A City on a Hill – II

  • Posted: July 7, 2021
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As the tragicomedy of post-Covid circumstances unfold, there are those in my circle convinced we are living in “The End Times”,  the Ragnarok prophesied by the prophet Daniel and the Apostle John. Delving into the labyrinths of prophesies regarding this future interregnum has always been a flame to the moths of Scripture’s serious students, though I admit a curious reluctance at engagement in such speculation. Perhaps I am too comfortable in the here and now. Or more probably, it may be that despite my pretensions, I am not yet a serious student of Scripture.

But eschatological speculation aside, this is an interesting time, an interesting time growing increasingly ominous. Watching the unfolding of events, I feel more and more to be in a movie made from a book I remember reading. As the Covid Passport grows inevitable, the picture of “666” in Rev. 13 takes up a ghastly reality outside our nightmares.

No one can deny that we do live in interesting times. In our present day when urban myths and spurious anecdotes have replaced common sense in a divided country, the reality of an apocryphal ancient Chinese curse looms before us:

“May you live in interesting times”

The identification of the ancient Chinese curse’s identification as “Chinese” and “ancient” are urban myth. That ancient Chinese curse was in fact the invention of a 19th Century British politician, one of those odious Victorians. However, it is an urban myth capturing the spirit of our own age. As the irony of our present despair is hidden within the affluence of our circumstances, the apocryphal curse’s outward blessing conceals its sting within irony.

Our elites, adrift in their meaningless prosperity, seek meaning by doing penance for their unspoken guilt, mouthing pious shibboleths. They apologize for the sins of those long departed, ironically those very ones responsible for the present affluence of that elite. Yet even as they wail piteously in penance, kneeling before strawmen in vacuous self-abasement, all the while they construct walls protecting their prosperity to exclude the deplorable “others” on which their present prosperity depends.

The deplorable “others” in fly over country, seeing their 2nd class citizenship made permanent, bridle and snarl at the contempt heaped upon them. The urban “others”, sensing the bleak landscape of their servitude and increasingly restive within the spoils system of Adorable patronage, seek something beyond lip service and photo ops from their patrons. These brothers in ill-circumstance, the Deplorable and the urban serf, become easy prey for those promising revenge; the grifter, the agitator, the demagogue.

And in our collective pain and distress, we, the Adorable, the Deplorable and the urban serf, all focus on our own wounds, our own pain. As our angst, both individual and collective, increases, our circle of concern narrows until nothing remains but our own torment. We forget the rest of the world out there, a world with real people. And we are sadly forgetful that we, the American people, are the bull in the china shop. What we do, what we think, what we say has real consequences, most of which consequence will not be suffered by ourselves.

America is that most dangerous of nations, a nation founded upon and possessed by ideals. Upon his visit to America in the 1920’s, that perceptive English observer of the post-Victorian world, G. K. Chesterton, said it this way:

“America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed”

Other nations are satisfied to pursue Bismarckian Realpolitik, the pursuit of security, prosperity, respect, influence, etc. But nations founded on ideals?  Mr. Chesterton aside, such birds are rare but not unique. There have been other nations founded on ideals, the First Republic of France, the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Latin Crusader Kingdoms. Well, you get the idea. May you live in interesting times, indeed.

The ideal of America has been best defined by that conceit of the Puritan Pilgrim’s, John Winthrop’s notion of a “City on a Hill”. Abraham Lincoln, JFK, Ronald Reagan, et al. have inspired us again and again, have appealed to our better natures, with that vision of a “City on a Hill.”.

As a loyal 2nd generation son of this country, I believe in that vision, in this country. Unlike my fellows citizens in the land of the Adorables passing judgment on those who came before, I am close both in time and family to the “old country”, leaving me fewer illusions about what lies within myself, my fellow citizens or beyond America’s borders – past, present or future.

Nations founded on ideals and their citizens are a puzzling admixture.  Our ideals and our fallen nature co-exist in uneasy equilibrium. We fail to live up to our lofty ideals repeatedly, succeeding seldom. We are people, subject to all the frailties common to humanity. We are guilty of all the sins, both mortal and venal. All too often we conflate our own well-being with the common good.

Another urban myth captures the mercenary altruism common to men of good will. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower nominated the President of General Motors, Charles Wilson, to be his Sec. of Defense. During his confirmation hearings, one of Mr. Wilson’s remarks has been seized upon ever since by the “better sort” to sneer at business people in public service. When questioned about his sizable stake in GM stock, he supposedly said:

“What’s good for GM is good for America.”

The well-used urban myth is a misquote. Charles Wilson actually said – “I thought what was good for our country was good for GM, and vice versa”. Not quite as memorable but more pointed as to the conundrum facing a nation founded on ideals.

