“Thanksgivings, Past & Present”
Monday, November 19, 2012
Rossmoor Interfaith Council Thanksgiving Service
Rev. Will McGarvey
If you are like me, when we think of Thanksgiving we are whisked back to our days of elementary education, to coloring pages of turkeys and telling the stories of the Pilgrims eating a wonderful meal with the Native Americans. This was the time for school assemblies, complete with paper costumes and songs of our thankfulness to be Americans.
We have a national story about Thanksgiving just like we have a story of the Fourth of July. A people need a narrative to be a people and a nation needs a common story to become united as a nation. Stories define us. They shape who we are and they give form to our common experiences.
Thanksgiving has its roots in the harvest festivals of ancient agricultural societies, and like the 4th of July, Thanksgiving has become more of a patriotic celebration. Perhaps this is because we are unable to make a connection to what constitutes a good harvest, especially when we live in a world where fresh bounty can be shipped to us year-round and picked-up easily at the local supermarket. We as a people have become disconnected from our world and with what it takes to bring food to market, let alone to our tables.
The narrative associated with Thanksgiving is the landing of the Pilgrims in New England. It is significant that the Pilgrims themselves turned to one of those other ancient stories – the story of the Exodus – to interpret what happened to them. We should remember that the Pilgrims, saw Europe as Egypt. They considered the Atlantic as the Red Sea and these ancestors viewed these shores as their Promised Land.
Perhaps it was by interpreting their experience in light of the Exodus story that enabled them to face the hardships of those beginning years. They were sure that God had guided them from bondage to freedom and that they could endure suffering, because they believed that through it they would be led to freedom and a better life.
Just as significantly, we need to remember that when the only non- voluntary immigrants to this country – the African-Americans – sought tomake sense of their experience of slavery, they used the same biblical story, the Exodus, and interpreted it for their situation. For the African slaves, Egypt was where they were, here in America – and the Promised Land was freedom while they were here, or a return to their homeland. The songs that they created that have become a permanent part of American culture and many of our hymnals – and they are replete with the images of the Exodus.
Today, let’s also remember the Liberians among us here in Contra Costa County. These siblings of ours, whose ancestors were once slaves in America, then returned to Africa only to be displaced as refugees by the conflicts in Liberia – these sisters and brothers are a testament to that cry for freedom present within every human soul.
But there is one other group that we usually leave out of our American narratives, or at least we tell their story differently than they do. The Rev. Robert Two Bulls of the Oglala Lakota people is an Episcopal priest in Los Angeles who experiences Thanksgiving this way. He says,
“Every year when Thanksgiving Day approaches I feel without fail a growing consternation inside me. I attribute this feeling to the inevitable emergence of the whitewashed historical record of this day and to the sudden attention that America directs toward the Native American Indians. It is an awareness that wakes up every year after Halloween and then will go back to sleep when the last scrap of turkey is devoured.”
Yes, the American version of Thanksgiving to Robert Two Bulls and other Native-Americans is starkly different. It goes something like this:
“God had given this land to European people. They came to these shores primarily for economic reasons. And through the next few hundred years America was born as a country and the Indian faded away. All is well.”
But the narrative most Americans know – says,
“The Pilgrims came here mainly for religious freedom reasons. After the settling and founding of a new colony they gave thanks to God for providing a great bounty.”
This is a hard word for people like you and me from the Congregational and Presbyterian histories in this country, isn’t it?
The truth of our Thanksgiving story is a complicated one about which much has been written, but there are facts that need to be considered and remembered by us as people of faith before we begin to celebrate this holiday.
When the Pilgrims touched Plymouth Rock in 1620 and made it to shore, they found a deserted village which they eventually appropriated for themselves and named Plymouth Colony. That village had been named Patuxet and was the formal home of the people who were a branch of the Wampanoags. The majority of these people had died from smallpox in 1618. But two years later their village was a ghost town.
Those early Pilgrims who arrived were poor and hungry, unprepared for life in this new land. By the time they were found by a Native-American named Squanto, a former inhabitant of Patuxet, half of the Pilgrims had died. Fortunately for the Pilgrims, Squanto spoke English. But what we usually don’t hear is that Squanto had learned this language over a period of several years following his capture by English traders and being sold into slavery in Europe.
Squanto had eventually made it back home in a heroic nine-year journey only to find his people pretty much wiped out and a new people living in his old village.
After teaching the Pilgrims basic survival and agricultural techniques, the Wamponoags and Pilgrims kept peaceful relations for well over fifty years. But some historians believe that Squanto was eventually killed by one the Puritans.
Perhaps today, perhaps this week, we as a nation need to celebrate the life of Squanto, who was the real hero of this sad story. In an interesting way, it was Squanto – as both former slave and aid to the Pilgrims – who merges both of our American narratives into one. Squanto was the one who reached across the Interfaith and inter-cultural breach.
And so, perhaps Thanksgiving isn’t a celebration created to play into our notion of greatness. We as Americans have to remember that land in America was largely acquired dishonestly by outright theft and by the breaking of treaties with the first peoples of this land. We also need to ask the question, “Did God really send the diseases of Europe to annihilate all the indigenous inhabitants and then give the land to the Europeans?” Only three years after arrival, in 1623, Mather the elder, one of those Pilgrim leaders was recorded as giving thanks to his God for destroying the heathen savages to make way for what he called, “a better growth.”
Perhaps we need to question all of these narratives, in the Bible or elsewhere, that link the stories of Exodus of the liberation of one people to the annihilation of another people.
For with the biblical Exodus also comes the eradication of the Canaanites, and the Jebusites, and the Hittites, and the Moabites, and the Ammonites. And the current war there in the Holy Land continues to be a conflict for land and resources, that affects each of our communities.
Friends, what Thanksgiving reminds us of is that the land – and the produce of the land ultimately belongs to God. And that the sharing of the produce of the land, like that done by Squanto and others, is what calls us to this moment. It is in the sharing of this Holiday that we are reminded that we belong to each other.
Jesus of Nazareth once said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…”
While different Americans may experience Thanksgiving differently –
• as Pilgrims escaping religious intolerance,
• as slaves escaping bondage,
• as the oppressed escaping poverty,
• as victims escaping persecution,
• as refugees escaping the ravages of war –
we all have in our past a version of the same story. And if it is not our personal story, it is our ancestors’ story. And even if it is not our ancestor’s story, then it is the story of our friends and loved ones.
That is why our Interfaith Councils are so important. Not so we can have great gatherings like this where we can pat each other on the back. We come together as often as we can because our narratives run through – and run into – each other’s. Sometimes the relations we share are life giving, and bolster our common humanity. But sometimes we need to be able to tell each other our truths and be changed in the interaction.
I lament that we don’t have many Native Americans here to challenge us with their presence, but we need them here, don’t we? If only to thank them for Squanto, who made the huge interior move from Slave, to freedom – from traveler, to mourner – to community organizer and farming instructor.
May we ever be thankful, truly thankful, and may we ever be hungry for justice. Real, genuine distributive, social, transformative justice – and the Interfaith understanding necessary to see such justice come – in this world and the next. Amen.