On Sunday, Sept. 8, I preached for the Diversity Day Service at The Redeemed Christian Church of God in Morgantown, where I also serve as an honorary elder/father of the church. I wish all of West Virginia could have witnessed the service and the wonderful people from this international church.
This amazing church has members in attendance from throughout the African continent, but the core denomination is from Nigeria. One of the most memorable scenes from the church service, attended by about 160 people, was when the little children came to the front to sing, “We all are one family.” Dressed in traditional garb, many of the little ones had crowns/hats made of the American flag.
America has often been known as a beacon of hope in the world, as the “Shining City on the Hill.” Throughout our history, the phrase has been indicative of our place in moving forward an agenda of freedom.
The phrase is an allusion to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount from the parable of Salt and Light. In Matthew 5:14, Christ tells his listeners from all generations, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”
Many presidents have utilized this phrase to illustrate America’s place in advancing freedom, justice and equality. While far from a perfect union, our hope has always been in curing the ills of society for the next generation.
This extends from America’s original sin of slavery and discrimination, to the marginalization of women and the ostracizing of the LGBTQ community. The yearning to be this city on a hill has led us to an ever-expanding and ever more equal society.
Recently, this hopeful phrase has turned discordant as the message of hope has been, for many of our citizens, replaced by the coldness of fear. A review of how previous presidents have utilized this phrase may help give context to how far our national conversation has plunged. For instance, President John F. Kennedy used the phrase in 1961 when he was still president elect.
“We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us — and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state, and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. History will not judge our endeavors — and a government cannot be selected — merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”
President Ronald Reagan, a staunch conservative and one with whom I have much political disagreement, often used the theme. In his Nov. 3, 1980, pre-election address and later in his Jan. 11, 1989, farewell address, he told the nation:
“For I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining city on a hill, as were those long ago settlers. These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservative or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still ... a shining city on a hill.”
And later, “And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.”
When President Barack Obama was still the junior senator from Illinois he utilized the phrase in a speech at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“More than half of you represent the very first member of your family to ever attend college. In the most diverse university in all of New England, I look out at a sea of faces that are African-American and Hispanic-American and Asian-American and Arab-American. I see students that have come here from over 100 different countries, believing like those first settlers that they too could find a home in this City on a Hill — that they too could find success in this unlikeliest of places.”
America, for all its flaws, must return to a vision that will lead us to a bright future. Over the past three years, our current president has desecrated the idea and ideal of America as a city on a hill into an “American Carnage.”
Unfortunately, America no longer shines as bright to much of the world. From the so-called third world that the president designates as “s---hole countries,” to the multiple instances of his denigration of our neighbors to the south, to his diversion of funds for military families to build an arcane and unnecessary wall on the southern border, to his overt racism and attacks against women of color in Congress and his support of white nationalism — we must stand up and say, “No more!”
This is a nonpartisan message that we need to regain hope to survive. To my fellow West Virginians who supported this administration’s false promise of bringing coal back to prominence, to my evangelical brothers and sisters who supported having conservative judges on the bench while turning a blind eye to the avarice and sinfulness exhibited, to the business conservative who voted against pollution regulation in this day of climate change, I say enough is enough.
Like the children at the Morgantown Redeemed Christian Church of God we should sing and reflect, “We are all one family.” Let’s once again be the shining city on a hill.