A little boy let his attention wander in catechism class and his teacher singled him out for a question. “Andy, where was Jesus born?” The boy thought for a minute and said, “Pittsburgh!” The teacher shook her head and said, “Try again.” “Philadelphia?” “I am so ashamed of you, Andy. You had to know it was in Bethlehem!” “Oh yeah, I knew it was somewhere in Pennsylvania.”
In thinking of the monastic renaissance of Europe in the Middle Ages, I’ve come to realize that it was one of the few movements where a society was rebuilt on the basis of an ethical ideal. It has also made me realize that the United States was founded on similar principles.
When settlers came to this land, they had the opportunity to name the places themselves (which leads to fascinating studies in toponymy). They called their new homes many times after the places they came from and we find familiar names like Boston, Chatham, New York, New Jersey, New London, or Oxford. French settlers named Detroit, Michigan after the banks of the river they called le détroit du lac Érié, meaning the strait of Lake Erie.
They also named their settlements after the economic freedom that they sought – Prosperity, Needmore. They used names from the native American settlers. They called their homes after each other and natural features.
But these settlers also perceived the opportunity to rebuild a world into something purer. In this new land they named their towns Bethlehem, Gilead, Zion, Salem, Galilee, Hebron, Sharon, Rehoboth, Eden, Canaan, Bethlehem, Jericho, Calvary, and Nazareth.
They called their settlements Amity, Philadelphia, Concord, New Hope, Faith, and Blessing. Paradise can be found in Texas, Michigan, Kansas, Utah, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Ohio, Nevada, and California.
For the less religious, the settlers named their new homes after classical tradition; there are twelve Spartas, fifteen Athens, and twenty-five Troys. We find Corinth, Texas and Corinth, Mississippi,
Towns were named after goals or principles by which to live; Liberty, Independence, Peace, and Freedom. We see Loyal (OK), Prospect (CA), and Industry (ME). How many cities and towns are named after our national heroes? How many Lincolns (42), Washingtons (25) with 18 Mount Vernons, Jeffersons (11 towns and 17 counties), Madisons (24), Monroes (10), or Franklins (30) adorn our maps.
In short, when these people settled the new land, they tried evoke a world representing something greater than the present, a tie to the eternal. It was a way to remind themselves of their commitment to reform the world spiritually, as well as materially.
But this reforming strain was married to violent adventurism. There were other Europeans who were plunderers, the most rapacious members of a rapacious society. They came over a few at a time to a hostile land and conquered it. A strong reward lured strong men to strong risks. Others followed, but the land was conquered by these pirates. Their blood is our blood. It still runs in our veins. We are left with their instincts, like a dog long descended from wolves. We get the sniff of game, the tail goes up and the fangs are bared, but we no longer know what to do. But there are a few left who still hunt. They know what those ancient instincts are for.
These rapacious dogs continue to plunder today and take more and more from the world, regardless of the costs to others. And they make mockery of places called Bethlehem, Concord, and Independence.