For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. – John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”
These were the words of John Winthrop while on board the Arbella on the passage from England. He spoke these words to his Puritan brethren as they traveled to the New World in search of the opportunity to practice their faith free from the hindrance of government authorities. (I recognize there is plenty to be said in criticism of the Puritans and their “religious freedom,” which could be translated as “freedom to practice my faith my way and persecute those who don’t,” but just bear with me here)
In this sermon, Winthrop provides an example of his vision for New England. He sought to create a community which would stand as an example to the nations, a model of the Christian faith. The “city on a hill” imagery, drawn from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, has been used in a variety of ways, most notably by Ronald Reagan, and most often to point to American exceptionalism. But, Winthrop is actually offering a note of caution. This nation is an example, the “eyes of all people are upon us.” That’s not always a good thing. We need to think about how we look in the eyes of others.
In November, we used to celebrate Thanksgiving, which has been relegated to the status of a pregame meal for Black Friday. What we used to celebrate during Thanksgiving was (the constructed narrative of) the Pilgrims breaking bread with Native Americans in thanks before giving them disease and Christianity and whatnot. Putting that aside, these people, and those who followed, came to America searching for a new life, searching for freedom and an opportunity to practice their faith. Over history, we’ve continued that tradition. America has stood as a home for the despot, the persecuted, and the hungry. Our doors have consistently been open to those in need of safe haven. When they haven’t been, we have sincerely regretted it (cf. The story of the St. Louis). This Thanksgiving, we should all be giving thanks for the roofs over our heads, and the fact that those roofs happen to be American roofs. We should give thanks to those of our ancestors who braved the oceans to come here in search of opportunity, and always bear in mind those who continue to do so for the sake of a better life for their families.
Why did they come here? Because America has stood as a “city on a hill.” We may not always have been the shining city on a hill which Reagan envisioned, we’ve had and have our dark days, but we have consistently provided a home to those who need it.
I’d like to close this with the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” found on an inscription at the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The eyes of the world are upon us now, what kind of example do we provide?
“Mother of Exiles”
“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Weren’t those the days…