Having lived during the eight years of a George W. Bush presidency I have come to have an almost allergic reaction to that deeply biblical phrase, “A city set on a hill.”
America is a city set on a hill!
That has been part of the religious rhetoric of America from its beginning, but I’m not sure that any president employed the phrase more often than Bush.
Of course, it wasn’t just the pretentiousness of it all that got under my skin.
Empires are always pretentious, and they always make exaggerated world historical claims for themselves.
That’s just the way empires are.
No, it was that this bit of pretension was also blasphemous.
Jesus said, “you are the light of the world,
a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
President Bush appropriated that language for America.
America is the light of the world,
America is a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.
And all of this justified,
provided deep sacred legitimation
for Bush’s foreign policy,
based as it was in deceit.
I know, I know, maybe this weekly Wine Before Breakfast meditation is degenerating into a bit of a political rant.
And I know that it can be pretty cheap and easy for Canadians to poke fun of American rhetorical excess.
But what are we to do when we hear Jesus talking about a city set on a hill and the voice of George W. Bush insinuates itself into our consciousness?
Maybe we need to hear how audacious this language was coming from the mouth of Jesus in the first place.
I mean, here we are sitting with Jesus on a mountain of sorts,
and he says something about the light of the world and a city set on a hill.
Any Jew worth his or her salt (to mix metaphors) would hear a reference to the holy city of Jerusalem.
Hadn’t the prophets foretold that the nations would flock to the light of the Lord shining from Jerusalem?
But that wouldn’t be the only allusion.
Hadn’t the emperors of Rome all been described in terms of divine light?
Wasn’t Rome also a city set on a hill,
a city from which shone the light of civilization?
And here’s Jesus, sitting on a hill, saying to a ragamuffin group of disciples and hangers-on, “you are the light of the world, a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
Not the holy city of Jerusalem,
not the imperial city of Rome,
you, sitting on this hill,
you, the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers,
you, those who hunger and thirst for justice,
you are the light of the world,
and you are the city, right here on this mountain,
you are the city that cannot be hidden.
Most folks probably didn’t get it.
But those who did,
well, they turned the world upside down,
and most of them ended up dying in the process.
Dare we stand in their footsteps?
What could it possibly mean for us to receive that mantle from Jesus,
not in bravado and imperial arrogance,
but in fear and trembling?
Wine Before Breakfast
Tuesday @ 7.22am