Making Peace With Thanksgiving

by Rev. Dr. William M. Lyons

There is nothing sinful about gathering as a family or with friends to eat a meal steeped in tradition and memories. God isn’t against football. Remember that there are people in the world who don’t have life as good as we do, and to do something nice for them, seems like a pretty good idea – dare I even say religious. Why, then, did I feel so guilty every fourth Thursday in November?

As a child I felt suspicious of the Pilgrims. There was something fundamentally unfair about strangers arriving in a new land and taking it away from the people who lived there first. A teacher’s, “Well, we’re here now so don’t worry about it,” only confirmed I was on to something. As much as I liked the day with my family, I knew families who wouldn’t be together because of the war (Viet Nam back then). When we got back to school I could tell from their silence when the rest of us compared pie counts and turkey sizes, I had friends who couldn’t have the feast my family enjoyed.

Growing up taught me a new word for my uneasiness: privilege. It didn’t help. Nor did it help to discover that the only truth in the first Thanksgiving story was that there were Pilgrims, there were Indians, and there was a celebration.  As far as we know the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims never repeated their celebration. No one much thought about what happened that autumn in 1621 for 200 years. The details most of us learned in elementary school about what our teachers called ‘the first Thanksgiving’ were little more than the creation of Jane G. Austin in her 1889 historical novel Standish of Standish. Thanksgiving observances and rituals had been part of American Indian culture for thousands of years. Spanish colonists held a thanksgiving mass in St. Augustine, FL in 1565, and celebrated thanksgiving with Manso Indians near present day El Paso TX in 1598. French Huguenots observed a thanksgiving celebration in 1564 in what is now Jacksonville FL. English colonists had celebrated thanksgiving in New England in 1607, 1610, and 1619.  

While the story of the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving has remained relatively consistent since then, the roles of the Pilgrims and the Indians have been re-written time and again to reflect the crisis or the mood or the prejudices of the country. The Indians were hardly mentioned during the western expansion. The Pilgrims of World War 2 were hardy war-winners whose victory came from God. According to Look Magazine, the Pilgrims of the 1960s were “dissidents” and “commune builders.” How is a someone supposed to make peace with a holiday that seems always to be reinventing itself? And when I discovered that the Wampanoag people today observe a day of mourning on the day we celebrate Thanksgiving because of the pain they experienced at the hands of the doctrine of discovery, well… I needed to make peace with this holiday!  

From the doctrine of the trinity to debates about the jurisdiction of the church in matters of marriage, Puritans held deep convictions about how to practice their faith, convictions out of step with the Church of England. In any religious movement there are always zealots. Puritan zealots were called Separatists. For them there was no compromise, and no value to reform-from-within. When the Scrooby Puritan Separatist congregation emigrated illegally to the Netherlands they thought religious freedom would complete their sense of well-being. But the society that afforded them freedom of religious expression also afforded others that same freedom. They worried about the moral influences of what they considered a corrupt and permissive culture. The Scrooby congregants were not skilled in ways that permitted them to participate successfully in their new economy. Poverty and deep concerns about providing for themselves in their old age took center stage. 37 of them, along with 65 adventurers recruited by the voyage’s financiers, decided to pursue a what they hoped would be a better life in the new world.

Those passengers and crew were unprepared to endure the winter of 1620 aboard a ship anchored in Provincetown Harbor. By harvest 1621, half of the passengers had died, including 14 of the 18 married women. Of the 53 passengers remaining nearly half were children and teens, and the adults were mostly widowers, only 3 of whom were over age 40.

That anyone survived was due to the intervention of the Wampanoag people, specifically a Patuxet named Tisquantum. After a 14-year odyssey as a slave, a story worthy of its own telling, Tisquantum returned to his homeland only to find his people had fallen victim to a plague, the origin of which was most likely European traders. Evidence proves Tisquantum’s duplicity when dealing with Wampanoag and Pilgrims alike, but motives aside, he attended to the well-being of the Plimoth (the Pilgrim’s spelling) colonists.

