personal dignity.

And speaking on behalf of this company of individuals, I don’t know a one of them who decimated the Indians or humiliated Blacks. Whatever their possible biases, those biases are not representative of the whole. Some of that company have been soldiers and some have even fought overseas, but to paint with the broad brush that they were willing parties to “endless wars for fallacious reasons” is an abhorrent evil! Shame on you for even suggesting it!

But let’s return to this company of individuals, Westerners, yes, who are flagrantly enjoying the higher standard of living afforded in the US. You know what? I hope not one of them is ashamed. I know I’m not. Perhaps we could make the world happier by lowering the US standard of living so all peoples across the globe suffer at the same level? That’s absolute rubbish! One of the brightest shining points about that city on the hill is its ability to act as a beacon for all the other cities who can strive harder, reach higher and hope to become like that city on a hill. That’s the vision of Western Civilization – to shine the light of hope everywhere!

Early in the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address and appealed to his audience to consider the “better angels of our nature” in order to maintain the nation’s bonds that were frayed and fraying. Like Lincoln in 1861 (the nation was splitting, Americans were taking up arms against each other, and the future looked dim), we can refuse to focus on the wrongs. We can appeal to the better angels of our nature and consider the good and wonderful things this city on a hill has done. They are many and they are worthy. Don’t let anyone tell you differently!

12 thoughts on “The Oft-Tarnished City on a Hill

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. You’ve reminded me of some things I’ve forgotten. We must appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” indeed. It’s not that I believe we necessarily have the Lords favor as a country, but that we must strive to be a country worthy of having His favor. That’s an ideal, a goal, that we often fall short of, but if we hold this idea in our hearts, it’s more likely that we will follow that path. That is a worthy goal, a path that will benefit all people.

    There are many positive things about America that sometimes get lost in all the negativity, but we are incredibly generous with our charity, we send missionaries all over the world, we give more money than any one else. We provide medical care and relief efforts and often our military goes in to bail people out of trouble, rather than to cause more. Sometimes I think of the times we did not intervene, like in Rwanda, and the humanitarian disasters that have happened in our absence.

    There is a lot of goodness in this country, something that is easier to see in the people who come here and the dreams they have and the things they accomplish. We are so compassionate, so tolerant, sometimes I think we take that for granted and descend into a great deal of self criticism for failing to have solved all the world’s problems and alleviated all suffering.

    1. Yes! Your comment adds so much! At the beginning of this country, God’s hand in our founding seemed especially noteworthy (if you read the writings of the founders). We’ve been far from perfect and yet God has continued to bless. The negativity (due to our inaction in places like Rwanda) should not be allowed to paralyze us. The generous giving spirit in this country (especially during disasters) is amazing. And the “better angels of our nature” will continue to be a motivating force as long as there are people in this country who seek to follow the principles of Christian Charity (Love) John Winthrop urged in his sermon.

      Thanks for your great comments!

      1. (Wait… did u possibly erase my “addendum” comment from like this afternoon? I left a short follow up comment and I’m pretty sure I saw it go through… I sure hope it simply got lost in the netherwebs or something, cuz otherwise that would just be weak…)

        1. Nevermind. it suddenly popped up after being nowhere to be seen. weird… well, interested in seeing what kind of response or further explanation you would put forward, that is if you don’t already hate me at this point or something…

          1. I don’t hate you at all. You’ve offered some excellent observations. Thanks for being part of a good conversation! God bless!

