Thanksgiving and Ferguson: Lost in Translation | Sojourners

Thanksgiving and Ferguson: Lost in Translation

For me, Thanksgiving was always Christmas’ annoying little sister. Thanksgiving isn’t a festive season spanning three months that warrants its own albums; it’s a day when American gluttony reaches its zenith, and also the Cowboys play. It’s not a holy day of obligation — and in my worst moments, I complain to my preacher husband about the additional service “invading” our holy midweek day off work.

But this year Thanksgiving feels especially out of place — sandwiched between an early winter and the hopelessness of misunderstood lament. I want so badly to be thankful because I truly have so many reasons to fall on my knees in exaltation. But before I count my “blessings” — before the praise hits my lips, it’s strangled by the cry for others who are feeling more cursed.

Adam Ericksen penned a great reflection this morning, saying, “God doesn’t force us to be thankful in times of grief and despair. Rather, God meets us in our honest and raw emotions.”

Bitterness seems all at once selfish and appropriate. I grieve the chasm that has been revealed between brothers and sisters. If there is anything I learned from my Monday night glued to television screens watching my former home of St. Louis in flames it’s that this “conversation” everyone keeps saying we need to have is happening in two different languages.

One is the tongue of scolding and shifting, of sometimes defensive posturing for deeply felt innocence, of often-but-not-always condescension-soaked truth. It’s being spoken by good people with good hearts who believe with all of it that they are not the problem, whose carefulness is based on unexperienced experience.

The other is the tongue of brokenness and exhaustion, of an internal battle between acceptance and protest, of often-but-not-always righteous anger-laced truth. It’s being spoken by good people with good hearts who are tired of being less than, of being statistics, of being victims of biases the perpetrators don’t even realize they have.

If you can understand one language but not the other, you need a translator.

This is where people of faith can give thanks, because God has given us a pretty good one.

Perhaps the miracle of Pentecost concerns a new gift of speech. But we should not miss the hint of the text. The newness concerns a fresh capacity to listen because the word of God blows over the chaos one more time. … In Pentecost, when the ideal speech situation emerges, we are granted both ears to hear and tongues to speak. The new language-situation of the faithful community is when, ‘Although their languages may differ in sound, they all speak the same thing when they cry ‘Abba, Father!’ (Calvin)” – Walter Brueggemann, in his Genesis commentary

The ability to understand each other’s narratives — to regain what was lost in the scattering at the Tower of Babel — is already ours, and it begins with the a desire to listen. A friend of mine, in light of two very different worlds of commentary popping up in news feeds, posted to Facebook yesterday, “The outrage about Ferguson is entirely legitimate. If you don’t get it, at least try to be quiet long enough to learn from those who are in it and going through it every day.”

Our languages may differ in sound, but we, the faithful community, can understand each other if we first make the decision to have an ear to listen.

Only then can we put our hearts on the table without the accompanying “racists” and “thugs” and “but you don’t know what happened,” replaced instead by “I hear you,” “I see you,” and “we are both beloved children of God.”

For that glimpse of hope amid ashes, I give thanks.

Sandi Villarreal is Web Editor & Chief Digital Officer at Sojourners.

Image: Sign on boarded up window in Ferguson on Nov. 25. R. Gino Santa Maria /

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