We gather together to ask the Lordís blessing,
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing:
Sing praises to his Name; he forgets not his own.
--17th century Netherlands hymn (KREMSER)
The traditions, myths, histories, politics and theologies of Thanksgiving are muddled. The first Thanksgiving was 1621. No, it was 1676. They ate turkey. No, they ate "fowl" and venison. It was a religious observance. No, it was a typical English harvest festival. They thanked God (1621) for the help of friendly Wampanoag Indians. No, they thanked God (1676) for helping them slaughter the Wampanoag Indians.
Most of us believe that Thanksgiving means something very different today than it meant in the seventeenth century. Superficially, thatís true, if for no other reason than that among Puritans Thanksgiving was a fast, not a feast. But look closer. Though weíve outgrown the idea that natural disasters like droughts and earthquakes are divine punishment for sins, we still believe the wicked deserve suffering or death. And we certainly havenít given up the idea that human blessings such as prosperity and power signify Godís favor.
Nowadays at Thanksgiving Americans celebrate with food, family reunions, and references to God. We believe our productivity and power affirms Godís blessing and that, with God protecting us from evil, we can anticipate good times to come: Thanksgiving is a time of comfort, hope and optimism.
This fall, however, despite an abundance of fat turkeys (both human and fowl), familial ties (especially among our leaders), and unprecedented public piety, optimism and hope donít seem to be widespread. The recent election reflects general pessimism, distrust, doubt and cynicism. Only 39.9% of those eligible were optimistic enough to vote, and less than half of those were optimistic that Democrats offered much in the way of a prosperous, secure and orderly future.
Thereís a lot of to be pessimistic about this Thanksgiving -- pessimism that starting a war will bring peace; distrust of Congress and the Bush administration, doubt that the economy is sound or that education, health care and the environment will be improved; cynicism about the manipulations of large corporations and the media, despair that people are vulnerable and powerless, with neither the votes nor the voices to effect any change.
To some extent this pessimism is fed by the noise, clutter and busyness of modern life, the chaotic deluge of information that assaults us continually, mass communications that specialize in crime, vice, disaster, and misfortune, and the relentless marketing of material goods and intangibles like speed, convenience, safety, comfort, luxury, power, preferment, and self-indulgence.
Apparently many Americans liked the hopeful comforting myths of Republican ideology: The Market will heal all problems, soothe all injustices; and smite the unfit; Americans are Good, Saddam Hussein is Evil; Attacking Iraq will rid the world of weapons of mass destruction; War will bring Peace., killing terrorists will please God. Republicans have easy catechisms, too: Tax cuts will strengthen the economy; We are winning the war on terrorism; If we just spray all the coca plantations in the world we will eliminate drugs; If youíre not guilty, you neednít worry about surveillance; Concealed weapons make us safer; The only way to deal with Evil is to kill Bad Guys; As long as we have food, family and faith, (and SUVs) God (or the Market) will provide.
Meanwhile, what are the Democrats offering? Do we have anything to be thankful for, or optimistic about? Must we join the chorus of thanksgiving for Predator aircraft and Hellfire missiles with which to punish the wicked? Should we capitulate, as leading Democrats have done, to the folklore that if we put our soldiers in harmís way, then we must protect them at any cost to the Iraqi people?
Somehow we have to deal with the world as it is. Thanksgivingís myths and politics of food, family and faith could inspire us to continued smug and self-righteous optimism for prosperous white Americans, or help us to develop a generous and compassionate optimism for all the world. Singing old hymns about God oppressing the wicked on our behalf wonít help us, and neither will despair. We need to compose new hymns based on shared values and common dreams. Food, family and faith are good words, but we need a new melody, in a new key, with a new harmonization of hope and optimism.
As we give thanks for food, let us remind ourselves that in a world where anyone goes hungry, it is immoral to consume more than oneís fair share. And let us remember that the destruction of Earthís ecosystems and the commodification of its basic resources will assure that eventually we all starve.
As we celebrate family, let us remember that all people on earth are our family, and most of them are poor relations. We should be working to empower them to take charge of their lives, provide for themselves, and participate in the governance of their societies.
And as we exercise our faith, let us extend it toward its highest ideals, not its most comfortable prescriptions. Faith should strengthen us to share our prosperity and knowledge, to alleviate suffering, and to reduce the numbers of terrible instruments to kill, sicken and destroy. Most of all, our faith should help us to love our neighbors and cherish our beautiful planet.
Food, family, and faith. Old words, challenging us to create new music.
Caroline Arnold served 12 years on the staff of Senator John Glenn, and
now chairs the Kent Environmental Council in Kent, Ohio. E-mail:email@example.com