City on a hill

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Rev. David Robins

October 16, 2011
The phrase, “A City upon a hill,” is one of the ideals that has defined and shaped America. Since Africans and Europeans first landed on these shores, the American spirit has been a tug of war between individualism and common good, autonomy and community, inclusion and exclusion.

“City on a hill” comes to us through a sermon preached by John Winthrop in 1630 to the Puritan passengers on the ship, the Arbella, before it sailed from England. The sermon title was “A Model Of Christian Charity.” The Puritans sought to purify the Church of England. They were not Separatists, as were the people who came to identify as Unitarians, Universalists, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians.

At the close of Winthrop’s sermon, he says, “ We shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people upon us. If we deal falsely with God on the work we have undertaken….we will empower our enemies, shame those who do good works, and be near forgotten in history.” (paraphrase)

Winthrop took his phrase from Jesus’ statement made on the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew:

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set upon a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and glorify God in heaven.”

These sayings were gathered up almost a hundred years after Jesus died. To what was Jesus referring? The sayings of Isaiah would be a good answer as Isaiah refers to Jerusalem thirty times as the “city of God.” Jesus’ message can be seen as pan-Judaic, pan-tribal. His intent was to provide a moral and ethical message to unite the tribes from the deep divisions of that time. And what united the tribes more than anything else, was the image of Jerusalem as the ‘city of God.’ If the people of Jerusalem could follow his message of moral righteousness and love, then the city set upon a hill could not be hid.

And thus, John Winthrop appropriated a first century Galilean tribal image and applied it to America. Winthrop wanted Puritan America to be a moral model for the entire world. He laid out his vision in his sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. You will hear from different political candidates, their interpretation of America as a ‘city on a hill.’

A city on a hill is a religious image of a social covenant between God and the American people. American exceptionalism comes from Alexis de Toqueville’s observation that Americans are exceptionally good at exercising their freedoms to make money. Every election cycle, we hear different versions of these two strains in America, wrestling with each other. That is because these are two needs that wrestle in the hearts and minds of Americans.

Here are some of the characteristics outlined by Winthrop in 1630.

  • The world holds a variety of differences among people and this is a glory

  • The rich and mighty should not harm the poor

  • People are divided into rich and poor, and the two rules that govern human interaction are Justice and Mercy.

  • The golden rule is the basis for all laws.

  • There are times when you must give all to those in distress and these are moments of “extraordinary liberality.” These times include; “giving, lending, and forgiving of a debt.”

  • Lay up your stores for hard times ahead

  • Money is lent for necessities, not for requests

  • When the community is in peril, think of others rather than oneself

  • Love is the ligament that joins society together

  • The care of the public domain always over-sways all private aspects

  • The moral precepts of Jesus are a covenant of Laws, given by God, and entered into by the Puritans

  • Do not be seduced into worshipping pleasure and profit

Winthrop closes with the sentiment: Let us, “…delight in each other, make other’s condition our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together….so shall we keep the unity of the sprit in the bond of peace.”

If Winthrop were alive today, would he shake his head at the fractiousness and fractured nature of our society? Would he turn away from the worship of profit and pleasure? Would he scold the trend to cast adrift the least among us? Would he cry out over wars and rumors of wars?

Would Winthrop see this incarnation of the “shining city on a hill,” and marvel at ways in which community and compassion, justice and mercy thrive in spite of challenges?

Would Winthrop smile to see that more people still want to come to this shining city than any place on earth?

America has more first generation immigrants, almost 39 million, than any other country in the world. People continue to be drawn by the chance to live in political freedom and to accumulate as much wealth and property as one can derive from one’s labor and cleverness.

I close by quoting two politicians who captured some of the best attributes of a city on a hill.

On 9 January 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy returned the phrase to prominence during an address delivered to the General Court of Massachusetts:

...I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. "We must always consider", he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us". Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by ‘people’(men) aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required...”[

President Ronald Reagan used the image as well, in his 1984 acceptance of the Republican Party nomination and in his January 11, 1989, farewell speech to the nation:

...I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it and see it still....[4] (wikipedia)

Kennedy caught the message of Winthrop in that the eyes of all the world are upon us, and we will be judged upon whether or not we can live up to our ideals of Justice and mercy, and by how well we can admit our mistakes , and then, correct them. Reagan caught the spirit of a harmonious city on a hill that welcomed the stranger.

America is a city on a hill, with a moral and ethical message that its people have struggled to live up to. America is an exceptional land for individual freedoms that sometimes ruin people’s lives and society with its excesses.

The next national election will be another referendum on the various meanings behind the phrase, “City on a hill,” and the words. Let us not settle for anything less than the best strands of moral integrity, and the widest perspective of America’s exceptional opportunities.

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