At any given moment there can only be one cosmic center. In the world in which we are aware, only one place can be the center of the universe. Think of what would happened if we had to deal with the discovery that earth is not that sacred location and you get some idea of what happens when peoples are obligated to abdicate their position as the center of the universe.
In ancient times when civilization first emerged in Mesopotamia, the center of the universe was Uruk. If you have heard of Gilgamesh then you also may know that Uruk was the city where he was king. In Mesopotamia, the mantra for mighty kings was to rule the four quarters of the universe somewhat similar to our four corners of the world. And there at the king’s capital would be his ziggurat, his mighty tower at the sacred center that connected the earth he ruled to the heavens where his god was king.
There later came a time when Ur, the city biblical Abraham left, had its moment of glory as the center of the world. It too had a ziggurat or high place. The biblical account delivers the message that the torch had been passed to a new location, the center of the universe was to be relocated from Mesopotamia. The new center was David’s Jerusalem and the new high place linking the heavens and the earth was Solomon’s Temple. Although politically that perception is no longer valid, it still resonates as a religious idea.
Egypt, of course, had other ideas. Obviously the garden paradise of the ancient Near East thought of itself as the center of the world. And indeed it was for the world dominated by the Nile. Both Egypt and Mesopotamia were able to each regard themselves as the cosmic center because they were too far apart to affect the other politically or militarily. Each could maintain its view to its own satisfaction since the other claimant didn’t really matter. All that changed when Assyria, the same country that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, invaded and sacked Egypt. Never again would Egypt dominate as it once had. The physical expressions of its stature had become tourist destinations even in ancient times and there is graffiti to show it.
In time Rome emerged as the new colossus. As people became aware of an ever larger world, so to an empire had to increase in size if the people were to claim to be the center of the universe. Rome succeeded for centuries. Eventually the physical expressions of its stature also became tourist destinations. However thanks to a new religion while politically the perception of Rome at the center of the universe is no longer valid, it still resonates as a religious idea.
But just as Egypt and Mesopotamia found out they were not alone, Rome found out it was not alone either. In a land far far way there was another claimant to the title of center of the universe. The Middle Kingdom also perceived itself to be the cosmic center. Rome and China were too far apart for either to assert its dominance over the other so each was able maintain its belief in itself. Whereas there came a time when Mesopotamia eventually prevailed over Egypt (as would Persia, Greece, and Rome in ancient times and others since then), the distances between Rome and China remained too vast and the technological powers too similar for either to achieve superiority over the other. That situation changed in the 19th century when the Middle Kingdom was humbled by European powers.
The City on a Hill was a latecomer to these considerations. In 1630 as he set sail for America, John Winthrop pronounced the words that would become a defining mantra for his new land. America not only was to be a City on a Hill, but it was to be an example for the world as the eyes of the world were upon us. His vision was not expressed in typical political terms but then he was not a king. Instead the power of this City on a Hill was to be in the life it created such that everyone else would want to copy it.
When Winthrop uttered these words there was no United States of America. There were no 13 colonies either. Winthrop was referring to the world he and his godly saints would create in Boston, in Massachusetts. His vision was a Puritan one. There is a story to be told about how his vision of a City on a Hill expanded from its Boston origins to the national expression of President of the United States Ronald Reagan. That story will not be told here but there are some key points worth observing.
During the colonial era, there was some jockeying for power among the leading cities to be center of the new polity. Certainly Boston, Philadelphia, and New York figured prominently in that competition. The fierce sports rivalries among the teams today from these cities draw on centuries old emotions. And one should not overlook Charlestown to the south either considering what was to happen decades after the birth of the country. In America, the passing of the torch happened in 1823. The departure by Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson Art school, the nation’s first homegrown art school, from Philadelphia to New York two years before the Erie Canal was completed and New York became the Empire State, marked the moment. The transference of the nation’s center to New York had occurred, a position it continues to hold until this very day.
New York’s rise to world capital was recognized at the end of World War II with the establishment of the United Nations. New York now was the center of the world and even if you want to lop of the UN’s top ten floors, how would you feel if it relocated to Bejing? New York became the place where aliens from outer space landed. New York became the place which the President of the United States sacrificed in Failsafe when Moscow was destroyed. New York was the city with the high place King Kong climbed in the Americanized retelling of the old Mesopotamian myths. And New York was the place with the high towers targeted by Osama Bin-Laden when he sought to demonstrate his new world order. As a result of those actions now there is a new sacred day and sacred place to which the world flocks the cosmic center at Ground Zero on 9/11.
When America won World War III and the Soviet Union was no longer the wave of the future who would bury us, history did not come to end. The Middle Kingdom is back. The Middle Kingdom is seeking to restore the glories of its past when it dominated the world it knew. It has a plan and it is executing it. On one level it is asserting itself geographically to create a united one world through infrastructure and trade in its One Belt One Road Initiative. The lesser countries and peoples of the planet will feed the cosmic center the resources it needs to sustain its economic engine and dominance. The rest of the world also will supply exotic tourist destinations to visit like the very same Niagara Falls that drew painters in the 19th century. On a second level, the Middle Kingdom will undertake a great leap forward with Made in China 2025 to become the dominant country in the new technologies that are changing this planet. The Middle Kingdom knows what it wants and has dedicated itself to achieving it.
What’s missing is a vision. There is no vast line of immigrants seeking to live the Chinese Dream. The eyes of the world are not upon the Middle Kingdom for the values by which to live. It is not an example for the world as Winthrop proclaimed his new world would be. The #MeToo movement reverberates throughout the world. What Chinese value does? Anyone can be an American, only the Chinese can be Chinese. The American DNA dating back to Winthrop’s message of a City on Hill that the eyes of the world are upon provides us with a powerful means of first becoming and now remaining the center of the world…but only if we want to be and even then there is no guarantee of success.
So how is the City on a Hill doing in the world war against the Middle Kingdom? It does appear as if finally we are aware that we are in a war. Recent developments suggest that at long last we, meaning the American government, recognizes that the completion exists and that we need to safeguard our economy and technological prowess from our foe. Our country has already paid a huge price economically in support of the Middle Kingdom’s quest for dominance. Perhaps that time of deference and ignorance of the Middle Kingdom’s goals has now ended.
Unfortunately the completion isn’t only a transactional one. The simple-minded approach that the conflict is solely between the United States and China is childish. It is a global struggle requiring a global vision if We the People are to prevail. There is no constructive purpose in antagonizing those who want to help us, those who are our friends, those who are our allies. There is no constructive purpose in withdrawing from the world if we seek to continue as the leader of it. We have every right to abdicate our position of leadership and provide a vacuum for others to fill. If we treat everything as transactional then we are condemned to be losers in the global arena. We need to redefine the State Department for the realities of the 21st century, not decimate it.
Anyone can be an American, only the Chinese can be Chinese. Today, we never hear about the vision of America. Today, we never hear about America being an example for the world. Today, we never hear about the eyes of the world being upon us. Today, we never hear about America as a City on a Hill. Today, we never hear about America’s role in human history. Today, we never hear that it is morning in America. Is that what We the People want?