Rethinking Thanksgiving in an Age of Terror: Creating Interfaith Traditions

Rethinking Thanksgiving in an Age of Terror: Creating Interfaith Traditions November 25, 2015

by Glenn Zuber


As we move into renewed period of terrorist fear and personal anxiety, how can U.S. Christians and their congregations respond with hope and solidarity during Thanksgiving? Most Americans, Christians included, value the Thanksgiving holiday as a respite from the real world and a chance to deepen relationships with family. Young adults away from family and hometowns will celebrate “Friendsgiving” with their friends. Many holiday feasts will no doubt include a prayers for the newest victims of terrorism. These kinds of celebrations steer us inward and shield us from the pain in the world. But are there practical ways to celebrate the spirit of the holiday that build hope and solidarity in our larger, more public world?  

From a faith perspective, I’m inspired by how a minority of Christians continue to contest popular versions of the holiday that include only family and friends. Some churches organize special services (sometimes with interfaith partners) that thank God for God’s provision: these services remind us that our values go deeper than increased productivity and consumerism. And in the spirit of solidarity other churches and Christian charities open their doors to the community on Thanksgiving Day, offering a hearty meal for everyone from college students to homeless families looking for a meal and sense of community for the day. These later celebrations express the hope that there will be a day when all will be fed and all divisions within communities will be transcended. 

Churches can and must rethink Thanksgiving in this new age of terror, and we can do so by pressing the older traditions of the holiday to inspire solidarity in our new circumstances. Since conflict among factions of the Abrahamic religions is one element in our national polarization and worst international crisis, churches, Christian groups, and Christian charities can look for ways to build solidarity at the very least among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, whether they are native-born, immigrant, or refugee.

Thanksgiving’s place in U.S. culture as both an officially civic holiday and an optionally religious one gives Christian groups a creative spiritual space in which to partner with Jewish and Muslim groups as well as refugee groups to affirm the equality of all religions in America while defying terrorists and all irresponsible voices of reaction who wish to polarize us. 

Instead of retreating to the inner sanctum of our homes on Thanksgiving, perhaps churches can create new traditions that encourage people during this holiday season to leave their familiar cultural silos and use the rich symbolism of the holiday to strengthen the common good through building solidarity with people from other religious traditions. 

Several years ago, the Huffington Post reported on an attempt by a Muslim group to use Thanksgiving and Da Vinci’s Last Supper to invite Christian and Jewish friends to a Thanksgiving celebration they called Friendsgiving. This experiment represented an courageous example of using historical references to renew a established civic holiday.

In my own informal Christian community—Iona DC—in Washington, DC, we experimented with a similar kind of Thanksgiving celebration of 15 people. We were fortunate to find an informal young adult Jewish community in our neighbor that shared our goals of building solidarity through face-to-face encounters. We partnered together to celebrate what we called an “Interfaith Friendsgiving/Thanksgiving.”

There were fundamental questions about food that had to be answered before we could finalize the event, but even these conversations (negotiations?) provided an excellent opportunity for the two groups to learn more about each other. Eventually, the Jewish community volunteered to bring some vegetarian holiday selections from a deli. With the food issues out of the way, we then planned the other parts of the event. We decided we did not want one group to dominate conversation nor did we want people sitting with their co-religionists. So we arranged to have a meal for 15 people total, 7 Christians, 7 Jews, and a visiting Rabbi as our special speaker. The first part of our evening was sharing what the Thanksgiving holiday meant for each person individually. The second part of the evening was hearing Rabbi Jason from a Jewish social justice organization to a Jewish perspective on the Biblical themes of thanksgiving feasts, prayer, and social justice.

The size of our gathering was modest, but I was deeply satisfied by the results. Gathering with others to thank God for God’s provision as well as sharing a traditionally family meal with family members in the “Abrahamic tradition” resonated with my assumptions about what Thanksgiving was all about. If you have ever eaten a community-organized Thanksgiving with total strangers you have an idea about how Thanksgiving can help create a moment of civic harmony and understanding. The potential of the holiday to strengthen the common good and build solidarity is easily overlooked in private family Thanksgivings in private homes.    

Even though the Paris attacks took place 4,000 miles away from the U.S., they powerfully haunt our imaginations and stir our anxieties about Syrian refugees. We wonder if we will be next. Can you imagine if Americans renewed and reworked the legacy of the Thanksgiving meal to gather together for inter-racial and interfaith gatherings where we would share our religious commonalities and discuss our differences with respect? This would not only counter the isolation, hatred, and polarization that terrorists actions engender, it would allow us to move beyond being passive victims and issuing statements to the press. Through renewing the rituals of Thanksgiving we could send a powerful message to the world that while we live in an age of terror, we are not terrorized.

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GlennZuberPortrai2015Glenn Zuber is the founder of Iona DC: A Christian Community in Washington, DC (here for face book page).  He’s a historian, college teacher and part-time Maryland minister who has taught religion and theology classes at Indiana University—Bloomington, Fordham University, Manhattan College, Wesley Theological Seminary, and more recently Trinity Washington University in DC.  In the process of teaching others’ theories of the future of faith and Christianity, he started Iona DC as an experimental community that helps people experience a Christian faith and community that addresses the realities of postmodern worldviews, cultural fragmentation, greater racial diversity, and the digitalization of relationships through the use of social media.  You can follow him and his community on twitter @glennzuber or on face book at Iona DC.

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