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Are you pro-life? Resist or subvert Thanksgiving.

November 25, 2009

I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. – Theodore Roosevelt

[W]e shall destroy all of them. – Thomas Jefferson, referring to Native peoples

How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? – Robert Jensen

Thanksgiving in the united states is a holiday observed by pious Christians without much thought. What could be more Christian than thanking God for the blessings God has given us? The reality of this “secular” feast day is, of course, much less innocent and much more monstrous than we assume.

As I’ve suggested elsewhere in relation to another state holiday, Christians should be very mindful of the “secular” rituals in which they participate and the truth-claims that they embody. In fact, because they embody powerful truth claims that bind together a people in relation to “transcendent” realities, Thanksgiving and other civil “holi-days” (holy days) are indeed not “secular” at all, but are intrinsically religious. More than that, they are idolatrous and pagan in that they give heavy theological significance to the nation-state of the u.s.a.

While most Americans have reduced Thanksgiving to a sentimental familial feast of “being thankful for our blessings and for one another”and would never claim to, say, divinize the nation-state or claim direct providential influence in the foundation of the american empire, the idolatrous character of Thanksgiving and many other american holi-days remains a reality. Watch the enraged reactions, for example, when one suggests that Christians should not celebrate it, or Memorial Day, or Veterans’ Day. The religious rage of american Catholics when their precious “secular” feast days have been disrespected rivals the outbursts of our good friend and “defender” of Catholicism Bill Donahue.

But even aside from the holi-day’s idolatrous core, there remains much to be concerned about. One is the obviously troubling history of the holiday and its relation to Native peoples. The story that is celebrated by mainstream white america is a lie, and indeed is not the story remembered by those who originally inhabited this land, which is a white supremacist story of extermination. And we Christians should not forget and should not fail to repent the fact that Christians and Christianity were complicit with this genocide, explicitly providing the theo-ideological justification for it.

Secondly, the “blessings” that “we” (white, middle and upper class americans) celebrate are simply not shared by significant portions of the american population, let alone much of the rest of the world. Indeed, the poverty and misery experienced by many both inside and outside of the united states is not an accident of history, but is rather the dark underside of the “blessings” we feel so inspired to celebrate here in the so-called First World.

Third, in its “secular” form, this holi-day’s concept of “giving thanks” has become virtually unintelligible when God is taken out of the picture. This should make Christians concerned about who exactly we are thanking on such a holiday. In the absence of the Creator, what fills the “empty shrine” (in the words of Bill Cavanaugh) of the american empire on this holiday? Who or what are “we” thanking for “our blessings?” The fact is, the holi-day is delightfully vague, and this vagueness is precisely part of what makes american civil religion work.

Fourth, in the absence of any intelligible sense of true “thanksgiving,” we are left with a holiday that tends to be reduced to “being with family and loved ones,” something that is, of course, nice to do, but which can quickly become an opportunity for the virtual worship of family and blood ties, another important aspect of american civil religion. Jesus, despite what the Religious Right has done to him, could hardly be called a “family values guy,” and resisted such notions of blood ties in his own day.

Finally, it should concern conscientious Christians that the way we “celebrate” “our” “blessings” on this day is to slaughter millions of turkeys in a gluttonous, perverse “sacrament.” But how fitting, isn’t it, that we would ritualize a celebration of american life and culture — a “culture of death” through and through from its founding until today — by treating millions of God’s creatures as if they were mere objects. And we fancy ourselves somehow “above” the “primitive” practice of ritual animal sacrifice? Hardly!

Pro-life Christians who choose to be thoughtful about such things should be deeply troubled by the reality of Thanksgiving. Indeed, it is perhaps the holi-day par excellence of the culture of death. Of course, the best option for Christians would be simply not celebrating Thanksgiving at all. After all, Christians have their own thanksgiving, only we use its Greek name, eucharist. It is a celebration of liberation and resurrection, not invasion and extermination. It is a celebration that embodies new familial relationships not based on blood or nationality but our common life in Christ. It is a celebration whose purpose is not to say “thank you for all the stuff we have when others are not so fortunate,” but rather “thank you for inviting all of us to this table.” And of course, the one we thank is the Author of Life, the One who is not to be replaced by sentimentalism or the idols of state, of “freedom,” of “choice” and the like. No wonder Jesus made the eucharist a vegetarian feast, a true foretaste of the banquet of the Kingdom of God.

