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Thanksgiving Day | By the Rev. Scott Lee


I.

In one of his humorous monologues about life in Lake Woebegone, Minnesota, Garrison Keilor tells about an Advent sermon delivered by local Lutheran pastor Inkvist. Having observed the aggressive, obsessive Christmas shopping going on in the malls and shops all around, Pastor Inkvist once again concludes, as he did every year, that any preacher worth his salt needs to throw a little cold water on Christmas. He wanted to bring people back to their senses about the real meaning of Advent and Christmas, which, he is certain, has nothing at all to do with toy guns and computer games called things like “World Conquest” and “Grand Theft Auto.” With that as my warrant, I am moved to throw perhaps not just a little cold water on the Thanksgiving holiday that we observe and celebrate today.

II.

Maybe you, like me, learned a story about the first Thanksgiving that is – at best – more than just a little idealized and sentimentalized and – at worst – a dastardly misrepresentation of the truth that the history of our nation’s relationship with indigenous or First Nation peoples is a history of triumphalism, imperialism and a host of other egregious failures to respect the dignity of every other human being. Typical of this misrepresentation is The History Channel’s assertion that the Plymouth colonists and the Native American Wampanoag people "shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies" in 1621. [1]

This Hallmark-ization of the first Thanksgiving is challenged by scholar Paula Peters, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and a scholar of Wampanoag history. She writes: "There wasn't an invitation extended to invite the Wampanoag to come and feast with them," she said. "It was really quite by accident, that there were any shared festivities at all." The pilgrims were celebrating their first harvest when they fired off muskets repeatedly, a form of entertainment for the settlers. Hearing the blasts, the Wampanoag thought it was a threat. The supreme leader Massasoit Ousamequin assembled a small army of approximately 90 warriors and approached the settlement, much to the surprise of the pilgrims. After de-escalating the situation, the pilgrims and the Wampanoag feasted together, though historical texts don't indicate what they might have eaten besides deer hunted by the Wampanoag, as Peters writes in an introduction to [her book] "Of Plimoth Plantation." "The contemporary holiday perpetuates the myths of the Wampanoag and Pilgrim relations," Peters writes . . . . " It further buries the truths of kidnapings, pestilence and subjugation and ignores the scant details of the tense encounter, while it conjures up Hallmark images of happy Natives and Pilgrims feasting on a cornucopia of corn, pies, and meats, including a fully dressed roast turkey." [2] While it is true that some First Nation people observe the holiday by joining together to celebrate family, “It’s important to know that for many Native Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and protest since it commemorates the arrival of settlers in North America and the centuries of oppression and genocide that followed. [3]

III.

This splashing of cold water on one of America’s most cherished occasions seems to me an entrée into an even more ancient example of land grabbing and subjugation of indigenous peoples. We heard today from The Book of Deuteronomy:

Moses said to all Israel: For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread

without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. What we did not hear was a much earlier bit from The Book of Genesis which says: Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (Genesis 12:5–6, NRSV) “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” Surely that is one of the most poignant understatements in all of Holy Scripture, tragic, I think in its brevity and flat emotional affect. What can we do in light of the bald evidence that the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus, the God of you and me is or was – at least as reported in our Sacred Writings – a land grabber and displacer of indigenous people, taking their historic family lands and giving them to those who are considered more favored and chosen? I think on this self-congratulatory national holiday we must ask just how much guilt do we bear. How much are we the inheritors not only of stolen American real estate, but of stolen patrimony in faraway Palestine? How much of the claim and counter-claim, the volleying of blame and counter-blame now once again tragically and murderously raging in Palestine, or Israel, or what was once called The Land of Canaan – for how much of that are we the usurping beneficiaries? To what degree is our God the thief of native lands? How much of the bloody history of Christianity is beholden to a divine land-grab? How much of the violent history of this warring nation of our own is beholden to our whitewashed, fictionalized past?

IV.

The answer to those questions, of course, is that the amount of guilt is unquantifiable. If we are willing to acknowledge such responsibility, such a huge burden is more than one could possibly bear. This has put me in mind of an observation of C. S. Lewis, whose commemoration was just two days ago. Lewis recounts how hypocritical he felt in saying the words of The General Confession from the English Book of Common Prayer. He felt insincere and hypocritical when he repeated the words, “The Burden of our sins is intolerable.” I did not, in fact, feel an intolerable or unbearable burden of sin. I was a decent sort of chap. Lewis also recounts that he came to realize that the assertion that “the burden of our sins is intolerable, was not, in fact an assertion about his feelings at all. The assertion is one of fact. We each and all bear such a burden of benefitting from past wrongs, past horrors and injustices, that if we took its enormity to heart, we could not help but be crushed by its weight. Lewis observes: I wonder if that is what the Prayer Book means; that, whether we feel miserable or not, and however we feel, there is on each of us a load which, if nothing is done about it, will in fact break us. [4] I think he is right.

V.

Homiletics professor and friend of this community Bill Hethcock once observed to me about a fellow preacher that this other preacher always preached so eloquently and effectively as to convict his congregation of their sins and failures. Bill said to me that he always left that preaching feeling guilty and thorouthly convicted, but without the slightest hope or notion of what on earth to do about it. Let me not do the same.

VI.

We cannot undo the past, whichever deity did or did not give away what true divine justice might have stayed that deity from doing. We cannot undo the imperialism, the colonialism, the genocide of which we American Christians are the beneficiaries. First Nation peoples have suggested that we can not do just nothing. To quote once again Wampanoag scholar Paula Peters [5]:

[We can] Celebrate Indigenous cuisine. Add . . . recipes from Indigenous chefs to your Thanksgiving spread, with a focus on local, sustainable ingredients. Speak about Native peoples in a respectful way. Acknowledge whose land you’re on at this very moment. [Use] your zip code to find out whose traditional territories you’re residing on. Take a minute to learn more about them and honor their enduring relationship to the land. Support Native-lead [business] initiatives. Watch [media such as] the Klepper docuseries episode, Invisible Nation. Hear more about the impact of invisibility on Native peoples

VI.

And we can humbly repent and not perpetuate the lies. That, too, is found in our reading from Deuteronomy: When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God. Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." The “power and might” of our own hands have done at least as much harm as good; and we are indebted to the sacrifice and suffering of many whom we have offended: a burden that is unbearable were it not for the forgiveness offered to us in Jesus Christ and the empowering given to us by God’s Holy Spirit to speak the truth to ourselves and others; and never ceasing finding ways to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the sandals and moccasins of the myriad legions who walked a trail of tears from ancient days in faraway lands and in fields and forests just outside these very doors. Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts . . .


[2] Ibid.

[4] C.S. Lewis, "Miserable Offenders," God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 120-121.

[5] I acknowledge that these are tiny gestures. Paltry, even. But we cannot “do just nothing,” even if the something we do is small. – Fr. S. Lee

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