The city on the hill

By - Oct 3rd, 2008 02:52 pm
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I’m watching the Vice Presidential debates right now, which has on the whole been a sort of frustrating snore — the kind that wakes you up at night when you can’t breathe anymore.

Sarah Palin just said (in reference to her Achilles Heel, by the way, which doesn’t make any goddamn sense) that America still needs to be the “shining city on the hill,” which she attributed — only somewhat correctly — to Ronald Reagan.

It was Reagan and his cronies who resurrected the phrase, which is actually old as dust: it was originally spoken by John Winthrop in his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” — and if you go back far enough, it’s biblical. Like most matters of reference in the world today, it only took a hot minute (thanks, Wikipedia) to get it right (I thought it was de Tocqueville). And because I’m a lady of the text, this distracted me for the rest of the debate — and really pulling apart Winthrop’s sermon, delivered in 1630, I actually think it’s prescient. And chilling. Here’s the full old English text:

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah, to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his own people and will commaund a blessing upon us in all our wayes, soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdom power goodness and truth then formerly wee have been acquainted with, wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdraw his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouths of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going: And to shutt upp this discourse with that exhortacion of Moses that faithfull servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israell Deut. 30. Beloved there is now sett before us life, and good, deathe and evill in that wee are Commaunded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another to walke in his wayes and to keepe his Commaundements and his Ordinance, and his lawes, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that wee may live and be multiplyed, and that the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whether wee goe to possesse it: But if our heartes shall turne away soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worship other Gods our pleasures, and profits, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perish out of the good Land whether wee passe over this vast Sea to possess it.

Here’s what I take from it, fire and brimstone aside: we’re sinking, but all eyes are on us. I love that this sermon is about humility, gentleness, brotherhood and justice. And frankly, I think we’re getting it all wrong. The shipwreck metaphor, I believe, is particularly apt, and I’m concerned for the people who are retreading this phrase without really grasping its dire global ramifications: “wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going.”

Everything is at stake in this election. And I’m frightened. But this speech is calming my heart for right now, way more than anything that Joe Biden or Sarah Palin said tonight.

Categories: VITAL

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