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A city on a hill

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Before and during his presidency, Ronald Reagan regularly employed this hallowed phrase (including in his farewell address) to describe America. Puritan pastor and politician John Winthrop served as Reagan’s muse in this regard. In 1630, Winthrop preached a sermon titled “A Model of Christian Charity” to the group of immigrants who would establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop admonished the English settlers that God had selected them to fashion a “city upon a hill” in the New World. This is perhaps the earliest example of what became known as “American Exceptionalism” – long before these shores became America.

Peter Robinson, a Reagan speechwriter, said: “It was in Ronald Reagan’s bones – it was part of his understanding of America – that the country was fundamentally open to those who wanted to join us here.”

(The late president was much less charitable toward the descendants of “immigrants” who arrived via slave ships, but that’s another story.) Reagan eagerly signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, which granted amnesty – yes, actual amnesty – to nearly 3 million undocumented Mexicans.

No president has signed major immigration legislation in the ensuing 37 years, despite earnest efforts from George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for immigration reform falls to Congress. Several senators – Democrats and Republicans – have worked diligently to try to broker a deal. Such measures typically have been difficult to get through the Senate; they have been nearly impossible to pass the House. I am not optimistic that such efforts would be successful in the foreseeable future.

To be clear, we have a major immigration problem on our southern border; there is no way around that truth. While the apocalyptic predictions of immigration foes failed to come true after the expiration of Title 42, the humanitarian crisis remains. Yet, we must also acknowledge other truths. Specifically, if we, the people, really want to solve this problem, we must first understand why millions of people, especially from Central and South America, risk everything to come here. Second, if the ultimate goal is to substantially reduce illegal immigration, we must be willing to help strengthen our Latin neighbors economically, socially, and politically. (Forget, for the moment, that we have an ongoing labor shortage which immigration can attenuate.)

America is seen as a refuge for millions of our fellow human beings who are trapped in a vortex of suffocating poverty, endless war, or horrific violence fueled by the drug trade. Unfortunately, a high percentage of Americans oppose giving foreign aid to help our Latin neighbors. According to the Brookings Institution, polls consistently show that Americans believe that foreign aids accounts for 25% of our budget. They believe that it should constitute about 10% of the budget. Funny fact? Foreign aid is less than one percent of our budget.

More to the point, what is the purpose of becoming (or, if we have achieved that exalted state, being) a “city on a hill” if we don’t want others to emigrate from troubled nations? A city on a hill can be a beacon of hope that inspires and draws others to its light, which is what Reagan had in mind. Or it can be a figurative and literal island that is to be exalted from afar, but positions men to stand in the door rather than stand in the gap.

It is important to emphasize that “city on a hill” originated with Jesus Christ in what we know as the “Sermon on the Mount”. Matthew 5:14 reads, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” This portion of Jesus’ sermon emphasizes the responsibility of Christians to emit an incandescence that is born of burning love. Such love is an example of what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he spoke of “costly grace” – a grace that derives from discomfort, inconvenience, and even pain.

Light that can be hidden is not light. Compassion that costs us nothing is not compassion. Love that is convenient is not love.


For more news courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, click here.

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