City on a Hill: The Good Land

In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth is written by Richard M. Gamble, Hillsdale College professor and Ruling Elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  In the coming weeks we’ll look at some excerpts.

In his second chapter, The Good Land, Gamble takes a close look at Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity, the source of the oft-quoted “city on hill” passage. He gives a detailed description of its contents and reviews prior interpretations of Matthew 5:14-15 going back to the fourth century.  He looks at correspondence between Winthrop and Lord Saye, who argued against Winthrop for:

“assuming…that there is the like call from God for your going to that part of America and fixing there, that there was for the Israelites going to the land of promise and fixing there.”…the planters of the Bay Colony had to exercise their reason and weigh “possibilities” and “probabilities.”

Especially telling is a page on which Gamble sets Deuteronomy 30 above the Model’s revision of that passage.  I have highlighted key differences between the two.

Geneva Bible (1560)

Beholde, I have set before thee this day life & good, death and euil. In that I commande thee this day, to loue the Lord thy God, to walke in his wayes, & to kepe his commandments & his ordinances,& his laws that thou maiest liue and be multiplied, and that the Lord thy God may blesse thee in the land, whether thou goest to possesse it.  But if thine heart turne away, so that thou wilt not obey, but shall be seduced & worship other gods, and serue them, I pronounce vnto you this day that ye shall surely perish, ye shall not prolong your days in the land whether thou passest ouer Jorden to possesse it. I call heauen and earth to recorde this day against you, that I haue set before you life and death, blessing and cursing, therefore chose life, that both thou & thy sede may liue, By louing the Lorde they God, by obeying his voice, & by cleauing vnto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy dayes:

John Winthrop (1630)

Beloued there is no sett before vs life, and good, death and euill in that wee are Commaunded this day to loue the Lord our God, and to loue one another to walke in his wayes and to keepe his Commaundments and his Ordinance, & his lawes, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that wee may liue and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God, may blesse vs 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 worhipp other Gods our pleasures, and proffitts, and serue them; it is propounded vnto vs this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good Land whether wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it; Therefore let us  choose life, that wee, and our Seede, may liue; by obeying his voyce & cleauing to him, for hee is our life, & our prosperity.


Filed under Church, Church and State, City on a Hill

13 responses to “City on a Hill: The Good Land

  1. Richard

    Dr Gamble also makes the telling point that “Winthrop never instructed the colonists to build a city upon a hill in the New World, a point missed by countless commentators.” Instead, he warned them that as a city upon a hill, “they would have to take care to fulfill their special commission before a watching world.” Gamble also makes the point that some Puritans opposed vocally the concept that the Puritan migration was a reenactment of redemptive history.

    • Ah, Richard, you’re just trying to defend him because he was a lawyer. Funny, then that some think of A Model as being a sermon. Dr. Gamble concludes that it is best to call it a “discourse.”

  2. Richard

    It’s disheartening to read of the Puritans who adopted the idea of a “national covenant,” which appears to be the source of all this slippery language and thinking. Do you know of a good history on that subject?

  3. I wonder why, conservatives especially, are so taken by the “City on a Hill” rhetoric. It seems clear that our forebearers in the colonies had not divested themselves of the burgeoning imperialism of 16&17th century Europe. I am not so sure the Native Americans were so taken with this rhetoric, as it served as the ideological basis for the taking of their lands. But, the fact seems we have so romanticized our imperialism that we don’t really recognize it. We see ourselves as a shining example to the world without, and so excuse our insatiable appetite for expansion. In the end, Empire sows the seeds of its own destruction, and we will go the way of all other empires – maybe there will still be an America, but that which is not sustainable will not be sustained. Laws of nature cannot be upended by the might of empires, at least not forever. Maybe archaeologists will look upon the ruins in America a thousand years from now and marvel not only at what we were, but how we fell. In the words of Eliot, probably “not with a bang but a whimper.” At the very least the whimper will follow the “bang”.

  4. It’s not implausible to think of some very serious ill-effects from a people thinking of themselves as being, if you will, an “elect country.” Yes, imperialistic tendencies and overlooking national flaws seem to go along with the notion.
    Looking back, Native Americans. Today, Afghan civilian casualties that don’t even get analyzed in moral terms.

    • A caution here — take a careful look at what the United States does to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan before talking about “Afghan civilian casualties that don’t even get analyzed in moral terms.”

      Then compare what we’re doing to what the former Soviet Union did with mass attacks on civilians that produced a huge refugee wave across the border with Pakistan. Or compare it to what the British did, or really anyone else who has ever set foot in Afghanistan, or what the Afghans are doing to us in response.

      If I were a Two Kingdoms advocate — and I am not — I would be arguing that because the civil magistracy uses law and not grace, we are being far too gracious in how we’re handling that war and we need a lot more force.

      America has done many things wrong over the years, but being overly forceful in the conduct of our current wars is not on that list.

  5. DTM, when did the Soviet Union become the measuring stick for justice in warfare?
    There should be a proportion between the reason for our military presence and the number of civilian casualties. If we are acting in self-defense against a country, we are justified in our presence and it is understood that there will be some civilian casualties. But the reason for our present military action seems to hang on the weak reed of pre-emption. That is, we are exerting military force (blowing up things, killing people) because the unspecified enemy might do the same to us. With such a weak rationale, Afghan civilians are justified if they condemn us for injustice for their civilian deaths and the disruption of their lives.
    What we have done is what we always do during wartime: demonize and dehumanize the enemy. If the casualties were white Christian Europeans we wouldn’t let it rest. Heck, if the casualties were wild horses in the Southwest we wouldn’t let it rest.
    Tell the Afghan human being that has lost her family at the hands of a foreign military force that we are being “far too gracious.”

