According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his followers (as recounted by the King James translation), “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.
“Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
The common sense lesson to be garnered from this is that a person needs to live their life in such a way as to be a good example. The more fundamentalist practitioners of Christianity are still putting it this way: Jesus is what sustains the world and creates a way for all people to be saved. The unsaved people are in darkness and cannot have salvation until they are touched by the light (Jesus).
Of course, fundamentalists of all religions don't get the concept that an individual, or group of individuals, can perform good deeds without a dogmatic adherence to a particular religion. The teachings attributed to Jesus provide the background to fine ethical behavior, but so, too, do words and phrases from other religions (some older than Christianity). The Golden Rule to do unto others as they would do unto you was already universal at the time of Jesus, having been spread by Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
Let's return to that “city on a hill” and shine some more historical light on it. In the spring of 1630 a fleet of eleven vessels set sail from Yarmouth, England, loaded with 700 Puritans headed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Simply by their appellation, Puritans are perhaps overly confused with the adjective “puritanical.” The Puritans of 1630 were the opposition to the established Church of England. They broke with the Church of England because the Puritans did not believe in a church hierarchy of bishops and archbishops. The Puritans also opposed the Church of England's services as being too ritualistic, too much like the services of Roman Catholicism. The impetus for the migration of Puritans from England to Massachusetts in 1630 came from the actions of England's King Charles I, who had just shut down Parliament, a Parliament where the Puritans were a majority.
One could argue that the Puritans who left for Massachusetts were hiding their light under a bushel by not staying in England to provide a shining example for their repressive king. However, the leader of those Puritans, John Winthrop, invoked Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount when he told his fellow Puritans, shortly before they set foot on Massachusetts soil, that their new community would be “as a city upon a hill,” setting an example to the world of communal charity, affection, and unity. Winthrop did admonish his fellow Puritans that if they failed “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” of God's judgment. No one need go much beyond the earliest contacts between those settlers and the people who had been native to Massachusetts for centuries to discover some of the most obvious failings of the Puritans in inhabiting a life close to the teachings of Jesus.
In the perverse way that has become more and more the norm as the United States rolls along merrily through our time in the spotlight of history, the concept of a shining city has been dredged up again and again. Probably no more disingenuously than by Ronald Reagan. “I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, 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.”
Those would be lovely words and sentiments if only Reagan's administration hadn't been the one to lay the groundwork for the divide we see locally and nationally today, where the rich get richer, the workers work harder and longer yet grow poorer, and we as a nation prove not a shining example of good, but a purveyor of war and greed.
Words and deeds too often do not match. Perhaps that is the take-away here. The Puritan's may have come closest when they were still in England, conducting simple services with a single, local minister providing guidance and sermons. Once they set sail and set themselves up to be some sort of shining city for all to look up to they were probably doomed by The Fates to fail, on a continental scale. Pride goeth before a fall comes to mind.
What the Puritans, Reagan Republicans and fundamentalist religious sects of all sorts lack is a sense of subtlety. If you want to see how deeds and words and subtle pauses can render something effective and affective, please, by all means, seek out the Mendocino Theater Company production of Shining City. Conor McPherson's play, set in Dublin, is presented in five separate scenes, the first of which depicts a therapist and his client who claims he has seen the ghost of his dead wife in their house. The therapist has his own problems and from there each scene follows parallel trajectories in the characters' lives that shows how we do touch one upon another, sometimes for good or bad and sometimes that touch just lingers in a ghosty, nether world in between. The New York Times called Shining City "absolutely glorious" and "as close to perfection as contemporary playwriting gets."
This Shining City will lift you not to a phony hill of self-congratulation, but lead you to a conclusion that proves neither guns nor car chases nor even words are needed to shock and surprise an audience into audible gasps.