April 2017: America—A Shining City on a Hill?

April 2017 Inter-Belief Conversation Café

America—A Shining City on a Hill?

Monday, April 17, 2017
7 – 9 p.m.
Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul
1671 Summit Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55105 (View Map)

In 1630 Puritan leader John Winthrop on the ship, Arbella, told fellow immigrants to Massachusetts their expedition was a “city on a hill” to prove their sanctity or be a glaring example of failure. His inspiration came from Matthew 5:14 proclaiming Jesus’ followers as the light of the world all would see because “a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Ronald Reagan turned Winthrop’s words into America as a “shining city on a hill”. Are we that exceptional? If Norway or Denmark are happier, aren’t they better “cities”? If all countries are exceptional in their own way, are we the most exceptional? And if we are an example, what are we an example of—a Christian nation, the blessings of liberty, the refuge of the oppressed, or lifestyles of the rich and famous? What kind of city are we building?

What about those who may not see much of this light? The Doctrine of Discovery displaced and exterminated Native Americans. Malcolm X remarked that for African Americans: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us.” In A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, Ron Takaki stated that his Japanese ancestry led him to examine the minority groups who built America but received scant credit. Are minorities and disfavored immigrants not part of putting America first? Is the city on the hill shining only on holders of white privilege? Or is there a better America speaking through Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty giving hope to the world’s tired, poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free and lifting a lamp over a golden door not building a wall?

What is America anyway? Some say it is a nation defined by a creed not nationality or ethnicity. If an individual subscribes to certain values then that person is an American. This is what the “melting pot” is all about. The creed or American civic religion is in founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the Statue of Liberty inscription, and speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. It may involve a Judeo-Christian God or may be secular and humanist. Concepts such as Manifest Destiny, “rags to riches”, Pledge of Allegiance with “under God” added, equal rights for all, social safety net, and others may be permanent or temporary parts. Real America may be in the eye of the beholder.

Do all the promises come true? “America the Beautiful” sings of purple mountain majesties, amber waves of grain, and fruited plains (perhaps genetically engineered). A later verse speaks of a patriot dream that sees beyond the years and alabaster cities undimmed by human tears. (Sound like North Minneapolis?). Is this the land we see today or instead the “dream deferred” of Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem which may shrivel up like a raisin in the sun or maybe explode?

Is the American dream a nightmare to others? Are we the world’s policeman telling others how to live? Are we an empire waging undeclared wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East and training Latin American enforcers in the School of the Americas? Are we the solution to the world’s problems or the problem itself? But why do other countries imitate us? Why do even the worst dictators and strongmen pretend to be democratic? Why do other people wear our jeans, drink our Coca Cola and Starbucks, and eat at KFC and McDonalds? Can’t live with us; can’t live without us?

On Monday, April 17 from 7-9 PM at Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul, 1671 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, Inter-belief Conversation Café will try to shed some light on the city on a hill. Agreements of acceptance, open-mindedness, curiosity, discovery, sincerity, brevity, and confidentiality will be as American as apple pie or maybe baklava. And an all-American selection of treats will be available!