Of course, for most of us, myself included, not celebrating Thanksgiving is simply not realistic. With a one-year old child and having just moved back to the u.s. from Canada after over three years away from family and friends, I am not about to be so politically smug that I would simply refuse to participate in my own family’s traditions. On the other hand, I’m not sure that Thanksgiving can truly ever be redeemed unless it includes attention to the reality behind it, perhaps through the observance of a National Day of Atonement. A “let’s just look at the bright side” approach to Thanksgiving, an approach historically-conscious liberal american Christians tend to choose, simply will not cut it.

If anything, I am suggesting that Christians should bear the above realities in mind during this holi-day, and should, in some significant and deliberate way, make their celebration of american Thanksgiving different somehow this year, and every year. Christians, if they are to celebrate this dangerous holi-day, should in doing so make clear that they are citizens of a different empire, the Empire of God, and that this empire has its own story that exposes the lies of the earthly kingdoms’ mythologies, especially those of the united states of america. Exposing the lies of the american myth of Thanksgiving, in one way or another, must be a part of any serious pro-life celebration of the holi-day. Anything less would mean participation in an ideological cover-up which silences the historical and present-day victims of american empire. As “resident aliens” within the american empire, any eucharist that the People of God celebrates should look very different from the eucharist of the empire.

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25 Comments
  1. Gabriel Austin permalink
    November 25, 2009 6:34 pm

    Chesterton commented, after a visit to the U.S.: “I do not understand the Americans. They celebrate the arrival of the Puritans. It should be the English celebrating their departure”.

  2. Navy Vet permalink
    November 25, 2009 8:38 pm

    Michael,

    Excellent article, as usual.

    My question for the day is – which culture/civilization do you think should be exempt from a National Day of Atonement for past and current iniquities?

    Most native Americans were an exceptionally warlike, even before the arrival of Columbus or Leif Erikson, so they certainly will need to participate.

    As a matter of fact, I am stumped as to which culture does not have glaring problems. Every culture should don the hairshirt with regularity.

    Most countries that are truly impoverished are victims of criminal leadership, such as Mugabe and his ilk, not mostly because of treatment of the native population.

    It is always fitting to feel remorse and make amends for past transgressions as a society, but even more important to make society as beneficial for as many people as possible.

  3. November 25, 2009 9:43 pm

    Navy Vet – Thanks for the thoughtful (as opposed to reactionary, as many of the already deleted comments have been) comment.

    Although it’s obvious that many (most) other Western nations need to engage in processes of repentance and reconciliation, that’s not my concern here. My concern in this post is the united states of america. Insofar as other nations share our story and our history, they too need to keep visible and repent of their histories of colonization.

    Also, the “violent savage” portrayal of the american Indian is largely a myth. It makes for fun movies (for men and little boys mostly) but they perpetuate lies. Now, while I am a pacifist, I believe that Native peoples who responded to European invaders with counterviolence cannot be held to the same standard as the invaders themselves as they acted in self-defense. If one believes in mainstream Catholic just war teaching, it seems obvious that the Indians had every right to defend themselves from unjust invasion.

  4. Navy Vet permalink
    November 25, 2009 11:09 pm

    Michael,

    I agree that the movie portrayals are almost uniformly incorrect (on most topics sadly) concerning the native peoples, but my fundamental point concerns the constant migrations of people throughout history and oppression of the original inhabitants.

    Sidebar – if you read the works of the early American traders or explorers like Lewis and Clark who traveled the Mississippi/Missouri valley before the onrush of settlers, the tribes were almost uniformly warlike, with very few exceptions. The scale of warfare was low, but almost continuous. Raiding parties were common and stealing of horses and people was endemic.

    From the Americans, Mexicans, and Canadiens, to the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, to the Mongols, Huns, and Arabs, and even further back to Biblical tribes and peoples. Conquest and taking over of lands did not start in 1492 or 1776, just like slavery did not start in 1507 nor end in 1865.

    America certainly has it’s fair share of warts and blemishes, but no one, absolutely no one West or East, has the claim of an unblemished complexion over the course of time.

    I just feel that in the list of crimes against humanity, colonization is less destructive when compared to what has happened to nations that have had the grave misfortune of falling under the rule of gentle souls like Pol Pot, Stalin, Mugabe, and the list is sadly too long to type.

    • November 26, 2009 12:19 am

      Navy Vet – I think you should exercise a greater hermeneutic of suspicion with regard to our national narratives. Also, it is difficult to believe you are being serious in your last comment about colonization “not being so bad.”

  5. somecatholic permalink
    November 25, 2009 11:18 pm

    It’s interesting that Thanksgiving itself was a peaceful interaction between Natives and settlers. Isn’t it odd then that you want to subvert such activities?

