“What is the significance of Thanksgiving?”
Inevitably the question gets asked around our nomadic Thanksgiving table each year, primarily because the guests who fill our mismatched chairs are a constantly varying assortment of races and nationalities. Years ago we established a family tradition of inviting friends from whichever local community we happened to belong to at the time to share our feast with us, largely inspired by our desire to express our gratitude to them for welcoming us in and helping us settle. I have always relished answering this question, getting the chance to draw the parallels between their kindness to us and the kindness of the Native Americans to the pilgrims.
But in more recent days I have been struck with the awkward question: what if in return for our new neighbors’ sacrificial kindness, we abused them, took over their land, and forced them into exile? Is that not how the story of the first Thanksgiving turned out? All of a sudden my warm fuzzies over happy natives and holy pilgrims sharing a peaceful meal together shrivel into a nasty knot in my stomach. Sadly, this is my American heritage.
We perpetuate a heritage of sacrificing other’s best interests for the sake of our own.
But what can I do with it? I can dismiss the rest of the story as an unpleasant memory and choose to focus on the positive. But positive for whom? I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid I have been guilty of remembering history only from the perspective that is most convenient to me. And in so doing, I have privately propagated the very practices that I would publically condemn. Racist assumptions. Double standards. Convenient cover-ups. Selective memory.
When I actually face up to the facts, I shudder at the story of what my ancestors did to the people who inhabited the land they wanted. Their behavior makes Ahab and Jezebel look like saints! In a similar way, I cringe at the story of what my people did to the black people they imported to work their stolen land. I start to read the story of Israel’s slavery in Egypt from a different perspective, recognizing that my heritage is that of the oppressors, not the oppressed.
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, … if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
And trying to separate myself from my ancestors’ actions won’t work either. On varying levels and on different fronts, these racist practices have continued right through the generations and into my day. We perpetuate a quickness to sacrifice other’s best interests for the sake of our own, conveniently slotting them into the category of “outsiders” so that we can be left alone to enjoy the fruit without the guilt. Free-market competitive pricing becomes an excuse for international extortion. Self-defense becomes an acceptable reason for killing someone who makes us feel threatened, even if he was defenseless.
My heart breaks as I witness in the news the physical manifestations of an ever-present rift, both in the racist assumptions that would lead to multiple police killings of African-American youth and in the violent backlash in response to them. But I have to admit that I am not surprised. Generations of divisive attitudes and oppressive behaviors have built this wall, and a smattering of charitable gestures and affirmative actions won’t tear it down.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
So what is the way forward in reconciling a history of racial division and distrust? What tiny part can I play in tearing down this too-long reinforced wall? I think the first step is to acknowledge the true story, to listen to my African-American and Native-American neighbors’ retelling of the past and to humbly bear the shame of my ancestors’ role in it. But beyond that, I relish the opportunity to participate with them in a new future.
Each time we gather around our Thanksgiving tables, we replicate Christ’s unifying feast.
Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. Out of His fragmented body, He drew together people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to become one holy race. Each time we gather around the communion table, we participate in this reality. And each time we gather around our dinner tables, we replicate that unifying feast.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…
Acts 2:5, 44-47
The early Christians understood the significance of eating together, of gathering around the table and entering into face-to-face communion with people whom they had formerly considered “other.” I can’t help but wonder if this is what the pilgrims had in mind when they initiated that first Thanksgiving meal. And though the communion between European-Americans and Native-Americans would turn out to be pathetically short-lived, it is what we commemorate each time we gather around our Thanksgiving tables.
Tomorrow I look forward to once again eating that meal with the odd assortment of multi-racial guests whom I have the privilege of calling friends. As we break bread and share turkey together, we are practicing for the ultimate Thanksgiving feast, the unity supper of the Lamb.