A City Built on a Hill

A City Built on a Hill

Fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr Mark Edney suggests that we should not be afraid of the ambition of creating a truly Christian political society.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.

In public life perhaps no one in recent decades has made more of these words of Jesus than did the late US President, Ronald Reagan. In a speech in 1974, Reagan cited one of America’s earliest preacher politicians, John Winthrop, the first Governor of Massachusetts, who said of the colony to be established at Boston, ‘We shall be as a city upon a hill.’

Reagan believed that ‘city’ should be all of America and not just Boston. The inspiration of Winthrop and thus ultimately of this passage from Matthew’s Gospel remained a constant. In 1989, in his farewell address to the nation, Reagan said, ‘I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life … 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…’

No doubt there will be many uneasy with the claim of any nation to be blessed by God or to be worthy to set itself up as a shining example. Some people will indeed be horrified that such a claim was made by such a man, of such a party, of such a government, in such a country. We should quarrel with the claims made by any man or any nation but I don’t believe that we should be disputing the aspiration. Why should not nations, and so their leaders, also understand themselves to be under the judgment of God? Much better for our world if nations and their leaders were to strive to be shining examples of good works! Better certainly than cynicism and political expediency.

But did Jesus mean any thing like what Winthrop or Reagan wanted to make of this passage? One respected commentary warns against using it as a proof-text for the ‘often-expressed homiletic concern for “involvement”‘. To fail to see, however, that not only this passage but the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, and indeed much of the Gospels, is about how Christians are to be involved in civil, and so also political, society is to repeat a more often-expressed error: that religion and politics have nothing to do with each other.

Today’s often wild and false accusations against religionists in one country or another, of one religion or another, are blinding us to the very important task of rethinking the role that practised faith must play in political and civil life. Fear of theocracy in far away countries abounds among certain pundits, but that is not the only alternative to the privatisation of religion we see in our own country. Being Christian in public discourse should not mean only having a special interest in the abortion issue or debt-relief for developing countries. It must be far more comprehensive — like the Beatitudes — manifesting not only a concern for life but also for the good life of the republic.

The risk of such a calling is not small whether it be taken up by an individual leader, a nation, or a people. Our society is quick to expose hypocrisy and it revels in scandal. Winthrop understood as much for those who would endeavour to set an example for others: ‘The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we 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 byword throughout the world.’

The reward, however, is great. For should we be able, by the help of God’s grace, to manifest a true shining example, we will be giving glory to our Father in heaven.

Readings: Isa 58:7-10 | 1 Cor 2:1-5 | Matt 5:13-16