November 28, 2019 – Thanksgiving Day, Year C
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Near the end of his life, Moses looked out over the people of Israel as they neared the Land of Canaan and gave them this instruction: “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” I wonder whether any of the Puritan separatists, who knew their Bible so well, had this passage from Deuteronomy in mind when they set sail from England for the world that would be new to them—a story of destiny and divine blessing and prosperity.
I wonder whether they started to question that association when the Mayflower’s companion vessel, the Speedwell, sprung a leak, forcing both ships to turn back for repairs. I wonder whether their attitude shifted when the Speedwell sprung another leak, this time farther out at sea, forcing another return, which ended the Speedwell’s chance for the trans-Atlantic voyage and which delayed the Mayflower’s departure until September. I wonder whether they lost sight of Deuteronomy’s vision during the difficult late passage across a rough ocean or when they arrived not in the Virginia Colony, where they had planned to settle, but in Cape Cod, unable to sail south against the November coastal wind. I wonder whether they had any sense that God was prospering their journey or that God had promised them this land when they landed at what they called Plymouth at the beginning of a winter far colder and harsher than any they had known in England.
The myth of the Thanksgiving story draws us in, beckoning us to return to that Pilgrim settlement every year as we prepare to sit down and eat our own distinctly American turkey with cranberries on the side. You may have noticed David Silverman’s piece in this morning’s New York Times, in which he calls us to acknowledge the “vicious reality behind [that] Thanksgiving myth.” We still tell the story as one of “Pilgrims and Indians,” and, in many preschools, our children are dressed up with construction-paper buckle-hats or headdresses and are given stereotypical native-sounding names like “Little Bear” and “Doe Princess.” But how often do we teach them the name of the native tribe those European settlers encountered? How often do we even say the name Wampanoag when we tell the story?
We focus on the friendly encounter between the native people and the colonists because it’s always easier to forget the fact that for almost a century the Wampanoag had known the Europeans who had come up the coast to capture and enslave some of their people and who had spread unfamiliar diseases through their population. (How do you think they knew how to speak English?) We give thanks that the indigenous people took time to teach the settlers how to plant corn and survive in a foreign land, but we don’t give thanks for the crops and villages and roads and monuments that were already established and that the settlers took for their own, perhaps with the story of Deuteronomy in mind. Silverman argues that the subsequent peace treaty that was signed has become a way for us to think of “America as a gift to white people,” allowing us to ignore the violence and genocide and forced removal of native peoples that followed for centuries.
The myth draws us into the story, but, increasingly, we feel a need to get the story right. We need the truth to give us something even more meaningful than a tale of our ancestors’ triumph over hardship in search of religious freedom. And I wonder whether the enacted expression of thanksgiving detailed in the Deuteronomy text might help us with that.
Moses sets out for the people of God a clear process for celebrating the first harvest they will receive in their new land. Take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground and put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose. And, when you get there, hand it to the priest, and, when the priest sets the basket before the altar of the Lord, you shall make this response: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” Moses tells God’s people to rehearse again the story of salvation—how God had heard their cry when they were afflicted in Egypt, how God set them free from slavery with great signs and wonders, how God led them through the wilderness and brought them to a bountiful land flowing with milk and honey. And then what does Moses tell them to do? To celebrate and share that bounty with the priests, who had no land of their own, and the aliens—the foreign people in their midst.
Ritualized thanksgiving is an opportunity for us not to ignore the truth of history but to acknowledge and embrace it. There is an instinct within us to take credit for our own success—to look at the bounty at our disposal and to identify as the cause of that bounty our own good decisions, our own hard work, and our own dedicated resources. But the root gesture of thanksgiving is to focus on someone else—something else that has given us these blessing. At the end of the prescribed liturgy, the people of God are called to celebrate and share their bounty with others as a recognition that it does not belong exclusively to them. That there are foreigners in their midst who are to partake in that bounty is a sign that God’s people are called to acknowledge those who have been displaced and from whom that bounty had been taken.
One cannot engage the real work of thanksgiving without a deep dive into honesty and humility. Confronting the truth may shake the myth we hold dear, but it does not threaten our ability to be thankful—it strengthens it. Today, when you sit down at the table, give thanks for the food before you and for those who prepared it. But don’t forget the people who grew it and harvested it and packaged it and loaded it and transported it and unloaded it and stocked it and sold it and marketed it. Don’t forget the soil and the air and the sun and the rain and the nutrients that helped that food grow. Don’t forget those who will clean up and take out the trash and pick up that trash and haul it to the dump. Your ability to celebrate the bounty of this day is not diminished when you remember those people. You do not need to take credit for all of that in order to celebrate. Similarly, don’t forget the people who for centuries lived on the land where that food was grown, where it was processed, where it was sold, and where you will sit and eat it. Around here, that’s the Osage and the Caddo and the Očeti Šakówiŋ. Don’t forget that your bounty is for them, too. This day, of all days, is a day to remember that, and doing so doesn’t hurt us. It makes our gratitude even fuller.