    • November 26, 2009 12:08 am

      It’s interesting that Thanksgiving itself was a peaceful interaction between Natives and settlers. Isn’t it odd then that you want to subvert such activities?

      I don’t find it interesting at all. What I do find interesting is that you continue to believe such elementary school fairy tales.

  6. Magdalena permalink
    November 25, 2009 11:41 pm

    Michael, isn’t it broadly accepted that the idealized “peaceful native” stereotype is also a myth? Navy’s point is that it wasn’t just the European interlopers who were met with force. Organized violence already played a part in Native culture long before the whites arrived and unleashed the so-called “civilized” version of hell.

    It’s not really in keeping the the sensus Catholicus to make every national holiday an occasion for gloomy beating of breasts and wearing of sack cloth and ashes. The Church takes a much different approach. If you re-read the texts from Pope Benedict’s visit here, for instance, you’ll see he wants to show that the way to evangelize our culture is to say “yes” to what is good and holy about us, rather than constantly saying “no” to what is sinful. Not that we don’t need to repent, but the heart of the Gospel is the GOOD news, not the sour, hectoring news, that scowls in the face of a festival. The fact that we have a national holiday set aside for gathering with our loved ones and giving thanks is a wonderful thing, fully in keeping with the Christian spirit, and I think we should celebrate it with all our hearts, as I am sure they will be doing in almost every Catholic parish tomorrow.

    I agree with you that it’s a problem that we don’t really have ANY national days of repentance, and maybe that’s why you feel obligated to make every single secular holiday a day for wearing mourning and ruminating on our sins. Respectfully, and I am not trying to be snarky here, the last time we were supposed to be going against the patriotic grain by bewailing our national failings was a few weeks ago on Veteran’s Day. Are we really supposed to be somber all the time? Do you really feel that is appropriate? Honest question.

    The closest we have is probably MLK day – at least when I was in school around that day we did go over our past(and current)history of racism, although it focused mostly on the white-black issue and not so much on other groups like native peoples. Ideally our national calendar would mirror the Church’s – days for mourning and repenting, and days for celebrating God’s blessings. As we continue to fall short of the ideal, I think it’s good we at least do the latter.

    • November 26, 2009 12:17 am

      Magdalena – Yes, the “peaceful native” image is also a myth. The problem of course is that we can’t really speak of “Native culture” in the singular, as you and Navy Vet are doing.

      I’m not sure where you get the idea that I want to transform “every” national holiday, or even a selection of them, into “occasion[s] for gloomy beating of breasts and wearing of sack cloth and ashes.” I’ve never argued for such things.

      Your argument that “good news” must mean always being affirmative, as you interpret Benedict as saying, is rubbish. When the Church denounces injustice, and names names, you as a First World inhabitant might feel that such moves are “gloomy,” “negative,” “sour,” “hectoring,” “scowling,” etc. But from the perspective of the oppressed, that denunciation IS good news, it is positive, it is liberating, it is joyful.

      When you say we should celebrate Thanksgiving “with all our hearts” and all that, fine, do so. I find the holiday redundant for a community whose “source and summit” of its life is eucharist, i.e. thanksgiving. But don’t celebrate the holi-day unless you are willing to deal with the reality of it, lest you “eat and drink condemnation upon yourself,” to use a eucharistic reference.

      You ask if I think we should be “somber” all the time. I don’t plan on being “somber” tomorrow. But I won’t be celebrating what other americans are celebrating. No, I don’t think we should be “somber” all the time, but I also don’t think we should be ideologically blinded all the time. As Christians we should remain committed to reality, even in our “merry making.”

  7. November 26, 2009 12:13 am

    [Zach - I will approve your comments if you wish to contribute to the conversation. And only under those circumstances. - M.I.]

  8. Ronald King permalink
    November 26, 2009 9:26 am

    Michael, I am now thankful today for your spark of reality and awakening me from my cultural trance of hedonistic delusional gorging. Charles Mann wrote a book a couple of years ago entitled “1491”. It is a revisionist history of revisionist history of the time before Columbus.

  9. November 26, 2009 10:31 am

    I’m confused as to why you think my comment didn’t contribute to the conversation. I think you ought to consider that you are blowing things way out of proportion and really have a distorted sense of what the important political and social battles are.

    I also think you misunderstand the purpose of Thanksgiving. It’s not to celebrate the American myth of peaceful cooperation with Indians, or whatever. It’s to give Thanks to God and to fellow man. That’s it.

    Most people understand that our national history is deeply sinful. They have been taught this, and only this, for the past 40 years or so in American schools. You write as if you’re the only one who has heard of the genocide committed against the native American population. This is not the
    case.

