November 26, 2008


I received the following e-mail from Peter B, in response to a comment I had made to the effect that the US' responsibility in foreign affairs was more or less limited to being an example for other nations to follow, except as our own self-interest might require:

Permit me two brief points as follow-up to yesterday's discussion on foreign opinion.

A) I admire your "City of Light" metaphor and I believe I understand. But tell me this: Do you see the city as surrounded by nothing but a dark and dangerous mass far below, or do you see it surrounded by other cities, perhaps not so bright, on other mountains, perhaps not so high, with which you wish to treat, trade and make friendships, however guardedly?

B) At the risk of sounding a little like Rodney Dangerfield, one of the problems with being an admirer of the US (I'm speaking of individuals, not countries) and backing them 90% of the way is you tend to get caught between Democrats who would rather suck up to their adversaries and Republicans who either don't care or who rake you over the coals for being less than 100% in agreement. However, I appreciate these are tough and emotional times.
Here is my response:

Peter --

Thanks for commenting.

The "city on a hill" metaphor comes ultimately from Matthew 5:13-16, in which Jesus says:
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city 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. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
The metaphor was first applied to America by John Wintrop in 1630 aboard the Arbella as the Puritans made their stormy crossing.
Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke and to provide for our posterity is to followe the Counsell of Micah, to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walke humbly with our God, for this end, wee must be knitt together in this worke as one man, wee must entertaine each other in brotherly Affeccion, wee must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, wee must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekenes, gentlenes, patience and liberallity, wee must delight in eache other, make others Condicions our owne rejoyce together, mourne together, labour, and suffer together, allwayes haveing before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke, our Community as members of the same body, soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his owne people and will commaund a blessing upon us in all our wayes, soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome power goodnes and truthe then formerly wee have beene acquainted with, wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn 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 Citty 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 withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes 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 worshipp other Gods our pleasures, and proffitts, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good Land whether wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it;

Therefore lett us choose life,
that wee, and our Seede,
may live; by obeyeing his
voyce, and cleaveing to him,
for hee is our life, and
our prosperity.
So, the metaphor is double edged (to mix metaphors). We are a light unto the nations, so that by our example we can lead the rest of the world. But, equally, we cannot hide. Whenever we fail to live up to our own ideals, the rest of the world will notice. Our failure will also be chalked up as the failure of our various ideologies: see, faith in God doesn't work; see, markets don't work; free trade doesn't work; democracy doesn't work, etc.

Winthrop's vision probably was of one lit city, surrounded by darkness. After all, the Puritans were leaving England and Europe because they had not been able to live according to God's law as they understood it. Their intent was to establish the first virtuous City. My vision is more as you describe it: a series of cities, more or less lit, on hills and valleys as their individual circumstances would allow. But I think its also fair to say that the US bears a greater burden of the world's focus of hope and envy than the other cities. So, yes, we do want to "treat, trade and make friendships" with the other cities, and not even all that guardedly. Nonetheless, our responsibility for the health of these other cities is bounded by our own self-interest. "With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the world we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds."

Your second point is very interesting and not something I've not thought a great deal about. My sense has always been that we're pretty insecure about our standing in other countries -- a clear implication of the "Citty upon a Hill" metaphor, by the way -- and jump on even the weakest support. This is, in part, why our reaction to the French and, sad to say, Canadian positions on Iraq may look like an overreaction. We're very sensitive to what we see as betrayal and, frankly, scared that "wee shall open the mouthes 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." In a sense, we're always worried that any failure will, in the eyes of the nations, call the whole enterprise into question. (This probably applies only to Republicans and conservatives.) [origginally posted: 06/03/03] Posted by David Cohen at November 26, 2008 11:14 PM
blog comments powered by Disqus