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A City Built Upon a Hill? Political Rhetoric, Imperialism, and American Exceptionalism

November 25, 2008

On our Election Day last month, I woke up, put on my sandals and a jacket, and walked across the street to cast my vote in the presidential election. My expression of democratic freedom marked the end of a three month stretch, in which I along with many others have been saturated with blather and rhetorical flourishes, mostly devoid of substance. I suspect that we will remember the 2008 campaign and its debates—if they can even be called debates—as verbal trysts interspersed with paeans to Change, Hope, Joe the Plumber, Hockey Moms, and Consummate Mavericks, not as informed dialogue about the systemic injustice our leaders have perpetuated, both here and abroad. By the time January rolls around and Barack Obama is inaugurated as our 44th President, I wonder if anyone outside of Alaska will remember the residue of the 2008 campaign: Governor Sarah Palin’s numerous attempts to envision U.S. foreign policy as an expression of God’s will.

For me, the nadir of debate season came when Palin announced that she shares a worldview alongside John McCain “that says that America is a nation of exceptionalism,” a “shining city on a hill, as President Regan so beautifully said.”  This analogy locates Palin amidst a lineage of politicians who use biblical language to establish a relationship between spiritual zeal and partisan allegiance. George W. Bush, who admitted to one reporter in 2000 that Jesus is his favorite political philosopher, has persistently used the Johannine metaphors of darkness and light to describe the stakes of his ideological war on terror.  Bill Clinton remarks in his biography My Life that he sees himself as having lived through a mirror dimly, a recognition that the greatest calling in life is to abide in faith, hope, and love.  And, of course, Ronald Regan, apparently a great beacon of inspiration to Palin’s speechwriters, also evoked the New Testament’s “city on a hill”—a rhetorical maneuver that he actually borrowed from the Puritan leader John Winthrop, who used this metaphor to give divine credence to the Puritan settlement of the New World in 1630.

Does Palin really intend to suggest that America is a nation sanctioned by God to exert control over anyone who imperils its economic prosperity? Palin’s remark clearly intends to resonate with those familiar with New Testament language, but to what end? As recent U.S. political history has shown, merely mentioning biblical language doesn’t necessarily guarantee a successful campaign. Recall John Kerry’s veiled criticism of President Bush vis-à-vis his approximate citation of James: “What does it profit, my brother, if a man says he has faith but does not have works?”  Bush’s campaign advisors responded by calling Kerry’s use of Scripture a tactic that lies outside the bounds of public decency and a flagrant conflation of secular politics and sacred truth. As some might remark here, even the devil can quote Scripture.

Palin’s interpretation of America as a “shining city on a hill” should not go unnoticed. I would wager a guess that most people recognize the “city on a hill” phrase from the Bible, yet few could identify where the phrase occurs, explain what function the metaphor serves in both the Old Testament and New Testament, or understand the inherent incompatibility between theological faith and earthly politics that the phrase implies. Effective as Palin’s construction may be, it perniciously reorders New Testament salvation history to suit the immediate needs of the Republican Party. Palin’s analogy is not just an attempt to establish a political relationship between Israel and the United States. It is also an opportunistic exploitation of a culture that is biblically illiterate, even though the New Testament functions as the benchmark of truth for many people participating in it.

Palin’s “city on a hill” analogy, a metaphor that occurs several times in the Old Testament and once in the Gospels (Matthew 5), sets up a typological understanding of the world that suggests all aspects of American history, especially its recent history, are a fulfillment of God’s intended intervention in human history. According to the literary critic Northrop Frye, typology is “a mode of thought” that develops into a theory of human progress. As Frye explains, typological rhetoric assumes “that there is some meaning and point to history, and that sooner or later some event or events will occur which will indicate what that meaning or point is, and so become an antitype of what has happened previously” (81). Thus, under the logic of Palin’s use of the “city on a hill” metaphor, the flourishing of America is tantamount to God’s final redemptive victory in the course of all human history.

Of course, there’s an obvious problem here. To imply that America is a second manifestation of Israel, God’s chosen people, is to make a bold theological and political claim, especially given what we know of America’s past. In the 378 years that have passed since John Winthrop first likened his community to a city upon a hill, the United States formed, built an empire of exploitation and dehumanization on the institution of slavery, displaced and ruthlessly murdered scores of Native American tribes, withheld civil liberties from some segments of its population, obliterated entire cities instantaneously via atomic weaponry, and initiated unilateral wars of aggression. I’m not sure this legacy is what Jesus had in mind when he told his followers that they are to be “the light of the world,” a “city built on a hill [that] cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:14-15). Rather, the opposite is likely true; Jesus’ metaphor informs an attitude characteristic of the Kingdom of Heaven, a realm in which God’s victory over evil is expressed in this world. Allegiance to this realm means that those espousing the faith of Christ must remain aloof from earthly kingdoms and political systems; members of the Kingdom of Heaven are to be detached from the world, and yet their very existence should be such that they cannot but cast an influence on that world.”

Many Gospel readers understand that the image Matthew’s Jesus uses here hearkens back to Isaiah’s prophetic image of a glorified Jerusalem, which is to become an imperial center after God’s final intervention in human affairs has taken place. According to the oracle

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest
of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it (Isaiah 2:2)

The prophet speaks of the moment when Jerusalem will be restored to a stronghold, a place of peace and justice that signals God’s ultimate rule on earth. This promise gets incorporated into Matthew because it is central to the eschatological claims made by Jesus: allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven requires a radical commitment to the realization of God’s justice that ultimately will come. It’s also important to consider the city on the hill motif in Matthew to its immediate context, the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon forms one of Jesus’ eschatological discourses in Matthew, in which he seeks to situate the Kingdom of God on earth by reconfiguring a new relationship to the Jewish Law that establishes the radical exigency of seeking justice on earth. The antithetical statements that follow the “light of the world” metaphor reinforce an ethical standard that takes the Law to its logical limit.

While Jesus’ metaphor certainly seeks to implore his followers to seek justice on earth, it is also a warning against an uncritical allegiance to the imperial order of Rome. It could be that Jesus is introducing language of a city on a hill ironically, as a direct counter to imperial power that ruled the world during his time. We might be shocked to learn that neither John Winthrop nor Gov. Palin were the first use of the image of a city on a hill to justify an imperial power. In his Cataline Orations, the Roman philosopher Cicero used a similar phrase to describe the splendor and power of Rome, the imperial center of the great empire. In his time Rome is, “a light to the whole world.”  Cicero wrote the Cataline Orations at the height of Rome’s power, at least fifty years before Jesus’ ministry, so it’s hard to say whether the Old Testament metaphor for Jerusalem had been tainted by Roman imperial ideology by the time Jesus lived. There’s a good chance that Cicero’s metaphor did, in fact, serve as a ubiquitous symbol of an earthly kingdom that is antithetical to God’s will on earth, so it’s especially appalling to see this scripture appropriated to validate the imperial ideologies of today’s early kingdoms.

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From → Politics, The Bible, War

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