David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once said in a speech: “History did not spoil us with power, wealth, nor with broad territories or an enormous community lot, however, it did grant us the uncommon intellectual and moral virtue, and thus it is both a privilege and an obligation to be a light unto the nations.”
Ben Gurion was, I would guess, talking about the Ten Commandments, and about the Jewish people rather than the Israeli nation, at a time when some of Israel’s policies were not yet so incompatible with being a light unto the nations.
The phrase comes from Isaiah 49:6, in which the prophet transmits God’s words to his people: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob … I will make you as a light unto the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In other words, he’s saying, don’t expect to have it easy, merely by being saved yourself. With privilege comes responsibility. You will now have to help other people be saved too.
Wonderful culture is possible without it
What should a nation among nations strive for? A country’s influence over the long run comes from several sources. First, economic strength; second, military power; third, culture; and fourth, the extent to which it a light to other nations. The first two are material, the third less so, and the fourth not so at all.
Riches beget both military power and culture. With a strong economy you can afford to have a large army and a class that produces art and science. But you can have enormous military power without a productive economy – witness the USSR before its fall and North Korea now. Wonderful culture is possible without giant armies or economies too, as countless small countries testify.
Being a light unto the nations is different. That takes great individuals within even not so great countries. Look at Vaclav Havel or Nelson Mandela, men whose personal glow illuminates the world and the reputation of their countries.
A chain that led to skepticism and loss of trust
Americans imagine themselves as exceptional, a self-proclaimed light to the nations, with the privilege of freedom and the responsibility to help save other people. You can tell how much Americans think of themselves from the number of times President Obama peppers his speeches with the phrase “That’s not who we are” when he describes inappropriate actions he thinks we’ve committed. Perhaps we once were a light, during and after World War II when, having helped the allies restore the world, we became the dominant economic power. But those days are long gone. Since then we have had Vietnam, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Iraq, bank bailouts, a corporate-government complex, Libya, and now the Snowden revelations. Every link in this chain is who we are, and has led to a skepticism and loss of trust in our government both by its citizens and its nation-allies.
That loss of trust now influences what Obama and we should and can realistically do about Syria. Syria is likely a problem with no solution unless it’s a more global one. This is not to defend Assad, his enemies, or any other countries or political systems. There are many many bad people in the world.
There is no country that sweet
Meanwhile it’s important to look at oneself. Napalm is a chemical weapon too. In our battle with Communism we supported coups. We spy on our own citizens – actually, who is the ‘we’ that spies on ‘us’? – on foreign embassies, on allies, on the whole world, all the while evangelizing for internet freedom. I’ve no doubt that the people in charge had their own good and perhaps even defensible reasons for doing all of these things, but I’m much less sure that we are in a position to confidently tell the rest of the world what is tolerable. We do have a somewhat self-justifying track record.
It would be wonderful to live in a country that is both powerful and a true Light to the nations, a country sweet enough to unhypocritically tell truth to injustice, internal and external, a country that didn’t flail and in so doing diminish its influence, a country whose image matched its actions, a country that was a force for both right and admiration. I don’t know of any country that sweet. So far we are the Lite version. It may be time for a little self-reflection.