On American Mythologies and Thanksgiving

Destruction of Pequot IndiansBelow are excerpts from a post on catholicanarachy.org.  I find the reflections both provocative and worthy of serious consideration.

Thanksgiving in the united states is a holiday observed by pious Christians without much thought. What could be more Christian than thanking God for the blessings God has given us? The reality of this “secular” feast day is, of course, much less innocent and much more monstrous than we assume.  […]

…aside from the holi-day’s idolatrous core, there remains much to be concerned about. One is the obviously troubling history of the holiday and its relation to Native peoples. The story that is celebrated by mainstream white america is a lie, and indeed is not the story remembered by those who originally inhabited this land, which is a white supremacist story of extermination. And we Christians should not forget and should not fail to repent the fact that Christians and Christianity were complicit with this genocide, explicitly providing the theo-ideological justification for it.Secondly, the “blessings” that “we” (white, middle and upper class americans) celebrate are simply not shared by significant portions of the american population, let alone much of the rest of the world. Indeed, the poverty and misery experienced by many both inside and outside of the united states is not an accident of history, but is rather the dark underside of the “blessings” we feel so inspired to celebrate here in the so-called First World.

Third, in its “secular” form, this holi-day’s concept of “giving thanks” has become virtually unintelligible when God is taken out of the picture. This should make Christians concerned about who exactly we are thanking on such a holiday. In the absence of the Creator, what fills the “empty shrine” (in the words of Bill Cavanaugh) of the american empire on this holiday? Who or what are “we” thanking for “our blessings?” The fact is, the holi-day is delightfully vague, and this vagueness is precisely part of what makes american civil religion work.

Fourth, in the absence of any intelligible sense of true “thanksgiving,” we are left with a holiday that tends to be reduced to “being with family and loved ones,” something that is, of course, nice to do, but which can quickly become an opportunity for the virtual worship of family and blood ties, another important aspect of american civil religion. Jesus, despite what the Religious Right has done to him, could hardly be called a “family values guy,” and resisted such notions of blood ties in his own day. […]

Pro-life Christians who choose to be thoughtful about such things should be deeply troubled by the reality of Thanksgiving. Indeed, it is perhaps the holi-day par excellence of the culture of death [e.g. the slaughter of Native Americans]. Of course, the best option for Christians would be simply not celebrating Thanksgiving at all. After all, Christians have their own thanksgiving, only we use its Greek name, eucharist. It is a celebration of liberation and resurrection, not invasion and extermination. It is a celebration that embodies new familial relationships not based on blood or nationality but our common life in Christ. It is a celebration whose purpose is not to say “thank you for all the stuff we have when others are not so fortunate,” but rather “thank you for inviting all of us to this table.” And of course, the one we thank is the Author of Life, the One who is not to be replaced by sentimentalism or the idols of state, of “freedom,” of “choice” and the like. No wonder Jesus made the eucharist a vegetarian feast, a true foretaste of the banquet of the Kingdom of God.

8 thoughts on “On American Mythologies and Thanksgiving”

  1. I think one of the most harmful and destructive lines of thinking is that one ought not to be thankful so long as others are less fortunate. The practical consequence of this would be an all-out ban on gratitude. I suppose the mysterious M is trying to make a slightly weaker claim, since he says that,

    “the poverty and misery experienced by many both inside and outside of the united states is not an accident of history, but is rather the dark underside of the ‘blessings’ we feel so inspired to celebrate here in the so-called First World.”

    By this I take it that he has in mind something like this: that if something is got through sinful actions, the right response to it as a reward is not gratitude but shame. At some level, this is probably true, but again, the difficulty is that all human action is in a way sinful. Generally, we deal with this difficulty by trying to respond in each way at an appropriate time. We celebrate the outbreak of peace even when it was won with war, knowing full-well we aren’t celebrating war. We can even acknowledge the courage and sacrifice of soldiers without celebrating the death that their task requires. Is this Christian? It certainly seems biblical. When a prayer goes to God, “for Your servant David’s sake,” the one praying does not mean to celebrate an adulterer and a murderer, but a man who was splendid and beloved by God. And yet a good case could be made that the same characteristics that made David splendid also made him sinful in the way that he was.* Who among the saints do we celebrate as flawless? How many were deeply, shockingly flawed?

    M also tells us that Thanksgiving is idolatrous, in making an idol of the “u.s.a.” This seems to be an oddly puritanical notion of idolatry. Christ’s gloss on the command to honor one’s parents (Mk 7:9-13, Mt 15:1-6) suggests that we always give thanks through creatures. Idolatry does not result from this unless we refuse to see beyond. It is not idolatrous to express gratitude without knowing to Whom one is grateful. St Paul suggests as much when he identifies the God of Israel with the unknown God in Athens.

    Any who would like to remind us that we give our thanks to God on Thanksgiving can be commended. But it is not idolatry merely because we need reminding.

    M’s comments about the slaughter of turkeys are puzzling. First, because a feast day and gluttony are not at all the same thing. One might reasonably make the case that our country today suffers inordinately from the sin of gluttony. I don’t see the day of Thanksgiving as especially evident of this, but if it is, then what is called for is merely temperance. Second, Christ Himself seems to have had no hesitation about ending the lives of plants, fish, or animals over the course of His ministry. Nor does the tradition beginning with the Apostle Paul indicate any proscription of eating meat. That is not to say that there couldn’t be good moral reasons for vegetarianism. Perhaps there may even be good reasons rooted in theology. But whatever those reasons may be, the fact that bread and wine aren’t meat is woefully insufficient.

