July 29, 2013 § 6 Comments

New York Yearly Meeting Summer Sessions 2013

I attended the Summer Sessions of New York Yearly Meeting last week and a lot of things came up that I want to talk about. Because I attended as staff (I am the communications director), I was too busy to post entries during the Sessions, so I plan to post them over the next few weeks. They have no organizing theme, except that events at Sessions prompted them all, so I am applying to them a Category tag of NYYM Summer Sessions 2013.

The theme of this year’s Sessions was “Keeping Faith: Answering that of God in All Creation”. Our plenary speaker was Freida J. Jacques, who is the Clanmother of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee (hoe´-de-nō-SHOW-nay), the People of the Longhouse, known more popularly to European Americans as the League of the Iroquois. The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy live in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. The original Five Nations were the Mohawk, the Cayuga, the Onondaga, the Oneida, and the Seneca. In 1712, the Tuscarora, an Iroquois-speaking nation from North Carolina, petitioned the Haudenosaunee for membership, were accepted, and they soon migrated to New York State.

Freida Jacques spoke on the Doctrine of Discovery (see Doctrine of, which New York Yearly Meeting repudiated in a minute approved at our Fall Sessions 2012 (see the factsheet and New York Yearly Meeting’s minute). She also talked about the Two-Row Wampum Renewal Campaign: 2013 is the 400th anniversary of this treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch, establishing an agreement that the two peoples would travel down the river of life side by side, in peace and mutual respect of each other’s traditions. As part of the renewal campaign, a flotilla of canoes and other craft are right now travelling down the Hudson River and will land on August 9 on the East River in Manhattan near the United Nations headquarters. From there the participants will go to the UN for a presentation. Freida also told the extraordinary story of the Great Law of Peace, the Haudenosaunee’s name for the constitution of their confederacy (see the Wikipedia entry for a brief introduction and the text of the Great Law).

Freida began her presentation with her people’s Thanksgiving Address (see here for a video of one version of the address). In the Iroquois Thanksgiving Address, you give thanks to all of the beings and elements and other spiritual presences around us. This is not a prayer of worship to the four-legged people and winged people, and the waters and the winds, and Mother Earth, etc. It is an expression of thanks to them for doing the jobs that the Creator gave them and for all the gifts that they give to us two-leggeds.

All Haudenosaunee events begin with the Thanksgiving Address. I have been to several and each person giving the address does it her or his own way. I have known it to last 45 minutes. I have been told that at ceremonial events, it might take several hours. The poet Gary Snyder has written a very abbreviated version.

After all this prologue, here is what I have to say in this post:


Thanksgiving is the very soul of indigenous peoples’ spiritways. It has almost no place at all in the Christian and Quaker way. Why is this so?

Instead of thanks for the contributions of all other creatures and earth processes and the elements of mother earth, we have the doctrine of discovery and the doctrine of dominion. Thanksgiving is built into the very structure of the religions of the First Nations of Turtle Island, and this includes a spiritually vital and intimate relationship with place—a religious culture of place. Christianity and Quakerism are cosmic and universalist, in that we speak of “the earth”, rather than of our landbase or bioregion, in our prayers, our theology, and our rituals, and our practice is virtually the same wherever we are, irrespective of our place.

Many Christian and some Liberal Quaker families give thanks over meals. That’s about it. Our liturgies may or may not include thanksgiving. It is not in any way central, or essential, or even habitual in our religious practice. Most yearly meetings have only relatively recently included testimonies on earthcare in their books of discipline and these often do not even mention thanksgiving. New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice (for which I am more than partly responsible) does not mention thanksgiving at all.

I suspect that this is because of the Christian dread of paganism and of the worship of the Powers of the earth. Because of the theology of sin, beginning with the belief in a Fall in which nature—an animal, a fruit, and a woman—are the sources of all sin and suffering, which leads to a fear of the spiritual power of nature and of its “temptations”. And because of the overwhelming focus on sin, a negative worldview that sees the basic human condition as broken and that reorients any thankfulness we might feel toward the source of sin’s salvation; that is, toward Jesus Christ and his Father the judge. And because of the resulting focus on the spiritual goal of noncarnal existence in a nonphysical heaven. This stands in contrast to a worldview oriented toward the positive gifts in material life, toward their sources in the world, and toward the Creator who provides them.

This blindness to the gifts of the earth and the gift-giving of its Creator, this pernicious self-centeredness and pathological worldview, this lameness of heart, lays a chasm—an obstacle of absence—between us and an earthcare that is deeply spirit-led. It has taken us two thousand years to find our way across, despite the prophetic ministries of Saint Francis, Hildegard of Bingen, and others, and of Jesus the Christ himself, whose own spiritual practice was deeply rooted in the landscape and ecology of his landbase of Palestine (more about this in later posts).

I felt inspired by Freida Jacques’s address and her attitude of gratitude. I felt ashamed of my own smallness of heart and my own people’s thanklessness.


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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