Several years ago I attended a class on visionary leadership. At one point we were shown a video that illustrated the traits of visionary leaders in well-known historical figures, including Christopher Columbus. As the sound track extolled Columbus’s bold vision, jaws around the room dropped. Afterward we sat stunned as the clueless workshop leader said, “Why don’t we talk a bit about visionary leadership?” In the silence that followed I finally raised my hand and said, “I am having a great deal of trouble wrapping my head around the idea of a genocidal megalomaniac who had no idea what side of the globe he had sailed to being held up as a visionary leader.”
Looking at American history through an anti-racist, anti-oppressive lens, we can no longer ‘celebrate’ Columbus Day the way we did when we were children. The story that went with the holiday was a myth. The same is true for Thanksgiving. We know that our Thanksgiving myth leaves out the most graphic memories of suffering and loss. It glosses over the deep flaws in the heroes and heroines.
But even flawed and incomplete mythic stories tell us truths. The story of the Pilgrims echoes the Exodus story. A group of oppressed people, urged by their god and a visionary leader, decide to throw off their chains and go in search of freedom. The journey is arduous. They complain. They ask themselves, “Would we not have been better off enslaved in Egypt than starving here in the desert?” But with help, whether divine or human, they endure.
Sadly, in our Thanksgiving story, the newly liberated people become oppressors themselves. Heady with the conviction that they are living out a divine plan for them, they are blinded to the reality of the native peoples already in residence. (Perhaps not so different from the Exodus?)
Every year, Jews celebrate Passover and retell the Exodus story. They do so because they are required by their faith to remember. Remember you were slaves in Egypt. Remember you were lost and hungry in the desert. To remember who you were as a people is also to remember who you are supposed to be. We were slaves, we should champion liberation for all peoples. We were hungry and afraid, we should practice compassion to those who are in need.
Every mythic story, no matter how flawed, tells us the truth. Our Thanksgiving story, told and heard through our contemporary experience, reminds us that many people have made arduous journeys to arrive on American soil. Some arrived in hope. Some, forced onto ships by slave-traders, arrived in despair. Still today some cross the desert, desperately seeking the promised land. All of that is part of our Thanksgiving story.
So with eyes wide open we celebrate Thanksgiving. We gather around tables and rejoice in the bounty of the earth. We give thanks for the loving kindness which unites us as families, congregations, communities, and as a nation. We remember all peoples who have come to our land on pilgrimage across the centuries since the Pilgrims first set sail as well as those people already living here. We recall that many endured great hardships; yet they gathered together after their harvests to offer praise and thanksgiving for their deliverance from the wilderness. We honor the freedom and justice they so dearly bought. We remember that the struggle is not over.
Even as our bodies are renewed at our thanksgiving tables, so may our spirits find renewal by the act of giving thanks.