    *There’s a subtext to M’s essay that the case of the European west is different from the more generally pervasive human sin, because it is a kind of structural, communal sin. If you were to push M to clarify this point, I don’t doubt he would have to locate this sin in a particular “race” of people, where race would be defined broadly according to categories given by the social sciences, as it once was defined according to the biological. This move allows the racists of today to sneak in essentialism through the back door without having to deal with the stubborn facts.

  2. Matthew:

    I don’t think that M’s post has to be read as an all out ban on gratitude, which you in a sense acknowledge. I took his point to be that we should at least take the time to consider the ugly-side of the origins of this holiday and of our country itself (mass slaughtering of Native Americans—sounds like a “culture of death” thing to me). To simply gloss-over these kinds of atrocities by acknowledging that after all, “we’re all sinners,” leaves no room for critique. Would you have the same attitude about 9/11? After all, we’re all sinners.

    On the idolatry point—M’s point is not puritanical at all, but rather Augustinian. If one comes to worship “American values” and these values have no clear Christian meaning to them, then one ought to question the content. Personally, I thought that M’s observation of the “virtual worship of family and blood ties” as a crucial “aspect of American civil religion” is insightful. E.g., I’ve personally seen this kind of “worship” manifest in so-called pro-life Christians’ views of adoption. Adoption is seen as “second-rate” and a late-chance option when couples can’t have biological children—you know, “children of their own.” Shouldn’t Christians lead the way on adoption? After all Jesus was adopted by Joseph, and we are not God’s “biological” children, but rather are adopted sons and daughters.

    M’s comments about turkeys is not that we ought not eat them. Rather, one could read his view as a kind of Heideggerian and even Aquinas-inspired position. That is, we ought to let turkeys “be” in the way that they were created to be. That is, the turkey has a “turkey” telos and e.g. uses its beak to hunt insects and eat them. However, the mass industry turkey farms, in order to produce more turkeys at higher weights and in less time, clip the turkeys’ beaks and their nails. Why? So that the turkeys will have no choice but to eat the high calorie corn mush that they are (over)fed so that they will gain weight more quickly. Why do they clip their nails? Because they pack the turkeys in so tightly that they try to claw one another. Also, the turkeys get so fat that they can’t reproduce with other turkeys, which is why the white breasted turkeys of mass production now come into being via artificial insemination. M is not necessarily suggesting that we no longer eat turkeys or meat—at least I don’t see that in what he has written in his post—rather, he is calling us as Christians to respect God’s creation and to provide a more humane treatment of turkeys while they are alive. Even though some turkeys will eventually be killed for the purpose of eating, we should still treat them with respect just as we should honor all of God’s creation, not abusing it or being wasteful of his gifts or viewing God’s creatures/creation as “objects” to be mastered in whatever way we see fit.


    Are politically correct statements and true statements mutually exclusive? In what ways do you find it “extreme” and “politically correct”?


  3. Cynthia, how are you reading the call to “resist or subvert” Thanksgiving? From my experience with people who use this terminology, it’s hard for me to think this is just a call to take time to consider. Nor does the literal sense of resistance and subversion suggest anything so innocent.

    I’m also not clear what you consider to be the connection between the holiday Thanksgiving and the more sinful dimensions of American history. It can’t just be that the same people were involved in both.

    I had initially intended to mention the core of truth in M’s post. I think it is important to deal with the sins in America’s past. I don’t think the fact that I’m not Andrew Jackson (and may very well have voted against him) makes his sins against the Indians no concern of mine. They are a concern of mine. But not because I “enjoy the benefits of a history of oppression.” Rather, it is because I have taken on American history as my own. It is only because I haven’t disowned America that I have any right to acknowledge and bewail her misdeeds and transgressions. But that doesn’t mean that sin isn’t primarily an individual sort of thing. M doesn’t seem to think it is individual, but collective, (and as far as his criticism goes, not collective universally but only belonging to a certain culture).

  4. Matthew:

    On the connection between this holiday and our sinful past, see (for starters): http://christmyrighteousness9587.wordpress.com/2009/11/24/thanksgiving-usa-and-a-new-perspective/.

    Yes, resisting and subverting are calls to action, but people who have never considered the things that M draws to our attention will likely need to begin by “considering” what he has to say. Some, however, will see only “buzz” words automatically write him off. (This is not a distinctive of the right; the left does it as well. If they see the word “tradition”, they start tossing out labels—“dogmatist” etc. etc. We’re all guilty of it to some degree). Notice, however, that M doesn’t say that he and his family will stop attending family gathering at Thanksgiving. Rather, he suggests that one use prudence and if one has such convictions, then that person will have to decide given his/her family situation and other particular circumstances what to do. M has “resisted” and “subverted” by writing a public post on the topic.

    On sin—yes, of course sin is both collective and individual. If M didn’t think it had an individual dimension, then he wouldn’t suggest that individuals consider, resist and subvert the unreflective holiday.

    I’m swamped with grading and finishing up my work for this semester, so I won’t be able to contribute anything else to this conversation.

    Best wishes,

  5. Thanks, Cynthia. I read the link you provided. My response to it is basically unoriginal, predictable, and negative. I’m not quite sure what the crux of our disagreement is — nor even whether the bigger disagreement is over interpretation or substance. But I’m sure these questions will keep coming up in the years ahead, so I’ll keep thinking on it.

    Best of luck with the end of semester business.

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