The concept of America as a "city on a hill"--a chosen people meant to be a light to the whole world--has a long history. The National Endowment for Humanities identifies the origin as a 1630 sermon by John Winthrop. This obviously pre-dates the founding of the United States, and we could debate whether the theocracy-like enclaves of the Puritan settlements (the context surrounding Winthrop) is comparable to the more deistic-influenced founding of the national government.
Still, the "city on a hill" image has continued to be used, perhaps most notably in the Reagan era.
Christian nationalism is on the center stage right now, and so it is a good moment to re-evaluate various assumptions about where faith and ethnocentric civil religion intertwine in ways such that we can't even tell where one ends and the other begins.
This blog entry is not going to take this on head-on. Rather, Isaiah 15 has me reflecting on what being a chosen nation doesn't mean.
We're in the midst of a 10-chapter segment where each section starts with, "A prophecy against...." a particular nation. Woes and punishments for various sinful deeds. However, a closer read shows a mix of emotions and emphases. These are prophesies, and God is simply telling Isaiah in advance what will happen. We could divert into a theological analysis of how much God is orchestrating what will happen (but we're not going to). On the other hand, some sections clearly have God explaining that what will happen will ultimately cause a spiritual awakening for some. Finally, some sections are clearly lament.
Isaiah 15 is the prophesy against Moab. When I looked up where modern-day Moab is, my heart sank. "This is not going to go over well with some..." I thought to myself. Modern-day Moab is Palestine.
Before American Christians claimed the idea, Israel was God's chosen people. God clearly told them so, and there was a special and unique history where He intervened, redeemed, and brought them to a promised land. As a nation, Israel struggled with their "chosen people" status. For, the original "city on a hill" is Jerusalem, and God's promises clearly indicated that Israel was to be a light to draw in other ethnic groups to a common worship and heritage. It's safe to say that Israel struggled with this level of inclusivity. Based on ancient Israel and the U.S., viewing oneself as a chosen nation seems to have the unfortunate consequence of viewing others, by default, as unchosen.
So, when Palestine/Moab gets a two-chapter prophesy and it starts with a lament, it's a pretty eye-opening section. Who is lamenting the hardship that Moab will experience? God.
My heart cries out over Moab; her fugitives flee as far as Zoar, as far as Eglath Shelishiyah. They go up the way to Luhith, weeping as they go; on the road to Horoniam they lament their destruction.
Yes, this is in the midst of God saying what will and must (in some existential sense) happen to Moab. Yet, He clearly takes no joy and pleasure in it and specifically calls attention to the plight of refugees fleeing a war-torn country.
Let's contrast this to how some modern Christians are talking about refugees and migrants from non-"chosen" countries.
Below is a twitter exchange where theologian Russell Moore has an initial tweet speaking out against the separation of children from their families at the Mexican-US border, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., former president of Liberty University, chimes in.
Moore: The reports of the conditions for migrant children at the border should shock all of our consciences. Those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion, especially those seeking refuge from violence back home. We can do better than this.
Falwell, Jr.: Who are you @drMoore? Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you authority to speak on any issue? I'm being serious. You're nothing but an employee--a bureaucrat.
While I do not intend to let Falwell, Jr., speak for all Christians on that side of this issue, it is simply the case that many Christians have let him and his father for generations now speak into and influence positions on a variety of issues that have arguably left us in a situation where a Christian Nationalist civil religion may very well be the most prominent belief system within American evangelicalism.
What does being a "city on a hill" or a chosen nation not mean? Based solely on Isaiah 15 alone, let alone numerous other passages we could draw in, it does not mean that:
God by default hates other nations.
God is largely uninterested in what happens to people in these other nations.
God has no intent to use human events to continue to draw people in these other nations to Him in ways that might not fit with what the "chosen people" think should happen.
It's important to recall that one of the most notable aspects of Moab in the Bible is its most famous representative: Ruth. Ruth becomes the grandmother of King David. If we were choosing the lineage of God-became-man, we would not include a Canaanite prostitute (Rahab), a Moabite widow (Ruth), or a woman who experienced so many trials from the men she married that the Bible doesn't even fully divulge what the sins were (Tamar).
In modern American Christianity where sexual purity and being on the right side of the cultural wars are arguably the most important things one can do to be "in," these three women seem a bit...problematic. The fact that they even get mentioned at all in the Biblical genealogies, being women in an uber-patriarchal society, is impressive. Just goes to show that some of the more boring Biblical passages to read (this one begat that one, and so on) is actually incredibly important.
God's attitude toward Ruth and God's attitude toward Moab in Isaiah 15 should give us pause.
It doesn't give Christians a clear answer on what to think about modern Palestine/Israel dilemmas. It doesn't spell out policy for Americans about their borders.
But it does call us back from what the "Christian" talking heads have been in our ears saying for years. God's heart cries out for Moab---His very essence weeps over a situation like that. Which means that He is weeping today and His heart cries out today for what happens to migrant children and refugees, even if they are not Israeli or American. Does our heart cry out as well?