Friday, August 24, 2012

The Light's Out in this City

Today while skimming Facebook I found the following meme linked by FreedomWorks:
The metaphor, made popular by President Reagan at the 1976 Republican National Convention, was pulled by the former leader of the free world from a sermon made by Puritan Governor John Winthrop, who quoted the following verses from the New Testament book of Matthew:
"You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house."
A powerful teaching, Conservatives have run with Reagan's quoted message, turning it into the mantra for American perfection and a clarion call to voters every four years since 1980.  I am not one of them.

The easy cop-out for most Reagan-quoters at this point is to bring up the ancient question of "dual loyalty" implying that I, as a Jew, somehow feel a conflicted loyalty between America and Israel.  As with any stereotype, the assumption of conflicted allegiance is just plain wrong.  But, the fact that I am Jewish informs my reasoning as to why the "Shining city upon a hill" metaphor is as abused as it is used in the political right wing.

How so, you ask?  Let's start with the source.  Most Jews have the chutzpa to admit that Jesus was, indeed, a Jewish guy.  (An Israeli living in Roman-occupied territory if you'd like to get political.)  So, being a Jewish guy, he spoke like a Jew to other Jews (all called "Jew" and "Jews" from the territorial name "Yehudah" Romanized down to "Judah"..."Ju"..."Jew"...a-ha!), Matthew 5:14-16 being no exception.  The "light of the world" metaphor in verse 14 comes from Isaiah 49:6, "...I will make you a light of nations, so that My salvation shall be until the end of the earth."  Moving onto the mountain metaphor, Jesus could be referencing the patriarch Abraham who infamously chose the challenge of the mountainous path (as opposed to his cousin, Lot, who chose the valley) only to be tested with the potential sacrifice of his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah - contended by some to be the ancient location of what would become Jerusalem, the Biblical "shining city on a hill".

In the context of Matthew, Jesus was instructing his audience of Jews on the mountain to do exactly what Jews since Abraham have been doing: To lead by example.  To rise above the horrific behavior of the world around them and set an example, illustrating that people can "turn the other cheek" (to quote from the same passage) care for one another and live in peace. 

2,000 years later, more than a few world leaders have abused this Jewish teaching for their own personal benefit - and I fear that is what is happening again.  While I can't define Reagan's intentions behind the quoting of this verse in the context of American identity (and don't seek to accuse him of nefarious purposes) I can clearly see the arrogant nature behind the metaphor's current use, and it saddens me.  My Jewish soul tells me that words meant to harken an ancient, definitive calling to selfless service were not meant to be used in an expression of arrogance or pride.  Which is exactly what this metaphor has become in the minds and voices of too many Americans, disenchanted with the disenfranchised attitude of the Left.

The idea behind being a "shining city on a hill" is to stand as an example to others, of service and sacrifice; of hard work and sincere effort; of a desire to provide a helping hand; of the willingness to be the bigger person for the sake of the common good.  Too little of that is talked about in the pomp and circumstance of political power.  Because of that, the true message of being a "shining city on a hill" has given way to the idea of a super-nationalism that has America being fashioned as a great and singular world power that should be idolized (not learned from) and even worshipped as the "greatest nation on the earth."

Isaiah 49:6 begins with the word "I".  This is HaShem (God) talking to Israel: "I will make you a light."  The lesson in being a light - having the willingness to stand alone in order to set an example - is that standing alone does not necessitate the pompous attitude of superiority as much as it demands the attitude of a servant devoted to a higher calling.  The time for American imperialism is over; if conservatives want America to anywhere near represent a "shining city on a hill" they need to shelve their pride and focus on re-making America into what it once was: a nation of freedom-lovers who valued humility more than glib remarks and cheap political gain.

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