Thanksgivings in Puritan tradition were solemn religious occasions. This is the only paragraph – 112 words – that we have from eyewitnesses:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.

In today’s terms what the participants recorded about that event some 400 years ago reads more like what historian Robert Tracy McKenzie calls a week of “beer and barbecue, shooting and sports.” There turned out to be twice as many Indians as many as there were Pilgrims. Nothing like a good time to attract the neighbors! The scene reads like the typical human response to prolonged pain. Enough already – let’s party! After everything they had been through the survivors seem to have needed something to celebrate. And so they made the most of the legitimate reasons at hand to feel relief and gladness and gratitude, and to lay aside the concerns of the day at least for awhile. They needed to recover their sense of well-being.

The real story of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is a story about the human quest for well-being. Christians have a word for that. The word is peace. We also have a word for how far people are willing to go to secure the welfare of others. Jesus called that peacemaking.

I have finally made my peace with Thanksgiving. No more trying to force a secular peg into a religious hole. The one-day observance we call Thanksgiving will be forever a secular holiday for me. No more outrage in God’s name about retailers opening at midnight Thursday; I choose to express my outrage in the name of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and others! Even in a secular world families’ well-being trumps corporate profits or personal savings.

My faith, like that of the Pilgrims, teaches me that gratitude is not a holiday to be celebrated but a discipline to be practiced each day at all times in every circumstance.

My faith teaches me to say I am sorry for wrongs done against others even when my ancestors did them, especially if it leads to reconciliation with others. Thanksgiving for me will forever be a day I stand in solidarity with the Indigenous People of this land as they mourn what they’ve lost, what my ancestors stole from them.

My faith teaches me that more important than the thanks I offer to God for my blessings is the thanks that someone else will offer to God because I have used my life to attend to, advocate for, and in any way I can, supply them with a greater sense of well-being.  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them [even on Thanksgiving], “Go in peace [or Happy Thanksgiving]; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” (2 Cor 9:11) 

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “a false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”  Oh how that lesson has played out these past few weeks. While Thanksgiving is the occasion that brings us together, we have a more urgent need. Tonight there are people in our world who are not living in peace. So tonight I ask you to embrace a more complex celebration of Thanksgiving, one in which you strive to put words of gratitude on the lips of someone else by improving their personal well-being. In these frightening and uncertain times people are looking what our brand of Christianity is offering. We are the purveyors of well-being – hope, safety, sanctuary, meaning, dignity and love.  Let us join one another on the narrow path that is peacemaking.  Amen.

Are we Still the “Land of the Pilgrim’s Pride”?

by Ken McIntosh

I remember when I was a child and Thanksgiving was all about the Pilgrims. At school we watched “Mouse on the Mayflower” and grainy film reels with the Mayflower II sailing past Plymouth Rock. We made conical Pilgrim hats out of different colors of construction paper and big yellow paper buckles that went on our shoes. At home, Mom always made a ceremony of setting out a large wax sculpture Pilgrim couple—the centerpiece of our table.

Now it seems that Thanksgiving weekend is all about ‘Black Friday’ morning sales and college football. Pilgrims? The Mayflower? Meh…not so much (the exception this year being a pair of revisionist histories on TV).

On previous Thanksgivings I’ve thought that the eclipse of the Plymouth Plantation myth was probably good and merited. For Native people, it was another step toward the end of their relationship with the land. Already wracked by European disease, the treaty that Chief Massasoit made with the Pilgrims ended in the time of that chief’s son Philip; the ‘King Philip’s War’ resulted in over 5,000 deaths, and three-quarters of the slain were Natives.

