Readings for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 58: 7-10; PS 112: 4-9; I COR 2: 1-5; MT 5: 13-16.
Today’s readings are about the nature of the light emanating from a shining “City on a Hill.” Jesus introduces that imagery specifically in today’s Gospel selection. In doing so, he alludes to the words of the prophet Isaiah (today’s first reading) which describe the City’s characteristics.
However most Americans don’t primarily associate the City on a Hill image with Jesus, much less with Isaiah. In fact, most cannot hear the phrase without thinking of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In Reagan’s mouth, “City on a Hill” became a quintessential expression of American Exceptionalism. As such Reagan’s usage exemplifies how Republicans have hijacked and distorted Christian discourse.
Reagan however didn’t coin the City’s connection to “America.” John Winthrop, the Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had already done that in 1630. Standing on the deck of the flagship Arbella Winthrop told his shipmates, “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.”
Then in 1961 J.F. Kennedy quoted Winthrop’s words specifically as the new president addressed the General Court of Massachusetts. Kennedy added “. . . (W)e 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 fantastic than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within.”
After Reagan, Gary Bauer, the president of the Family Research Council, attempted to borrow some of the Reagan thunder by using his idol’s words. Bauer repeatedly used the “City on a Hill” metaphor as he attempted unsuccessfully to secure the Republican presidential nomination in 1999. Before him in 1997, Reagan’s adopted son, Michael, had already written a book about his father entitled The City on a Hill: Fulfilling Ronald Reagan’s Vision for America.
As for Reagan himself, here’s what he said about the image in his farewell speech to the nation in 1989:
“…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 . . .”
These words show that Reagan’s image of the “City on the Hill” is one of pride, strength, harmony, peace, open markets and free immigration – all of it specially blessed by God. Noble ideals all. . . .
Nonetheless President Reagan’s policies proved questionably coincident with his words and especially with the biblical ideals expressed in today’s readings.
Think about those ideals.
In the selection from Isaiah, the prophet says the City on the Hill shines because its inhabitants:
• Share bread with the hungry.
• Protect the oppressed and remove oppression from their midst.
• Shelter the homeless.
• Clothe the naked.
• Remove from their midst accusation and malicious speech.
The Responsorial psalm seconds all of that, adding that the hilltop city’s just citizens:
• Lend (without interest).
• Give lavishly to the poor.
In today’s selection from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle himself identifies with the weak and fearful, not those who are “wise” according to the standards of the world. Paul goes on to contrast the world’s logic with what elsewhere he calls the foolishness of Jesus’ Spirit – which chose to identify with those on death row (I COR 1:23).
Finally, today’s Gospel reading has Jesus refer specifically to the “City on a hill” and the light that causes it to shine. Once again, it’s the “light” described by Isaiah – sharing bread, shelter, clothing, and money with the hungry, homeless, naked, impoverished and oppressed.
All of this has little to do with President Reagan’s version of an exceptionally blessed America. In fact, during his term in office Reagan:
• Consistently stigmatized the poor. (Reagan often told the story of a “welfare queen” in Chicago who turned out to be a figment of his speech writers’ imaginations. According to the story, she drove a Cadillac and had cheated the government of $150,000 using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards and four fictional dead husbands. Once again, all of that was a lie.)
• Halved the budget for public housing.
• Closed shelters for the mentally ill.
• In so doing, created an epidemic of homelessness virtually unknown since the Great Depression.
• Spent the entire decade of the 1980s supporting oppressive governments Central America – specifically in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
• Oversaw the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, thus opening the publicly owned radio airwaves to dominance by privately financed right wing programs whose bread and butter soon became the “false accusations” and “malicious speech” Isaiah saw as incongruous with the light Jesus subsequently saw as characterizing the City on the Hill.
• Inspired his self-proclaimed acolytes (in our own day) to introduce savage reductions in Food Stamp programs for the hungry, and elimination of unemployment benefits.
And that’s the short list of the horrors of the “Reagan Revolution.” None of it has anything to do with Jesus’ vision of a City on a Hill. Rather Reagan policies fly directly in the face of that vision.
The point is that the right wing in this country (personified in Ronald Reagan) has hypocritically identified itself as somehow “Christian” while turning that tradition squarely on its head.
Progressives are missing the boat by surrendering to that hijacking of Jesus’ meaning and message, when in reality that message supports their cause, not that of their reactionary opponents.
It’s high time for progressives to go on the offensive by recognizing and employing the power of myth and image so successfully manipulated by the religious right.