    I also think your commitment to this radical subversion is insincere. You still seem to celebrate Thanskgiving!?

    I hope you have a great time at Thanksgiving dinner!

  10. November 26, 2009 11:18 am

    Michael I.

    My main question is how are you going to resist/subvert Thanksgiving, since you’re going to the family celebration? Would it be enough to simply not promote the “elementary school” myth and utilize the opportunity to spend time with family? It seems like you want more, but I don’t see what that would mean.

  11. somecatholic permalink
    November 26, 2009 12:35 pm

    Sorry, peaceful interaction did occur between the settlers and the Wampanoag tribe.

    Interestingly enough, the Wampanoag sought out the English for an alliance to protect their faltering tribe from other tribes that sought to destroy them.

    Whether or not the “mythical” thanksgiving day occurred, the alliance and the interaction is a matter of historical record.

  12. digbydolben permalink
    November 26, 2009 1:18 pm

    You know, I spent a lot of my time during my return to the United States from India in the first decade of this new millennium working with Natives, in schools that were founded in the Southwest to take the place of the old boarding schools, in which Christianity was beaten into Native children at the same time that their culture was being beaten out of them.

    The children I taught were mostly Navajo and Hope. They were the more or less “peaceful” Indians who stole from the Apache and the white men–both Spaniards and “gringos”–and who were mostly walked to death in the so-called “Long March.”

    Those Natives don’t particularly like being lumped in with all the others in the White Man’s history of their peoples. They also don’t like Thanksgiving, and they DO see it as a rather triumphalist celebration of the genocide of their peoples.

    To me, Thanksgiving is nothing but the first of a series of orgiastic celebrations of American consumerism, culminating with the insane debauchery of Christmas, and I’m perfectly happy to be away from it.

  13. digbydolben permalink
    November 26, 2009 1:19 pm

    That was “Hopi” above.

  14. Navy Vet permalink
    November 26, 2009 3:59 pm

    Michael,

    I meant to assert that colonization does not produce consistently bad results along the line of, say socialism, which has been uniformly disastrous for those cursed to live under that system of governance.

    I am always amused that many scholars shrink from colonization like a vampire to holy water, yet compliment socialism as having good intentions. Of course colonization had many aspects that were repugnant, but certain colonizers actually ruled in a more benevolent manner than others. I would rather be colonized by the British at almost any time in their long imperial past than join the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere at any time. The Roman Empire actually did leave the provinces with the foundation of civilization as we still understand it.

    Both of us view history with an exceedingly jaundiced eye. Having dealt with the media and historians for the past thirty years, I realize how deeply compelled most of them are by their personal ideological biases rather than a quest for the truth. It is the rare person indeed who can embrace an idea that contradicts their governing ideology.

    And a sad, but true, fact that most people argue only to state their own case, and not truly seek to understand as much as be understood.

    The truth of American history was most certainly distorted during the 1950s and before, but the embrace of useful idiots like Howard Zinn and his ilk, is swinging the pendulum too far.

  15. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick permalink
    November 26, 2009 6:34 pm

    [Father - Do you call your own parishioners "gnostic cranks" too, or is it just part of your internet routine? Participate in the discussion, or play your games somewhere else. And be a man and use a real email address next time, not a fake. - M.I.]

  16. November 26, 2009 8:45 pm

    [Zach - Please read my last response to you. Try to let it sink in this time. - M.I.]

  17. Magdalena permalink
    November 27, 2009 10:41 am

    Michael, I get the idea from the fact that there doesn’t seem to be one secular feast that you feel it is appropriate for Christians to participate in. I would be willing to be deprived of this impression if you could think of anything positive to say about us. The Church considers American culture a culture of death, yes, but not “through and through.” Pope Benedict had the perfect balance of positive re-enforcement and correction. Re-read the texts from his visits if you find the time, they are awesome!

    Our holidays range from pernicious, like Flag Day, to truly worthy, like Thanksgiving. Giving thanks is never redundant. My Jewish next door neighbors, and my younger brother who is not quite sure if he even accepts the existence of God anymore, can not join me in the Eucharist but they do join us at Thanksgiving. I suspect Jesus would not call this strengthening of our love-ties idolatrous.

    And the paragraph about how eating turkey is equivalent to animal sacrifice is a huge reach. At a big gathering you serve food. People like to eat and most holidays have traditional foods associated with them. Is my Romanian grandmother being mean to pigs when she serves Christmas ham? Am I celebrating a faux sacrament on St. Pat’s with my corned beef munching?

