Thanksgiving

November 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the early 1980s, I had a lot of contact with the First Nations of Turtle Island, especially Mohawks and other folks from the traditional Iroquois. They opened every gathering with a prayer of thanksgiving. The prayer was always an extemporaneous rambling affair that was never the same, but always covered the same ground, in varying degrees of detail. Once it lasted nearly three quarters of an hour. Everything those people did was grounded in thanksgiving. It was the dominant emotion in their gatherings, the dominant idea in their thought, the first and last thing they did as individuals and as a community.

I have always felt that this is the greatest weakness of the Christian tradition, that it gives only lip service to thanksgiving. There is no holy day dedicated to it, it plays no central role in church services, Christian scriptures do not emphasize it. Jesus gave thanks before breaking bread so we do usually give thanks before eating; that’s good. But if it were not for the secular holiday of Thanksgiving in America, when would we stop and say thanks to God as a people for what we have? And, of course, Thanksgiving is uniquely American—what about the rest of Christendom?

The dominant emotion in traditional Christian gatherings is triumphalism, the conquest of Satan, death and sin through Christ. We don’t even think of this central tenet of Christian faith in terms of thanks. Church music tends to be triumphalist, Christmas music especially (“Glory to the newborn King”). This triumphalism nurtures a completely different kind of collective behavior than the humility that comes from thanksgiving. Triumphalism is almost inherently male in its orientation, it celebrates conflict and victory, it naturally tends to condone if not encourage hierarchy, dominance and even force.

The dominant idea in Christian thought is sin and salvation. Again, this engenders really different corporate behavior than the idea of gifts and thanksgiving. Thanksgiving tends to foster gift-giving, sharing and feasting. Native American events are really big on food and dancing. And, at least among the traditional Iroquois, which is one of the few real matriarchies in the world, it is oriented toward the Mother, Mother Earth, and providence.

Jesus himself was big on providence. He proclaimed the Jubilee in Luke chapter four and the Jubilee did four things: it cancelled all debts, it set free all debt slaves, it returned families to their ancestral landholdings, if they had lost them to foreclosure, and it required utter reliance on God’s providence, by requiring not just one but two years of fallow for your fields. This demanded that the community plan ahead, lay food aside, and maintain social forms that guaranteed mutual support when provisions got thin.

Of course, Israel apparently never actually practiced the Jubilee, until Jesus came along. But his followers did. The difference was that they were virtually all of them landless and therefore had no fields to set aside. But they practiced the Jubilee—utter dependence on God for providence: “Do not worry about what you will eat”. And God delivered: the feeding of the thousands being the most famous examples.

My point is that Jesus understood thanksgiving and practiced it. Why has the church built in his name abandoned it?

 

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