Thursday, November 24, 2016

thanksgiving 2016...

Thanksgiving Day in the United States is simultaneously wonderful and troubling. It is, of course, the day many of us gather to feast on turkey with all the trimmings including mashed potatoes, stuffing, squash and pumpkin pie. Often family members trek many miles to be a part of this feast after not seeing one another for most of the year. It has become part family reunion, part banquet, part national day of rest, and part celebration of our respective blessings. That's the wonderful part:  Thanksgiving is born of our national mythology wherein  America rises to become a generous, freedom sharing people living in the world with gratitude. From the sanitized story of Squanto - an indigenous Patuxet citizen who was sold into slavery in 1614 only to return to New England six years later - to the songs of the Pilgrims who came to the New World in pursuit of religious freedom, this holiday is saturated in romanticism.  There have been times when I have even spoken of it as an American Eucharist.

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessings
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing;
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.

The troubling dimension for most white folk appears whenever the veneer of our myth is peeled back to reveal a more complex and sometimes brutal reality. Like the earliest white settlers committing genocide in the name of religious and racial superiority. Or the legacy of slavery. Or the wars we have waged to protect American business interests abroad that were advanced by lies, manipulation of our patriotism, and fear-mongering. Or the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Or our refusal to come to the aid of European Jewry in their hour of need. Or the prohibition of universal suffrage for women and people of color. Or American apartheid. This list is too long to continue, but you get my point. Our legacy of altruism is at best compromised and often laced with lies.

Not that other nations don't share a comparable level of deception. They do. But many of them are more prone to own the contradictions and failures of their histories. They know there is a wisdom in confession that is good for the national soul. We in the United States, however, avoid owning our complicity in the suffering of others in epic proportions. Small wonder that our pathological unwillingness to look at our collective shadow - and its consequences - locks so many of us into immaturity - or worse. The rise of the so-called "alt.right" is just the most recent example of sacralizing our sins:  we rewrite and reinterpret reality to demonize some while elevating ourselves as the champions of virtue, hope and democracy.  No less an advocate of real American values, Pete Seeger, once confessed that he was reduced to tears of shame and confusion during the late 1960s when First Nations people as well as young feminists and people of color asked him to quit singing Woody Guthrie's "This Is Your Land." Langston Hughes got closer to the truth when he wrote in the 1930s that "America ain't been America to me." In time, Seeger rewrote some of the folk song's lyrics to reflect our more complex history with greater accuracy.

So, as my small family celebrates Thanksgiving 2016 this year (most will be away in NYC) I am struck by the contradictions of this feast day - especially in light of the non- violent battle currently being waged between the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and the big oil interests of Energy Transfer Partners in North Dakota. A local Williams College graduate was one of the critically injured allies at Standing Rock when law enforcement troops turned water cannons on the protestors and shot rubber bullets into the crowd  Another ally, a local catering firm left Massachusetts a few days ago (with support from the tribe) to bring Thanksgiving dinner to 500 encamped at the protest site: "We are talking 30 pasture-raised turkeys, donated by Bill Nieman from BN Ranch in Northern California, and spit-roasted by Stanton and crew. Volunteers will prepare other dishes as well. The dinner was the brainchild of Judy Wicks, activist and former owner of the Black Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, who used to host Native American Thanksgiving dinners at the Cafe, and invite Native Americans from that region."

I love Thanksgiving - I always have - and I pray that I always will. But this year, in a unique way, I am more attuned to the anguish it evokes, too.  The NAACP expressed my gratitude better than I ever could when they wrote:

We are thankful for our powerful history written through the lives of those who sacrificed so much over the last century. We are thankful for the courageous activists in our 2,200 units across the country fighting to realize the promise of America — as we speak. We are thankful that, in the face of Jim Crow 2.0 voter suppression during the campaign, the NAACP went to court ten times — and won. We are thankful that, when children were poisoned with lead-tainted water in Flint, we filed suit against the wrongdoers.  We are thankful that, amidst this Twitter-age civil rights movement, our activists are not only online but also in the streets peacefully and forcefully seeking justice. We are thankful that our members and supporters not only speak powerfully with words, but also in the eloquence of example — as you know, when we elect a president, we do not "de-elect" our ability as citizens to speak truth to power.

A colleague in the United Church of Christ, the wise and insightful poet and pastor Maren Tirabussi, wrote words that resonate with me for this year, too:

I am thankful the people missing
from my Thanksgiving table
were people I loved --
not everyone has
my lucky, lucky tears.

I am thankful for a country
where the least likeable person
could be elected president,
but that many of us are not afraid
to protest his threats
against those
who must be very afraid.

I am thankful for my alcoholism
giving birth to a recovery
that blesses me
with empathy,
a few tools to help others,
also a small liquor store bill.

I am thankful that my dogs
are rescued,
my books are second-hand,
my singing makes people laugh,
and Leonard Cohen sang
about the broken Hallelujahs
I’ve known all my life.

I am thankful that my death
is closer than my birth,
so I have a deep reservoir
of tender memories,
but, if I lose them, like my parents did,
there are people who will try
every day to make my life sweet --
family and friends,
and some gentle paid people,
so even my neediness
helps somebody make a living.

I am thankful for prayer,
the many faces and names of God
around the world,
the Spirit that prays me like a fiddle
or a child’s game in the sand –

when the tide comes in
and even my thankful is quiet.

Later this day, as we're preparing our food, I will finally get a chance to listen to Carrie Newcomer's new CD, The Beautiful Not Yet, that has sat on my desk for nearly a month. Then
when Dianne and I sit down to our small feast, all of these truths will join us at the banquet table as guests, memories, partners and prayers. This is a time, as Cornel West wrote earlier this week, for us to become the hope another needs.  I pray that we can do this together.

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