Our Shining City on a Hill?
Do you believe that America is the “city on a hill” that Christ was referring to in his Sermon on the Mount? Are there more than one of these cities? Was Jesus talking about a civil nation at all, or was this a metaphor of the church?
Ding, ding, ding…1,000 cyber-points awarded to those of you who agree with question #3.
In his book, Richard Gamble gives us a history lesson on how Americans have refashioned this metaphor of the church into the myth of the redeemer nation. “The first two chapters of this book set out to free the Puritans, John Winthrop, and the Model of Christian Charity from nearly 400 years of accumulated clutter” (16). The reader will discover that not only was Winthrop’s infamous “city on a hill” line insignificant to the discourse as a whole, but that we really don’t know if he ever delivered The Model of Christian Charity as a sermon while aboard the Arbella. If you are now thinking, “Wait a minute, I read about Winthrop preaching about the city on a hill aboard the Arbella in my history books,” you probably did. This story has been renovated to fit the ideologies of historians and politicians on both the left and the right.
If you are interested in how this could have happened, you need to read Gamble’s book. Although he does free the Puritans, Winthrop, and the Model from accumulated clutter, he presents them as the messy selves that they were. In cautioning the reader not to read America’s future into the Puritan’s purpose and context, Gamble demonstrates that this was not a political discourse, but a model of Christian love. And yet, in it there is certainly a rendition of Deuteronomy 30 that does show Winthrop’s conviction of a national covenant in which he was leading his Puritan community to the Promised Land. In contrast with God’s covenant of grace in which Christ has accomplished redemption on our behalf, earning our future, eternal holy land, Winthrop seemed to push the rewind button back to a temporary land based on our covenantal obedience. Sounds familiar to some of the rhetoric today.
Gamble then traces this popular metaphor through pastors, historians, and politicians up to this day, where it has been spun to implications completely unrecognizable from the meaning our first Pastor ever gave to it. There is a great chapter on Ronald Reagan’s interpretation and exploitation of the metaphor to promote American exceptionalism, making the phrase “a holy relic of the American civil religion” (155).
Why does any of this matter?
The language of the church cannot be appropriated by the state without consequences. The long tradition of Christian political theology has maintained, despite considerable internal debate and important exceptions, that the confusion between the ‘things of Caesar’ and the ‘things of God’ threatens the integrity of both realms. It elevates the secular government beyond its calling and capacity and robs the church of an essential part of its identity.
Wrapped in the American flag, the biblical metaphor of the city on a hill loses its power to identify the church…The ‘good news’ has been overshadowed by a feel-good political agenda (181-182).
It matters for the sake of the purity of the gospel. America as a redeemer nation is not very good news at all.