Nearly two weeks ago, the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. As I’m sure our readers know, after the Afghan president fled the country, thousands of Afghans rushed to the airport in Kabul to flee the country, so that they would not have to live (or die) under the regressive rule of the Taliban. This is the end of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan, and many of us have been struggling to make sense of this outcome.
It is an especially difficult task because many have believed the notion that the United States of America is “a city on a hill,” a country that can lead the world and exemplify the great values of freedom and courage. The phrase, “a city on a hill,” was first used in a speech given by a Puritan lawyer named John Winthrop in 1630, which he gave to a group of immigrants as they were traveling to this land. Perry Miller, scholar of Puritanism, brought that speech to prominence. Ever since, Winthrop’s phrase, “a city on a hill,” has been quoted by presidents from both prominent political parties: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. The United States, we have been told, is a city on a hill. We’ve been told that this phrase means that our country was founded with a purpose—to set the world right, to lead other countries into democracy and freedom and peace. Over the years, the phrase has been used to promote American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. is different from and better than other countries.
But American exceptionalism is far from the original intention of Winthrop’s speech. There, Winthrop advised that the Puritans should be knit together by a bond of love, and they must care more about the public good than their own private interests. In short, he advised that those going to New England should follow Micah’s advice to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” In that context, he writes “that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going.”
For Winthrop, then, being “a city on a hill” means that people are watching the Puritans as they make their way to a new place where they would be able to practice their Christianity according to their own designs. Winthrop emphasizes that their success will depend on whether they have loved well, given well, and forgiven well. In short, being “as a city on a hill,” for Winthrop, means that we better not screw it up because people are watching. It does not mean that the U.S. is somehow different or better than others, or that all of our endeavors and decisions will be right and successful. On the contrary, this phrase is a warning. For Winthrop, there is a very real possibility that we will fail. And his advice is to take care of one another well, to give and forgive, to love mercy and justice and walk humbly with God. Although we are no doubt glad that we live in this beautiful country we call home, Winthrop reminds us that now is a time for humility.
As the world watches Afghanistan; as we try to make sense of how the Taliban could have taken control of the country so swiftly after 20 years of training the Afghan army; as we calculate the losses of time, money, talent, and lives, that went into this war; it is important to remember that we have never been guaranteed success in this life—in political matters or otherwise. Both as a country and as individuals, we are not immune to errors of calculation. We are not somehow above the fray, or beyond criticism, or unable to fail.
As we watch the news of what’s happening in Afghanistan, as we consider the flow of Afghan refugees that are now entering other nations, as we consider how much time and energy and money and lives have been lost over the past 20 years, it is good to hear those words of Ephesians again, which admonish us to take up the armor of God (Eph 6:10-17). The armor of God, we are told, is not made up of literal helmets, body armor, shields, boots, and weapons. Instead, the armor of God is truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, and the word of God. The action we are called to is to proclaim the gospel of peace, and to work to establish God’s kin-dom, where all are fed, cared for, clothed, and loved.
Many people who have served in the military over the past two decades, who have come back over the past 20 years or just recently are coming back from Afghanistan, have had a hard time adjusting to regular life. I recently read the story of Green Beret Sergeant Joe Serna, who retired from the Army in 2013 after over eighteen years of service and three tours of duty in Afghanistan. He won a number of awards, including two Purple Hearts, but when he returned to North Carolina and to his spouse and children, he found the transition to civilian life difficult. A year later, he was arrested on a DWI charge, and his case was assigned to a Veterans Treatment Court, where he was sentenced to a night in jail.
Joe recalls that in 2008, he was with three other soldiers in Afghanistan when their armored truck flipped over and landed in a river. He says, “In Afghanistan, it was me and three other guys on the truck, really good friends, and I had an accident where our truck flipped all the way over into a river, the water came in, and rose from the ankles to my waist, eventually to my chin, and it was pitch black. The only air we had was now filled with diesel fumes. My partner said, ‘I can’t feel my lips, I can’t feel my arms.’ Then I heard him gasping. And I was the only survivor.” Joe says that he “would have relived it over and over and over again in this [jail] cell by myself. It was confined space, no windows, and the door was solid, and there was just a small piece of glass you could see in and out, and that was it.” But then, he says, “I heard the door rattle. The jailer opens it up, and I see you coming in.” Joe was talking to Lou Olivera, the judge who had sentenced him to that night in jail. Lou remembers that when he walked into the jail cell and saw Joe there, Joe was sweaty and shaking, wound tight. Joe said, “When you walked in, that all went away. And then when they locked the door, I thought to myself, ‘He’s going to spend the night here. I’ve never seen this kind of act from anyone.” Lou said that he knew Joe’s history and talked to the chief jailer and said, “Can you put me in a cell with him?” Lou was a veteran himself, and he made it work. Joe remembers that they had a long conversation about their families, and he felt Judge Lou’s compassion. He said that was the first time he ever opened up, to trust another person (Read the original story here).
We may have different political views, different ideas about the war in Afghanistan, different responses to the events of the past two weeks. But I think we can agree that the situation calls for as much compassion as we can muster – for those veterans who feel their work and/or their lives have been given in vain, for Afghan refugees fleeing the country, and for those who will have to stay. We will no doubt hear their stories in the weeks and months to come.
With King Solomon (1 Kings 8:41-43), we pray that all those who yearn for peace and justice, all those who want to dwell safely in God’s house, who are looking for a place to lay their heads and their young ones, who are searching for a new home; we pray that their prayers will be answered. While we grieve with those who are being driven from their homes and for those who will now face oppressive Taliban rule, we pray for a time when their and our hearts and bodies will sing for joy again, when we will all find a home in God’s kin-dom.
This piece was originally presented as a sermon at Safe Harbor Family Church (United Church of Christ) in Clinton, MS on August 22, 2021.