    • Mikelmann, I just found this note going through backed-up email.

      My recollection is that either you or one of the other people on this blog is a JAG attorney, either Army Reserve or National Guard. If that’s you, there are limits on how far I want to push this issue because you may have some very specific firsthand knowledge. I’m very careful when criticizing veterans on just war issues.

      I would submit that the way America fights its wars today is not only compliant with classical Christian just war theory but also goes far beyond what was possible even a few decades ago in minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage.

      Bad things happen in war, much like they do in civilian law enforcement. I’ve seen good police officers make terrible mistakes and (much more rarely) have seen bad police officers acting badly. In the civilian world of civilized society, courts and defense lawyers and civil lawsuits exist to fix such problems. It’s a lot harder to do that in an environment where law and order either do not exist or do not reliably work.

      The military, almost by definition, exists to deal with problems in such environments. It also provides the Romans 13 protection needed to keep civilized society from falling apart.

      I hope we can agree on that.

  6. DTM, I’m not a JAG.

    Part of what I do here is poke holes in the culture warrior Christian right because it can become a bandwagon waving the Christian flag without Christian substance. Among that group there is a substantially justified interest in life in the womb, but a disregard for life taken in warfare. Somewhere along the way the Christian right became cheerleaders for every military action of the United States. This attitude might well be reinforced by a secularization of the “city on a hill” metaphor.

    Sometimes it seems as if you are reciting talking points. What about our pre-emptive strike rationale? I tend to think you would not approve of that rationale if it was used so extensively by a country other than ours.

    • I can assure you that I’m not getting talking points from anywhere. Maybe someone else is compiling talking points from what I write, but I doubt it. I’m not significant outside some rather narrow circles.

      Now that I know you’re not a current or former military attorney, I feel somewhat more comfortable pointing out that I have a decade of experience covering the military. That’s both in “external media” (normal news media not under government control) and “internal media,” working many years ago as a civilian in Army Public Affairs. While I’ve covered some pretty awful court martial cases, I’m not going to even hint at claiming my level of familiarity comes close to that of someone who has worn the uniform in combat or who, in JAG, dealt with the horrible stuff that shows up in the cases that never get to courts-martial because the people quickly plead guilty due to overwhelming evidence against them. However, it’s pretty hard to live and work outside the home of the Army Engineer School, Army Chemical School, and Military Police School without knowing quite a bit about what’s going on over in Afghanistan and Iraq and what we do to avoid civilian casualties.

      Bad things happen in war. Abu Ghraib is a prime example of what happens even when we’re totally in charge and we have no excuse. Others could be cited.

      Let’s just say that when our former commanding general is the guy who (as a colonel) was tasked to clean up the mess at Abu Ghraib, then got put in charge of the Military Police School, then got promoted to two-star general and named head of the whole installation, and is now in charge of the Army’s criminal investigation command, I’m not unaware of how seriously the military takes screwups and works to fix them once they happen.

      War is unavoidable in an evil world. I think it’s pretty hard to dispute that America has standards far higher than that of any other major military in the modern world. Furthermore, prior to modern technology of the last few decades, there is no way that any military, no matter how well-intentioned, could possibly have been as scrupulous as ours in seeking to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage.

      • DTM, think of two things: the rationale for the war and the execution of the war. You are talking about how the war is executed. As far as that goes I believe we take as many or more measures than anyone to minimize collateral damage. But I am talking about the justness of the reason for killing people and blowing up things. And, as I understand it, it is pre-emptive: kill men before they can inflict harm on us. And do that in someone else’s country.

        Having made that distinction – and please interact with the justice of pre-emptive action on foreign soil – I do see a bit of a relationship between rationale and execution. That is, if the rationale is weaker, collateral damage is more difficult to justify than it is with a stronger rationale.

  7. Richard

    I’m the attorney who works for JAG. MLM is right–I think we are confusing categories here, rationale for and execution of war.

    • I agree as well. Now that I understand Mikelmann’s objection, I think I can respond more effectively to it.

      I don’t see how our war in Afghanistan can be anything other than a just war by Christian standards. We were attacked, more people were killed than died at Pearl Harbor, we gave the previous Afghan government the opportunity to expel Osama bin Laden’s organization and turn him over to us, and we acted after they said “no.”

      I grant that the war in Iraq is more problematic, but hindsight is 20-20. We can say a lot about that war but much of what is being said now simply wasn’t on the radar screen before we went in. Yes, we had a major intelligence failure, but that wasn’t only our country but virtually every other intelligence agency in the world. Within a couple of years after entering Iraq, we found ourselves in a situation that nobody expected, with no hidden weapons of mass destruction and a rising tide of radical Islamic opposition which Saddam Hussein had kept upon control via brutal methods.

      I know very few senior military people who, if they knew in 2001 and 2002 and 2003 what we know now, would have said the same things they said back then. However, that’s an unavoidable consequence of any decision — we never have all the facts we need but sometimes failure to decide makes things even worse than making the wrong decision.

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