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I grew up in a time when the Thanksgiving story was celebrated as a national myth; a foundation of “discovery” that said to this nation, the white pilgrims came to this land to settle it among the savage American Indians. As a child our teachers would dress us up in paper hats, black with big buckles and a band of feathers (never mind that style of headdress was from the plains Indians). She would then divide the class up into pilgrims and Indians. It seemed everyone in my all white classroom wanted to be a pilgrim. I wanted to be an Indian because, I suppose, I was rooting for the underdog. While this still happens in some backwater schools in our nation, we now understand how incredibly racist this is. Racist in at least two ways, the first being the audacity of white children portraying American Indians and the second that we were perpetuating a falsehood of epic proportions. The pilgrims did not come to discover the new world, they came to colonize and steal its resources. And the Indians, the Wampanoags were not there as saviors or good neighbors, they were there, cautiously to trade with the Pilgrims.
In his book This Land is Their Land Professor David Silverman retells this history through deep investigation and eye witness accounts. Far from being a savior story, the First Thanksgiving Myth, is more of a survival story. The Wampanoags had met many Europeans prior to the Pilgrims landing in Plymouth in 1620. For over a hundred years English, French and Spanish colonizers had been trading with American Indian nations up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The trade was largely for pelts and fish which the Indians would trade for cooper and metal, materials they would use to fashion tools and weapons. The relationships were strained by occasional violence on both sides but mostly from the Europeans who would kidnap Indians to enslave them and use them as guides and interpreters. As the Wampanoags and other nations learned quickly, the Europeans were dangerous trading partners. If anything in the First Thanksgiving myth is to be believed it is that the Wampanoags brought food to the Pilgrims as trading goods. The likelihood of both sides sitting down from one another at a table and singing kumbaya is very unlikely.
The fact is that American Indian Nations in New England including the Pauggaset people who lived here, were interconnected in a complex network of alliances and intertribal trading pacts. When the Europeans arrived in the late 1500s they interrupted these alliances, leading to violence and division. A fact that European colonizers took advantage of playing one tribe off another for trading rights. Far more destructive were the many diseases the Europeans brought to the Indians. Europeans, who had lived literally with their domestic livestock and often in close and unsanitary conditions had grown immune to Old World diseases such as small pox and the measles. As they traded with the Indians, they unleashed these diseases on people who did not have livestock, who drank fresh water and ate fresh food. With no immunity the diseases decimated Native Peoples within a century, reducing the Indian population of close to 700,000 in New England around 1560 to around 100,000 by the late 1600s; an 80% population crash! In fact, by the time the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, the Wampanoags had just survived a devasting plague lasting from 1616-1619. No wonder they were cautious of the pilgrims. It is likely that the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims shared food stores that winter in order that both might survive.
Needless to say, our history as Europeans colonizers is a much sadder tale than the myth of the First Thanksgiving. I don’t need to recount how entire surviving populations of American Indians were relegated to reservations, some thousands of miles from ancestral homes they had occupied for millennia.
The real story about thanksgiving, beyond the genocide of native peoples it inaugurates, is the fact that vastly different people have come to the same table together, if only for survival. It is mythical of course, to believe that all was smooth sailing at that first thanksgiving dinner. It certainly never has been since. How do you imagine Thanksgiving going for you? Some pundit once said “thanksgiving is the day when you have to put up with relatives you barely know saying things you couldn’t disagree with more”. This has become particularly hard in recent years with the rise of violent partisanship. Perhaps Johnny Carson was right, thanksgiving is the holiday when people travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year and realize that was one day too much.
Of course, I am sure your dinner won’t be anything like that, right? It takes planning and tolerance to invite people to the table who are radically different than you. It takes in the words of the philosopher William Connolly calls ‘agonistic respect’; understanding and working with someone most unlike you, someone you might not even like. Why is that we invite people to our table who are so unlike us? Could it be that we are inclined by our nature to celebrate the human within us regardless of how we relate?
To rescue Thanksgiving requires respect. Look around you and see the reflection of yourself in others eyes. And then see their own eyes. This is what the wisdom literature teaches us: seek first to understand and then be understood (which came first from St. Francis). As the great Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “Do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.” (From Living a Life That Matters)
I celebrate Thanksgiving now for the abundance of life we have together. Yes, there is much that is wrong with our world but there is also so much more that is good. We give thanks for this precious day, for good friends who help us find our way. The national holiday of thanksgiving which Lincoln proclaimed in 1863, is both a day of mourning and more importantly a day of holding up the values which make us good people; love and compassion, respect and understanding. A day to give thanks for our living and also a day to commit ourselves to do a little more as people of faith. I commend to you a Thanksgiving tradition which my family has used for years, saying one thing we are grateful for, and one thing we will try to do better in the next year. So, let’s try that: turn to a few people around you and name one thing you are thankful for and one thing you want to do better. Go ahead, and really listen.
