I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. – Theodore Roosevelt
[W]e shall destroy all of them. – Thomas Jefferson, referring to Native peoples
How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? – Robert Jensen
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.
As I’ve suggested elsewhere in relation to another state holiday, Christians should be very mindful of the “secular” rituals in which they participate and the truth-claims that they embody. In fact, because they embody powerful truth claims that bind together a people in relation to “transcendent” realities, Thanksgiving and other civil “holi-days” (holy days) are indeed not “secular” at all, but are intrinsically religious. More than that, they are idolatrous and pagan in that they give heavy theological significance to the nation-state of the u.s.a.
While most Americans have reduced Thanksgiving to a sentimental familial feast of “being thankful for our blessings and for one another”and would never claim to, say, divinize the nation-state or claim direct providential influence in the foundation of the american empire, the idolatrous character of Thanksgiving and many other american holi-days remains a reality. Watch the enraged reactions, for example, when one suggests that Christians should not celebrate it, or Memorial Day, or Veterans’ Day. The religious rage of american Catholics when their precious “secular” feast days have been disrespected rivals the outbursts of our good friend and “defender” of Catholicism Bill Donahue.
But even 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. 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.
Of course, for most of us, myself included, not celebrating Thanksgiving is simply not realistic. With a one-year old child and having just moved back to the u.s. from Canada after over three years away from family and friends, I am not about to be so politically smug that I would simply refuse to participate in my own family’s traditions. On the other hand, I’m not sure that Thanksgiving can truly ever be redeemed unless it includes attention to the reality behind it, perhaps through the observance of a National Day of Atonement. A “let’s just look at the bright side” approach to Thanksgiving, an approach historically-conscious liberal american Christians tend to choose, simply will not cut it.
If anything, I am suggesting that Christians should bear the above realities in mind during this holi-day, and should, in some significant and deliberate way, make their celebration of american Thanksgiving different somehow this year, and every year. Christians, if they are to celebrate this dangerous holi-day, should in doing so make clear that they are citizens of a different empire, the Empire of God, and that this empire has its own story that exposes the lies of the earthly kingdoms’ mythologies, especially those of the united states of america. Exposing the lies of the american myth of Thanksgiving, in one way or another, must be a part of any serious pro-life celebration of the holi-day. Anything less would mean participation in an ideological cover-up which silences the historical and present-day victims of american empire. As “resident aliens” within the american empire, any eucharist that the People of God celebrates should look very different from the eucharist of the empire.