    2. Ok, where to start… (I’m posting this under IB’s comment so she gets the fun of being able to see it too…) :-)

      Interestingly enough, just like with so much of what IB talks about, I actually agree with so many of the things you are saying, in terms of yes, there are of course lots of generous people in America! Yes, there is a LOT of good going on! Yes, I’m sure that there are indeed a lot of very lovely people living in your neighborhood somewhere over in Arkansas! And by the way, let’s try and make this perfectly clear from the get-go, no one is suggesting that we self-castigate for the crimes of generations past. That is nonsense. I never even insinuated that YOU or I or anyone else bears some personal responsibility for what happened to the Native Americans or black people etc., I’m afraid that was a bit of a leap on your part…

      But here’s the thing… Using a term like “Western Civilization”, and then turning around and essentially redefining that term to fit into your own little personalized, custom meaning, is well, frankly it’s just nothing but counter-intuitive and really just almost nonsensical! I mean, I suppose you can use that term to mean whatever you want it to mean, (who am I to say otherwise…), but I guess my real “beef” there is that when you pull out a term like “Western Civilization”, IN THE CONTEXT OF USING IT TALK TO A BROADER AUDIENCE, MANY OF WHOM ARE NON-BELIEVERS, then unfortunately I don’t believe it’s either useful, nor intellectually honest, to use it when it’s quite plain to see that what THEY mean by that term is in fact, everything from Greek/Roman times through Europe up till now, and encompasses EVERYTHING in the whole kit n’ caboodle!

      Does that make sense?

      Because what are we really looking at here, when we read through something like Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity”…? Was it even written as something intended to serve as the blueprint for some massive secular society and/or government? Or would it be much more accurate to regard it as being much more akin to a church’s “doctrinal statement”, and also a sort of “code of conduct” for a Congregation? After all… Isn’t that essentially what those Puritan pilgrims were? They were an “ekklesia”, who chose to hop on ships and cross the ocean into the wild unknowns in hopes of being able to live out from underneath the oppressive state-mandated religious institutions of Europe (which again, themselves do in fact constitute a pretty significant proportion of the history of “W.C.” in Europe…) So did “W.C.” begin in 1630 then? Again, the problem is perhaps lying largely in the use of a word/term that would simply be better left alone!

      I would suggest that instead would much describe much better the sort of thing you are talking about, the Body of Christ…(!) What is so difficult about that? Once we allow ourselves to step away from using worldly concepts/terms involving “civilizations” and earthly kingdoms, then suddenly, THEN it becomes quite effortless to separate and distinguish between the true, Spirit-filled believers who were of course present all down through history, (and yes, largely in the West for most of that time!) and THEY were the ones loving their neighbor in spirit and Truth, THEY were the ones treating their fellow man as having an innate value because of the Creator, THEY were the ones bringing with them these “Christian values” that we keep talking about…

      We can see that the Lord used His Bride, the true Church, to carry His Word and Light to people all over the world, using lots of “Westerners” of course, but this occurred largely in spite OF the outer political/religious institutions of money and power that are so often thought of when the term “Western Civilization” is spoken, not because of them….

      That is what always was, and continues to be, the true “city on a hill”. The Bride. The Body. Living in and amongst the world everywhere, yet called to be “salt and light”, something different, something set apart. It’s funny how if you go back and read the entirety of Matthew 5 (and the continuing next couple of chapters) how much more context is given to that single line used by Winthrop as he wrote that piece….

      I’ll admit that I don’t necessarily have a set opinion at this time as to whether Winthrop had veered largely off course in using that idea, those “values” to be taken as the guiding principles for a community like that one, basically a settlement in a foreign land. When I read it, to me it sounds like a pastor talking to a congregation. It’s clearly a message for believers is it not? It’s a pretty fascinating read, actually. He talks about the early Church in Acts, and how they shared their physical belongings, and forgave debts, and lots of just awesome, practical stuff in there! But do you think Winthrop and Co. necessarily wrote those things imagining all that would come after in the “New World”? I mean, your typical elementary student in America starts learning about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock, etc., and then it’s like, you turn the page and suddenly we’re talking about Paul Revere and punk rock tea parties… ;-) It’s a big leap!

