The Underside of Thanksgiving | Sojourners

The Underside of Thanksgiving

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I love Thanksgiving.

I love the food, the fellowship, the friends and family, the football, and did I mention that I love the food.  Unashamedly it might very well be my favorite holiday.  Yet, despite all my warm feelings about Thanksgiving, I am not blind to its historical shortcomings. 

As Jane Kamensky says, “ … holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now.” I think she’s right about this.  In so many cases, our national celebrations and observances are mere expressions of our collective aspirations and not our actuality.  One clear example of this is the history and practice of the Thanksgiving holiday.

As it goes, every year people throughout this nation gather for a commemorative feast of sorts where we give praises to God for the individual and collective blessings bestowed upon us.  This tradition goes back to the 17th century when the New England colonists, also known as pilgrims, celebrated their first harvest in the New World. 

On the surface, this seems harmless enough but a closer reading of history tells a more dubious story. 

In reality, the New England Colonist did not simply have a meal of thanksgiving for the harvest that they believed came from the hand of God’s favor.  As journalist Robert Jensen states, “The real thanksgiving was preceded by a European colonist slaughter of hundreds of Native Americans;” all for the purpose of gaining supremacy of the land and its resources.

As a result of this unfortunate history, though most Americans view Thanksgiving as a day of national pride and gratitude, many Native Americans view it as a day of mourning. So it could be said that the real story of Thanksgiving is rooted in a mixed history of praise and pain.  

On the one hand, Thanksgiving is a time for the privileged to give praise to God for their material blessings just like the so-called Pilgrims.  While, on the other hand, the poor, the oppressed, and the socially marginalized simultaneously endure the pain of inequality and social misery just like the 17thcentury Native Americans. 

This has been the reality from the first Thanksgiving until now.  But why does this matter? 

Most of us who gather for the Thanksgiving holiday aren’t the ones who make a living exploiting poor people.  We are what Sly and the Family Stone called “everyday people” simply trying to make it from womb to tomb with some degree of grace and dignity.  We may not be what you would call “poor,” but we try to keep the poor in our sentimental thoughts. 

Given this reality, why should the underside of Thanksgiving matter to us?

The answer is simple.  It matters because poor people matter.  It matters because we are knit together in an inextricable web of mutuality that should make it difficult for us to have a day of thankfulness for what we have that doesn’t include concern for those who have very little.    

Let me be clear.  My intention here is not to create a feel bad situation or start a cancel Thanksgiving dinner movement.  Rather my goal is to encourage us to expand our view of the Thanksgiving holiday, so that it becomes an opportunity to both give praise to God for our blessings and to give service to those in need. 

For example, what if this Thanksgiving, instead of simply eating until you fall into a turkey coma you decide to volunteer at a local shelter, hospital, or prison.  Or what if you decided to bless a needy family by providing them a Thanksgiving dinner or inviting them to share in yours?  Or what if you decide that you’re going to start supporting some social cause that addresses the plight of poor people and communities? 

I can’t definitely speak for Jesus, but I get the feeling that these are the type of things that he would expect us (Christians in particular) to be doing on Thanksgiving Day. I could be wrong but I don’t think so; especially when you consider Jesus’ words.       

In Matthew 25, there are three short stories told by Jesus that illustrate the requirements for entering the Kingdom of Heaven.  Specifically in verses 31-45, Jesus tells his followers that entering the Kingdom of Heaven requires one to see and serve the poor among them.  Moreover, it requires that they must see their service to the poor as service to him [Jesus].  

Jesus says, 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’' ... 40 The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25: 35, 36 and 40 NIV

With these powerful words, Jesus poses a challenge that should cause us to see the Thanksgiving holiday with compassionate eyes.  For if we take these words seriously, we should no longer be able to gather around food filled tables and offer praise and prayers to God without also examining our hearts to discern what we can do better to serve the poor and socially marginalized.  

Specifically, those of us who call ourselves Christians should feel some inner nudging to use our holiday gratitude and thankfulness as motivation to seek out and serve the disinherited, dispossessed, and disenfranchised in our society.  Some might say that our Christian witness demands it. 

So this Thanksgiving, let us not simply offer prayers from our dinner tables that ask Jesus to go visit the poor.  After all, Jesus said in Matthew 25, that he is already with the poor.  The question is, are we?

Billy Michael Honor is the Pastor & Head of Staff of New Life Presbyterian Church in College Park, Georgia, one of the fastest growing African American Presbyterian congregations in the country. 

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