One of the challenges of history will always be that there are people alive today that have been dramatically affected by those who lived before us. Some have benefited and some have been irreparably damaged. What makes some of us even more uncomfortable is that those who have benefited were willingly helped by those who have been damaged. This is not to make us feel guilty or victimized (my personal story has been on both sides of this equation), but to encourage us to see history for what it is ... history.
We know most of it is written or told by only one side. We know that the language and attitudes of the past will sometimes strike us as ignorant, backward or offensive. As will the things that we record now for those in the future to judge.
We are about to celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday historically unique to the United States and Canada. There are a few other countries (Liberia, Philippines, Grenada for example) to which it has been exported, but we can rightly claim it to be ours and our cousins to the north alone.
What fascinates me about the origins of Thanksgiving is that it was followed by a time of severe disease and starvation. I have read only a few accounts of the early settlers on the east coast, but every one of them have an account that could rightly be called, "the starving time." Both John Smith (Jamestown, 1607) and William Bradford (Plymouth, 1620) recorded that the settlers were ill-prepared, ill-timed and ill-advised (in survival matters) when they arrived. It is amazing that any survived at all given the small numbers (about 140 in Jamestown and 50 or so at Plymouth) and hardships faced.
In both these instances, if it were not for those who were native to the land they certainly would have perished. They received food, seed and instruction at crucial times. What is also recorded is the abundance of wildlife available in late October and November. Yes, turkeys were harvested and may have even been stuffed with corn meal.
The settlers showed a great deal of stamina, survival skills (out of desperation) and worked very hard. Anyone reading about them and the local tribes who assisted them cannot but be enthralled at the story. What cannot be missed in their accounts is the credit that is given to God. It may be true that trade, greed and colonialism was a factor in the early settlements. It is also true that religion and religious freedom from persecution were the main drivers in the early years. In this case empire followed faith. I am not sure what to make of this today, but I do have a couple of thoughts about the experience of Thanksgiving, however we may interpret its origins.
What was very clear to those who celebrated the first thanksgivings was God's hand in their survival. Keep in mind that they had planted, hunted, built, gathered and negotiated with other people. They worked hard and realized that it was still not enough. They knew they needed intervention beyond their capacity. They saw God in the attitude of the tribes around them, in the meager harvest they had, and in the abundance of game.
In my own experience of Thanksgiving, it is those who have worked the hardest who are the most thankful. There is something about work that knocks entitlement right out of people.
Doing all one can do and realizing that it still is not enough makes room for us to give credit and glory to that which is beyond us. At its heart, Thanksgiving shares with many cultures, recognition for a bountiful harvest. It implies effort in the months leading up to the day of thanks.
If there is a book of the Bible that I would recommend reading at Thanksgiving, it would be Ecclesiastes. It may sound strange at first, but let's think about this. This is a book that talks about the craziness, ridiculousness and changes in life. There is discussion of "everything under the sun," from war, injustice, hedonism, too much piety, death, youth, old age. It is all there. But also scattered throughout the book are discussions of work and the value and joy that is found in work.
Then there are at least five places where something like, "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil." (2:24, RSV, see also 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7). God wants us to enjoy life and the work of our hands. He also, I believe, expects us to work to the best of our capabilities.
Give thanks this season.
Sean Niestrath lives and ministers in Madisonville. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.