Commentary
By Jim Wallis 11-21-2018

Here we are: Thanksgiving weekend. Most of us sojourners are traveling to be with family all around the country or welcoming their families to come to be with them in Washington. Some of us who have been doing a lot of traveling this busy fall are so grateful to be home with our families, especially with our kids home from college or off from school. That’s me: Precious time with my boys and long days without work and meetings, travel, speeches to make, or columns to write (this is the last!). Over these next few days, many of us will be blessed, hopefully with some rest, but also with some good laughs, great food, celebrations of life old and new, and thankfulness for people who have nourished our lives in all their humanity and ours and, of course, time for conversations with our family and friends.

Those “Thanksgiving Table” conversations have been the subject of much discussion, many articles, and even jokes. How to listen and not just speak, learn and not just teach — but still find a willingness to search for truth and kindness amid loving disagreement — will be a test these days as we break bread with relatives, some of whom we might not see regularly. That can indeed make for painful holiday realities in a nation more polarized than it has been in decades as separate media ecosystems have created almost parallel cultural and political universes with increasingly separate notions of what is true. In a revealing essay, in this column space last week, Tim Dixon presented the evidence that most Americans are now in the “exhausted majority” of people who don’t like how divided we are — and that is actually good news. Remember that at your Thanksgiving dinner tables.

Yet, this Thanksgiving presents some of the most striking contradictions I can remember: The story of the first Thanksgiving, particularly as taught and internalized among many white Americans, is an optimistic story of radical welcome and hospitality. But what that simplistic story painfully leaves out is how quickly Native welcome turned to European conquest, colonization and, yes, the near genocide of America’s Indigenous people.

The contradictions between the traditional Thanksgiving story that is taught in most non-Native spaces stands in such brutal contrast to the painful history and legacy of Western white colonialism in North America. The fact that the pilgrims who first arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620 may have initially had peaceful relations and an alliance with the Wampanoag people serves, at best, as the exception to the rule in which the land of the Americas was systematically seized by European colonizers from Indigenous people who had been living there for thousands of years. The genocide of Native Americans, which occurred through overt acts of violence, the spread of disease, treaty violations, forced cultural assimilation, and many other abuses, collectively led to the deaths of the vast majority of them and a legacy of dispossession and oppression that persists to this day.

Yet the message that gets taught in most public schools in many ways boils down to the biblical message to love your neighbor and welcome the stranger. It stresses the value of those who reach across boundaries of difference and show mercy to those in need. If you put Leviticus 19:34 in contemporary language, one could say to white Americans in particular, “You will welcome immigrants and asylum seekers and treat them as you would treat people born in this country, for you were once pilgrims at Plymouth.” Or “you once came through Ellis Island” or “you once fled communism in Cuba” or “you escaped European fascism,” or “you fled dictators,” or “you faced anti-Semitism,” or “you had to save your family from hunger and poverty.”

This is where the most striking contradiction lies. As I write this, two of our Sojourners staff are in Mexico, hearing the stories and walking alongside the group of Central Americans traveling together for safety as they flee violence and poverty in their home countries and seek asylum in the United States. This so-called “caravan,” as President Trump, his allies, and now the media have taken to calling it, was used to weaponize xenophobia and racism in one of the most craven, transparent, and dangerous election tactics we’ve ever seen. And it worked in some of the most politically conservative states in the country (but significantly worked less well in the states that actually share a border with Mexico). We saw the tactic do what it was intended — use fear and hate to drive the president’s base to the polls to vote for his political party.

The suggestion that some, even many, of the people journeying might be violent criminals, terrorists, or even carriers of diseases like leprosy or smallpox was made by the president and his allies repeatedly and without evidence, in order to drive fear into people’s hearts and to directly override the feelings of neighbor-love that ought to be there and that we literally celebrate again this Thanksgiving weekend.

President Trump even dispatched nearly 6,000 soldiers to the border to “welcome” the tired, hungry, and desperate families fleeing violence, a move with absolutely no national security justification and one that is actually keeping many of these servicewomen and servicemen from spending Thanksgiving with their families. Two retired colonels angrily called this the use of “toy soldiers” for a shameless political purpose.

The contrast between how Indigenous people welcomed and aided migrants to their shores and the way President Trump and his allies talked about asylum seekers could not be more striking. It is bitterly ironic that many of these same folks would in one breath convey their hate and fear of these women, men, and children driven by desperate circumstances to seek a better life, while in the next talk about their love of America, the tradition of Thanksgiving, or the importance of their Christian faith in their lives.

The good news is that recent polling suggests that President Trump’s lies about these asylum seekers were only effective with a relatively small number of Americans, and that even many who voted for the president do not view the migrants as a serious or credible threat. Polling released Monday by Monmouth University Polling Institute finds:

… 29% of Americans see the migrant caravan traveling toward our border with Mexico as a major threat to the U.S. … A majority of Republicans (54%) see the caravan as a major threat, but they are joined by only 28% of independents and 11% of Democrats. Regionally, residents of the four states (CA, AZ, NM, TX) that share a border with Mexico are least likely to be worried about the caravan – only 21% see it as a major threat…Most Americans (70%) say that these migrants should be given the opportunity to enter the country if they meet certain requirements such as showing they were persecuted in their home countries and not having a criminal record.

While 29 percent is still a concerning number given the extremism of the claim, I’m thankful that this is not a party-line issue — that the majority of people can still see truth in the darkness.

Amid all of the danger and conflict we’ve seen in our politics and that remains ahead for our nation, it is worth taking this Thanksgiving as a time to express the gratitude we feel for many of the people in our lives for whom we are thankful. I would encourage you to take some time this weekend to do just that, think about all of the people for whom you feel grateful, and reach out to them personally to tell them so. Amid the “spiritual warfare” that we are clearly engaged in this country, between our better angels and our worst demons, the spiritual discipline of real thankfulness and simple gratitude can be one that helps renew and sustain us and those we love for the battles that are surely to come.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new Audible spoken-word series, Jim Wallis In Conversation, is available now, as is his book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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