A decade ago I had a strange experience while visiting Plymouth Plantation. Part of that historical recreation is a Native village staffed by Wampanoag tribespeople who dress in 17th century attire. A visitor to the village addressed one of the Native interpreters and said “You look like just like real Indians.” The man replied, with admirable lack of irritation in his voice “I am a member of the Wampanoag tribe, the original people of this land, who met with the European settlers.” And the tourist said, “Oh, I get it. You’re acting like a real Indian.” The Native interpreter continued to educate the man in a polite manner, but the whole exchange was painful to watch.

More recently, in Flagstaff, my wife was away for the Thanksgiving Holiday and I had to stay for a church function, so a Navajo friend invited me to his sister’s house for turkey dinner. I was the only white person at a large gathering of my host’s extended family, and thus the butt end of good-natured white-people jokes. The irony of it all was not lost on me.

So, considering the sad history of my ancestors’ conquest of this country, celebrating Pilgrim pride didn’t seem like such a brilliant idea. At the same time, it was hard to escape the influence of the Pilgrims once I became the pastor of a Congregational church. Of the 102 settlers who came from Holland on the Mayflower, 35 were members of the Puritan Separatist Church. They fled England where the State Church forbade their manner of worship for refuge in Holland where there was broad religious toleration. Fearing that they would lose their cultural ways, they then chose the risk-filled voyage to New England, a region chosen because they mistakenly believed it to be uninhabited.

Perhaps the most abiding aspect of Pilgrim heritage in the UCC today is part of Pastor John Robinson’s farewell message of 1620, in which he said “if God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of his, be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth by my ministry; for I am very confident the Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” He clarified by lamenting that Lutherans proscribed their beliefs to the writings of Luther and Calvinists to the writings of Calvin. Today, the UCC is characterized by the phrase “God is still speaking.”

This year, however, I’ve decide that I do want to re-appropriate the Pilgrim story. It has abiding value—or at least value for 2015 and the foreseeable future. I say this for two reasons. First, the story of the Pilgrims and First Nations people of that land cooperating for their mutual benefit is a true one—albeit short-lived. The Wampanoags showed Europeans how to grow crops and survive; Europeans in turn brought crops and technology that was helpful for the Natives.

That peace was short-lived. I think of it like the 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches of WWI. We know that was followed by the hells of Verdun and poison gas attacks, but at least for a brief time it happened and we can still be inspired by that glimmer of peace. Likewise, we have the example of the daring risk that this Native community took by welcoming strange and dubious-seeming people, and trying to seek a future of mutual benefit. At a time when America seems to be growing more xenophobic, this beginning attempt at mutual trust may still serve as a positive example. Their betrayal by our race can also be an abiding cautionary lesson.

But there’s another ‘Pilgrim lesson’ that I had drummed in during grade school, and I think that is the most important lesson of the Mayflower journey for America today. Countless schoolchildren were taught during the 1960s, ‘The Pilgrims came to these shores seeking religious freedom, and that is why we continue to value everyone’s religious freedom.’ That story can be historically critiqued—it may be that the Mayflower Separatists only valued Christian religious freedom, and we know that the Puritan groups who came in succeeding waves were intolerant of religious dissenters in their own ranks. Yet the elementary school lesson was as clear as it was succinct: our ancestors came here because they wanted to worship freely, and we should pass that privilege on to others.

So when, a few years later, I saw a group of men installing our neighbors’ swimming pool, and they all stopped their work at the same time and bowed down on mats and prayed, I was not shy to approach them afterward and ask “Why did you do that?” And when they told me they were Muslims and they prayed toward Mecca five times a day, I said “Neat!” Up to that point my experience of religious diversity was Methodists, Lutherans, Unitarians…and one Jew. But I was happy to see a new kind of religion in my town…part of an unfolding story of religious freedom that defined us as Americans.

I have to wonder; all these people wanting to refuse new neighbors because they came from another culture and they might follow a different religion: were they not told the story of the Pilgrims? If they were told the same American legend that I received, they somehow missed the whole point.

“Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!”
…for everyone who wants to live in safety, and to worship as they please. Let it ring!

Photo is with permission of my publisher Anamchara Books