      Anyways…. Hopefully you can at least start to see where I’m going with all of that. Basically I think the same criticisms of using the term “Western Civilization” applies to using a name/word/term as broad and sweeping and all-inclusive as “America”. Sure, there a tons of “positive” things ABOUT America. There are scores of loving, genuine, Christian people IN America, just like there were eventually many loving, genuine Christian people in the Roman Empire! Constantine was not a “victory” in my book. Not at all.. Quite the contrary. But of course, God wasn’t outdone. The Church didn’t die and cease to exist, simply because they Enemy changed tactics, and went from trying to just stamp it out by force to the more subtle and effective method of co-opting it and making it the “official” religion of the Empire. No, the Enemy didn’t win with that move, but at the same time, we can’t deny the centuries of very real spiritual and physical fallout which came about as a result of it, all of which very much is too an unmistakable part of the legacy of “Western Civilization”…..

      1. Thanks for your comment and taking the time to express your thoughts so well. So much of what you say I’m in agreement with. I cede a certain discomfort with the fuzzy, overlapping notion of Western Civilization, but it’s kind of the phrase we’ve adopted by default. Please understand that, yes, I was using your comments to make a longer leap, because I’ve fielded this notion in the past where people are so guilt-ridden by one or more long-past WC transgressions, that’s all they can talk about. They have no ability to move forward because they’re blinded by our past. I get frustrated when this turns into trend du jour where nothing but whining (and flagellating) takes place. Forgive me for lumping you into that mindset.

        I don’t really think we’re that far apart in our stances. Let’s agree that WC is a term used with some fluidity, hard to nail down and we do need a better, more definite term. So yes, that does makes sense.

        As to Winthrop’s sermon, I think without question he was speaking to his audience of “parishioners,” specifically, the souls aboard the ship. Neither of us can know Winthrop’s mind when he delivered this sermon, so there’s no way of knowing whether or not his intent was broader than the immediate audience. But in his enumeration of what might be said are “universal truths,” I think they could serve as a model for behavior, whether one was a believer in Christ or not. I agree it was the Body of Christ (in the main) bringing Christian values with them to the new world, Christian values that even non-believers would find beneficial to follow … as many of them did.

        This is perhaps our point of differentiation, because in my view, all Americans (not just Christians) have benefited from the Common Grace of Christ benevolently bestowed on this country. My belief is that Common Grace has been enjoyed by all because of the faithfulness of Christian men and women. Connected to it, I see the “city on a hill” as two distinct expressions, the first as you suggest, the Bride of Christ. But the second, a country where Christians have honored God (over time) and He has blessed (not just materially) and the message of Christ has been multiplied. I’m less married to the second iteration, but I think it’s hard to dispute God has blessed us as a nation.

        Ha! You’re probably aware how the early settlers attempted to live the Acts model of sharing things in common … but were sorely disappointed with its outcome. Hardly a great example of that “city on a hill” Winthrop described!

        You have nailed it in your last paragraph. Sinful men and women that we are, we have been shamefully derelict throughout WC in representing Christ as we ought. It is an unfortunate legacy at best. So glad it is the blood of Christ that saves!

    3. One quick addendum.. I just realized I forgot to respond to my “shameful” comment about “endless wars for fallacious reasons”. I suppose I wanted to make sure and make my broader point about the Body of Christ first…

      I still very much stand by that statement, and could probably elaborate much more than I expect you would be interested in reading, but the bottom line is, Ephesians 6. Who is our battle against? Is it “flesh and blood”, or is it the “powers and principalities”? You can’t find the demonic realm with tanks and guns and bombs….. You only end up killing your fellow man, who Jesus came to save….

      But yes, “fallacious reasons” is no small statement either, I realize, but unfortunately it’s bold claim holds up to further scrutiny as well, if you are game. Here are some possible search topics you could start with: Gulf of Tonkin, Iraq’s “W.M.D.s”, babies in unplugged incubators, or a little thing called “9/11″….

      1. You make a good point here. (Ten years ago, I might have answered you differently.) I don’t think I’m yet where you are though. I have studied Just War Theory and cannot dismiss it completely. Passages from the Old Testament also loom large, where God instructed His people to destroy certain nations (killing one’s fellow man).

        As for “fallacious reasons,” hey, the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked. I am no longer surprised (though often grieved) by the schemes of men in power. Thanks for a stimulating discussion!

Comments Are Always Appreciated!