    This is the kind of stuff people are referring to when they talk about theology as self-indulgent or cut off from lived Christianity. The idea that it would be good for Christians to “resist or subvert” Thanksgiving is one that could only be born in the mind of an academic. It just makes zero pastoral sense and an evangelist or pastor would never come up with it.

    Pastorally, we should be working to strengthen up the spirit behind Thanksgiving and using it to build momentum for solidarity. It’s just not true that the day is only celebrated by white, middle, and upper class Americans. In my town there is a resturaunt that opened to doors and served meals ALL DAY to anyone who walked in, no questions asked! This is not a soup kitchen or a charity, but a business! It is only one day, but it is something, and why shouldn’t we rejoice and give thanks for love?

    I think if you ask the poor and oppressed of all faith traditions you will find that they do not consider denunciation of cultural holidays a source of joy. Believe it or not the poor like to celebrate with their neighbors. I do not know if I qualify as poor although in recent times my family has had issues affording food. We did however have the complete spread including the slaughtered turkey. Last year our parish hunger ministry provided us the bird, this year we bought our own. One whole day for love and thanking God, and it is a national holiday! I wish we had four Thanksgivings a year instead of one, it would do us good.

  18. Kevin permalink
    November 27, 2009 11:20 am

    The American holiday of Thanksgiving is not a celebration of the 1621. It is intended to be truly a day of thanksgiving to almighty God. Read the proclamation of Thanksgiving from the continental congress or Abraham Lincoln or any president for that matter.

    If you truly want to subvert or resist the secular version of Thanksgiving make it authentically Catholic. Encourage your extended family to attend mass with you on Thanksgiving morning which is as you rightly point out, the true Thanksgiving. Turn off football after dinner and pray the rosary with your extended family. Read a section of the bible before dinner such as the gospel of the lepers or psalm 100 before dinner. That truly wold be a subversion of the American secular version of Thanksgiving.

    And if you really want to take on American culture and idol worship, Super Bowl Sunday is the ultimate disgusting American idol worhsip.

  19. ben permalink
    November 27, 2009 2:58 pm

    Michael,

    What sort of national holidays would you like to see? Personally, I’d like to see more of an adoption of the Catholic calendar into statue. But since we live in a society that is dedicated to religious pluralism, I’m not sure that is practical.

    I have long considered Thanksgiving an opportunity to observe a feast in common with my neighbors of differing faiths. I see it as an opportunity to celebrate my solidarity with my neighbors with whom I do not share communion. That this solidarity is connected with at least some expression of thanks to a higher power is something I’ve always seen as a benefit of the Thanksgiving holiday. Of all of the civic holidays, with the exception of Chirstmas which is a special case, it seems to be the one with the most room for the active participation of religious person in the secular liturgy of the state.

    So, what secular holidays do you think would be good to celebrate with our non-catholic and non-christian neighbors? Is there a menas of incorporating the kinds of celebrations you might have in mind into the current civic calendar?

  20. digbydolben permalink
    November 28, 2009 1:33 am

    Navy Vet, I think you should take a look at a recent book by William Dalrymple, the great Anglo-Indian travel writer who nowadays specialises in history books about India. The book is called The Last Mughal, and it’s an extraordinarily balanced, immensely scholarly work of original research in–for the first time!–the Urdu, Hindi and Persian primary texts, as well as the British ones.

    I think that, if you read it, you will change your mind about the benign character of British imperialism. It might even help you to have a clearer picture of where jihadism comes from in South Asia.

    The book amply demonstrates the willingness of the functionaries of the Raj to commit genocide in 1857, and to behave not a whit better to the Indians than the Spaniards or the Anglos behaved toward the Native Americans.

  21. Gerald A. Naus permalink
    November 28, 2009 2:31 pm

    The “Natives” certainly didn’t need the Spaniards or North American settlers to teach them warfare, it’s just what humans do. The land group A stole from group B was probably stolen by group B from group C and so forth. One atrocity doesn’t excuse another though.

    To name just one typical atrocity – Scalping is downright universal – it was not taught to Indians by whites nor vice versa. Herodotus mentions it, finds on the American continent show evidence of scalping from pre-Columbian times etc. People excel in cruelty regardless of time, location or ethnicity. Humans just tend to think in either-or terms, as evidenced by the “savage Indian” and the contemporary “noble Indian” images.

  22. November 29, 2009 12:04 am

    I also think your commitment to this radical subversion is insincere. You still seem to celebrate Thanskgiving!?

    No, I have dinner with my family but I don’t “celebrate Thanksgiving.”

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