How was that? A few things you were thankful for (kids especially) and a few you want to do better? Great. That’s great. We can’t change history but we can grow from it starting with Thanksgiving.
One of the gifts the Pilgrims did leave us with is the idea of covenant. Covenant is an old-fashioned word, that means a mutual promise we make as a congregation. The covenant that the early Puritans fashioned was one of mutual aid and respect. We as a Unitarian Universalist Congregation make that same covenant. We say it each week don’t we, who can say it with me now: love is the spirit of this church and service its law; this is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. (James Vila Blake, 1894.) It’s a tall order isn’t it? To live up this aspiration. But we say each week for a reason; to remind ourselves of what matters most to us as a community.
There is another covenant we aspire to and that is our Covenant of Right Relations. Who has seen this? Did you know it’s in a huge gold frame in our foyer? This covenant reminds us to be very careful with our words and mindful of how they can hurt others even when that was not our intention. Intention is not the same as impact and it’s the impact of your words that matter.
At the heart of each of these covenants is respect, sometimes agonizing respect. Respect for me is how we best rescue thanksgiving from its flawed mythology and over commercialization. How do we do this? If the first Thanksgiving myth teaches us anything it teaches us that respect is mutually reinforcing. It is possible that as a matter of survival for both the Wampanoag and the English Pilgrims that they needed one another. But the field between difference is often rocky and strewn with disadvantage. As a congregation we are becoming more and more aware of how our race and class affect others. When I talk about dismantling white supremacy culture, I am not talking about neo-Nazis. I am talking about those of us who, if we are white, are being made more aware of how are class and race affects others. I am talking about centering other ethnicities, genders, ages and classes so that those who are in the predominant role can see how we can change. Its not the job of BiPoC to educate us, its our job. And its our job to see how respect is often not accorded those on the margins, such as the first Thanksgiving myth continues to do. We covenant and affirm our desire to make the world a better place deserving of all our thanks. Do you hear me?
This covenant goes both ways as well. While we who are in the position of power need to be aware and make accommodation to those who are not (being aware of how racism, sexism, ableism, genderism and being white, impacts others) others should not accuse the rest of us of being racist, sexist, white and, as I often hear male, as just another old white man. Attributing motives and behaviors and thoughts in either direction, is destructive and harmful. It violates our covenants to speak with respect and compassion. I no more know what an American Indian’s values and stories are then they know of me as an older, middle class, white man. I will never forget a community meeting I was moderating about racism in the local police department. Ironically, the chief of police was African American. He was explaining how he was working with his department to overcome unintentional bias. One citizen got up and said “You are just doing this to keep your job. You have no idea what its like to be black and poor in this city.”
The chief took a breath and said, “Sir, you know nothing about me. You know nothing about my story, nothing about the racism I have faced or the struggle my wife who is white has with raising our bi-racial children. So please sir, do not assume you know what struggles I or any of us are going through.” That, my beloveds, is respect, it is not right to throw racial aspersion at anyone of color and it is equally wrong to throw those aspersions at people, like myself and other leaders of this church who are trying to learn and grow and live up to the covenants we are called to. This is true for all of us.
We will not tolerate labels or assumptions which are easy to throw around, and hide behind, and in that throwing them around – in word or deed – wreak havoc, and cause hurt to those who are trying to grow and change themselves. It distracts us from the work at hand, not to mention that it is cruel and “out of covenant”. This Thanksgiving I am hoping all of you will join me in seeking first to understand, ask questions, get facts, THEN discuss with respect. That is what it means to live in a beloved community.
I have often thought of what it must have been like to be a person of color, being forced to play the part of either a pilgrim or an Indian in elementary school. How cruel it must have been to grapple with your own “less than” status in our culture and then sing my country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty. I had no understanding of this growing up with my paper feather on my head. But I do now.
Listen friends, this is not easy work, but it is deeply spiritual and important work. Change is the cousin of potential. I am not trying to spoil your Thanksgiving, eat Turkey, Tofu, and pies till you drop. There is so much to be thankful. But what I am saying is to both be thankful but also to renew your commitment to live as a better person, to redeem Thanksgiving in all its meanings. To respect one another no matter what our outwards identity might say about us. If we can do this then we will have truly lived up to the covenant Thanksgiving calls us to.
Let me close with these words from the late Franciscan Poet, John Donohue:
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that await you.
(From To Bless the Space Between Us)
May we hear so that we can feel;
May we feel so that we can know; and
May we know so that we can change ourselves and this world…