This Thanksgiving, I am struggling to be thankful in an angry, fearful, pain-filled world. The words of the liturgy suddenly pierce my consciousness: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it …”
After giving thanks?
How do you give thanks on a night when imminent death is staring you in the face?
The question cuts through the gruesome images in my mind of water cannons dousing already-frozen bodies, of tear gas stinging red eyes, of rubber bullets bloodying faces. I strain to feel gratitude as my heart breaks for the water protectors in North Dakota and my mind sears with rage at the brutality and cold indifference they face while their land is defiled and their only source of water is on the brink of contamination.
I think again of Jesus, breaking bread with those who would betray him, deny him, abandon him. And the image of this feast and betrayal mingles with another image of feast and betrayal 1,600 years later. The aftermath of the Last Supper – the arrest, the whipping, the beaten body lifted high on the cross – these scenes in my mind’s eye are interspersed with enslavement and eradication of indigenous Americans before and after the first Thanksgiving, punctuated by heads of natives on poles “ as a terror unto others.” Flashes of the Via Dolorosa are juxtaposed with the Trail of Tears.
And yet, even as death enclosed upon him, Jesus gave thanks to God. It could only be in hope, in faith, that love can transform cruelty, that compassion can transcend fear. It could only be with the conviction that the quaking earth beneath him would give way to a stronger foundation, that the world built on scapegoating and enemies and victimization would give way to a world built on community and cooperation. The signs of love winning must have seemed dim on the cross. It must have taken a deeper, stronger wisdom to see beyond the darkness of the hour to the light of eternal truth, that love is the reality in which we live and move and have our being, and all distortions of love must someday come to an end. Only that conviction, borne out by a life of service, could produce honest gratitude in the midst such hate.
At Standing Rock, I see the same wisdom borne out in the Sioux people standing their ground against forces of cruelty and greed. People who have been marginalized and dehumanized in the name of “progress” stand as a vulnerable but powerful line of defense against the greatest existential threat our planet faces – climate change – with no weapons but stamina, truth, and prayer. With love, without violence, they gather to protect not only the Missouri River, but also every living creature dependent on her waters. This includes the police who shoot them with pepper spray and rubber bullets, the construction workers laying pipe, even the executives at Energy Transfer Partners whose greed has poisoned their judgment as surely as oil leaking from the Dakota Access Pipeline will poison the water. They stand, not only in protection, but in gratitude, in spite of everything … gratitude for the water and land that have nourished them, gratitude to the source of life known among the Sioux as Wakan-Tanka, Great Mystery, the same God who dwelt fully in Jesus, whose essence is love.
So this Thanksgiving, I am thankful to see Christ manifest in the very people who were once demonized and pushed aside in his name. I am blessed and grateful to see nonviolent love in action as forces of greed and power-lust enclose upon the water protectors and they remain vigilant in their peaceful cries for justice and life. I am grateful for the great cloud of witnesses as tribes from around the nation and supporters from near and far gather with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. I am grateful to see the mustard seed of conscience taking root and reaching across the land as people near and far hear the cries for justice and life. I am grateful for prophets, truth-tellers, and whistle-blowers. I am grateful for the wisdom of indigenous tribes, who knew long before most of the rest of us that to honor the Creator is to live in harmony with, not domination over, all creation. The world is in desperate need of that wisdom today, a wisdom infused with gratitude and humility for the gifts of the land and water that we are called to treasure and preserve, not abuse.
But it is not enough to be grateful. When I see Christ embodied, I must not only rejoice, but also follow. On Thanksgiving, as I give thanks for the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors, I pledge my solidarity to life and love above death and fear. I will give, I will learn, I will teach my children well to nurture this delicate planet with the intensive care she needs. And should the pipeline be completed, should the United States back out of its international climate agreements, should the forces of greed continue to choke the oxygen out of this planet and throw more lives into chaos and peril, I pray to the God of forgiveness, the God of resurrection and life: Heal our minds and hearts so that we may be members of your body and instruments of your peace. I pray for the hope to believe that Love will win in spite of the forces of death, and the peace of mind to give thanks always.