It is difficult enough to judge what is good for General Motors, but how to judge what is good for a country founded on an ideal? How to judge what is good for a country founded on an ideal when that ideal is in flux, when there is a contested consensus? How to judge when the stakes are so high? Are we simply Godzilla stalking the streets of a city while believing ourselves champions of the oppressed?

The 4th of July is BBQ’s, boating and ball games, but it should be a time of reflection. How is the individual to think about citizenship in the most powerful and influential nation in the history of the world? How do we balance self interest with the common good, honestly weighing the interests of America against the rest of the world?

Given the intellectual bankruptcy of today’s thinkers and leaders, I turn to a musty and forgotten source of wisdom, God’s Statutes given to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai, sometimes known as the Ten Commandments. Often referenced but seldom actually read, there is deep wisdom in these words.

The 2nd Commandment, perhaps the most obscure within that fading group of ten, contains a very pointed warning to us, a fractious divided people of immense power and influence fighting over parochial concerns. The 2nd Commandment concerns idols – “Don’t make them, don’t worship them”. An uncomfortable reference if we reflect upon that which divides us today.

But it is in the body of the 2nd Commandment’s lengthy prohibition on idol worship, that God points out something that should weigh very heavily on us, on the citizens of the United States. God speaks:

“. . . for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me . . .”

One need not be a Biblical scholar or history junkie to recognize the weight of truth in that warning. Simply think of the generations in your own family. We often escape the consequences of our own sins, at least in this life, but the birds always come home to roost even though generations might pass.

In my younger days I subscribed to the ethic of the Libertarian, “It’s okay to do it if it doesn’t hurt anyone else”. Americans are a fertile soil for this philosophy. It has served as the camel’s nose under the tent for much that now divides us. Being human, we not only want the freedom to do as we please, but require public acquiescence in our choices followed by popular approval and then institutional blessing of them.

Libertarian thinking still seduces, a siren call in my ears. As I matured, the responsibility for wife and children began to open my eyes to its seductive lie. In later years, growing responsibilities to employees and clients shone ever more brightly on the darkness within the beguiling emptiness at the heart of the Libertarian philosophy. But still it calls. That scene of Ulysses bound to the mast of his ship as the sirens sing captures my heart.

As He always does, Jesus gets to the heart of the problem. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks to me. He speaks to America.

“To whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him more will be asked.”

I have been given much. America has been given much. Much has been committed to us; prosperity, freedom, safety. Like the Sun’s gravity upon the Solar System, our wealth and power bend the world to our orbit. But even as we gain the heights, we become more selfish, more focused on ourselves. Our vices, our corruption and our idols infect the world even as they draw them inexorably into their service.

What is it about “idols” that provokes God? Why is He jealous? Is He so self-centered that all attention must be on Him? An understandable human reaction. That is how we think. But God is something beyond and apart from us, beyond and apart from the vices and weaknesses that plague us. Otherwise, is He God?

One must begin with His love for us. God says He loves us whole heartedly and unconditionally, but He has also given us free will. Imagine if you will, your beloved daughter experimenting with drugs, flirting with pimps promising her freedom from a loving parent’s constraints meant to protect her from a life of degradation. Does the 2nd Commandment begin to make sense now?

Even though we no longer carve or forge statues of imagined gods, human beings haven’t changed. We still have idols, though we no longer need a golden image as the focus of our idolatry, our ability to make our idols real. Instead we use our mastery over technology to make our ideals real. America’s power and wealth make our idols, our ideals, very real indeed.

Idols, ideals – a very fine line separates them. America’s ideals or America’s idols? Simply put, an ideal is something to strive for while an idol demands obedience, demands worship. Perhaps that explains the difference between America and those other nations founded on ideals.

America’s ideal found expression in John Winthrop’s City on a Hill. Winthrop described the City thus:

“to follow the counsel of the Prophet Micah, to do justly, to walk humbly with our God. . . . . we must look at each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to give out of our plenty for the supply of other’s necessities. We must together engage in honest commerce with all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality . . .”

There is no mention of coercion, of the need for others to accept our way of life. Unlike other nations driven by ideals, the United States will be a nation of such winsome character that the world will be drawn by our example. They shall be drawn by our example, not coerced by our guns, not compelled by our dollars nor threatened by our ideologies.

If we are a City on a Hill, our generations to come need not fear the consequences of our idols. Because while we safe from the consequences of our follies now, king of the hill today, a bit of folk wisdom warns of the threat to our future generations– “Every dog has his day”.

Another of those discredited Victorian’s, Herman Melville the once great American novelist, put America’s ideals this way:

“We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our times; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world . . . . God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls.”

On this 4th of July, we might pause to remember both the 2nd Commandment and John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” as we bestride the globe in our power and wealth.

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