A city on a hill cannot be hidden. (Matthew 5.14)
Asking to Understand
My family’s roots dig deep into the red clay of northern Alabama, where the Appalachian Mountains ease into pine-covered slopes and low-slung river valleys. Though I’ve heard people from the region referred to as “Appalachians,” we didn’t perceive ourselves as such. When my folks relocated to Chicago, as big-city immigrants often do, they first settled in a neighborhood of people with strong “ethnic” ties—in our case, Southern families. To a lot of Chicagoans, however, we were all hillbillies. As they say, we didn’t take kindly to it. In retrospect, we weren’t ashamed to be identified with “hill people” of Appalachian heritage or the implications that went with it. We just weren’t happy about being stereotyped. We got our first taste of prejudice. And we quickly learned carving through its walls is hard and tedious work—chipping away at the stereotype while hanging on to the truth about ourselves. Mom, in particular, was tireless about this, and she ingeniously taught us both sides of the story by reaching out to Chicagoans of every kind. Our kitchen table became a sociology lab where all sorts of people collected. There I discovered the surest way to break through stereotypes was asking to understand instead of asking to be understood.
Through the years, I’ve brushed against other types of prejudice. Much was gay-related, of course—mostly from strangers or slight acquaintances that mistook my being out and confident as their opening to “kid.” (God has been gracious; if anyone ever hated me for my making, He spared my knowing it.) What continually surprises me, however, is bumping into people with fixed notions about Christians. Some of their ideas derive from the media’s obsession with charlatans, grifters, Hell-raisers, apostates, et al. But I’ve found the bulk of negative Christian stereotypes are wrought from personal encounters with errant believers like those Paul mentions in 2 Timothy 3. We can list them in four columns: egocentric, abusive, deceitful, and self-indulgent. He describes these groups as, “having a form of godliness but denying its power,” telling Timothy, “Have nothing to do with them.” (2 Timothy 3.5) When our paths cross with insincere, nominal Christians, we soon learn neither of us has anything the other wants. We part ways. The challenge comes by realizing how hard it is to shake off stereotypes they inspire. Our attention turns to those who embrace these images, because their prejudices are more damaging to them than us. That’s where understanding them rather than being understood comes in.
A City on a Hill
In many ways, the Sermon on the Mount functions as Jesus’s inaugural address. His recent baptism caps with divine declaration He is the Christ. His interim period in the desert confirms His strength of character and commitment. He exits the wilderness to find a throng of eager supporters. Matthew 5.1-2 introduces the Sermon, noting, “Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.” The speech calls for sweeping change on a scale no one before or since has advocated. Jesus lays out a grass-roots strategy for completely overthrowing cultural, political, and religious norms by inverting personal values. The least become the greatest, the poorest the richest, the saddest the happiest, etc. This message bathes His followers with conviction that they are avatars of change—role models and key influencers and protectors of Christ’s principles. “You’re the salt of the earth,” He says, “the light of the world.” He climaxes this portion of the Sermon with “A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” (v14)
The statement's idealism sets our hearts racing. In reality, though, Jesus turns the phrase to let some air out of His rhetoric. When His listeners hear it, they most likely respond with a collective “Huh?” because it implicitly suggests they’ll be stereotyped as hill people, and knowing who the real hill people are explains why they're perplexed. In 1 Kings 16, we read of several Israeli monarchs, including King Omri, whose reign, like so many, slides into corruption. His only notable deed: “He bought the hill of Samaria… and built a city on the hill, calling it Samaria.” (v24)
The Jews regard no one with more disdain than Samaritans. Everything about them is sub-par. Though they claim a common heritage with the Jews—calling themselves “the lost tribe”—they honor few of Israel’s traditions. They claim to worship Israel’s God. Yet roughly two centuries before Christ, they buckle to political pressures and rechristen their temple in the name of Zeus, merging Judaic and Greek rites into a hybrid faith. Because of this, Samaritans are worse than outcasts. They’re impostors. When they travel among the Jews, they call attention to themselves. There's nowhere to hide. Jesus’s followers hear “a city on a hill” and think “Samaria,” not some Utopia. Jesus tells them they’ll be highly visible targets of prejudice lumped together with people profaned for hypocrisy and weakness.
Own the Label
The Samaritan label has stuck to this day. Like it or not, much of the world sees us as hill people. It seems we have two options. We can mimic ancient Jewish society by reviling hypocritical and weak-minded people who claim a common faith heritage with us. But all this does is create tension and legitimize negative Christian stereotypes. Or we can own the label and prejudice that comes with it by being a city on a hill in the idealistic sense. The Gospels give us two superb examples of how we do it, both of which display the art of setting aside our need to be understood in deference to understanding the needs of others.
In the first, a Samaritan woman meets Jesus at a well. He asks to share some of her water. Aware of how Jews feel about Samaritans, she’s confused. “Sir, I’m a hill person. Why would You want to drink with me?” she asks. Jesus replies He can give her living water that will sate her thirst forever. She wants to understand this and her honesty results in a life-changing experience. The second instance comes in Christ’s parable of a Samaritan who ignores common prejudice to care for a badly injured Jew. While none of the victim’s compatriots risk the time, money, and reputation it would cost to help him, the Samaritan defies stereotype by fulfilling the law to love one’s neighbor. Jesus tells this story to a lawyer, asking him who is the story’s hero. The lawyer says, “The Samaritan—the hill person.” Jesus replies, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10.37) Yes, being labeled as hill people creates problems. No, it’s not pleasant to deal with. But only by owning the label can we overcome the prejudice affixed to it. Only by using its disadvantages to understand and care for those who misjudge us can we debunk the “hill people” stereotype and free them—and us—from its damaging effects.
Samaria—home of ancient Palestine’s “hill people.”