by Rev. Andy Oliver, RMN Communications
Fair warning… the last time I shared my thoughts on Thanksgiving eve I was criticized for not sticking to the script of the Pilgrims and Indians having a dinner party and everything ending happily ever after. So, if you want to only focus on that narrative, you should probably stop reading and just click here.
The problem with the myth of Thanksgiving is that it forms us as people who whitewash the story we came from, and thus, who we are today and the decisions we make tomorrow. I’m not suggesting that because our country was founded on the blood of native people we should wallow in guilt, but I do believe we can do better than repeating a lie. It is even worse when we insert God into the redacted narrative, giving thanks for that first Thanksgiving and painting a picture of those innocent Christian travelers spreading the Gospel of love and full inclusion by their sharing a meal with the those nice Indians.
I don’t say all of this to be politically correct. The entire notion of being p.c. is based on the flawed idea that our political selves are somehow separate from who we are. As the story goes, our lives are split into political, spiritual, social, and other selves. Therefore, what we say in one realm doesn’t really have much say over who we really are. That story, like Thanksgiving, is also not true. When I was a little kid and my grandfather said the “n word", it was explained to me that he grew up in a different time when people talked different. Or, more recently, when a former coworker frequently made generalizations about people walking across our church’s property based on the color of their skin, it was explained to me that he was just concerned about safety. And when the myth of Thanksgiving is retold to my 3 year old son at his school and he comes home with paper feathers on his head and doing an Indian war chant by moving his hand to and from his mouth, it is explained to me that they’re just children.
It isn’t about being politically correct. It is about truth telling. Because telling the truth about where we’ve been shapes who we are today and the decisions we make tomorrow. Last month my alma mater, The University of Florida, was weighed down in a scandal that some dismissed as politically-correct-over-sensitivity. A fraternity threw a “rappers and rock stars” party in which the participants painted their faces black and dressed in baggy clothes. Pictures were posted. People were outraged. On the surface, defenders argued, black-face is ok because they were just joking and it’s on tv, so people who are upset just need to get over it. It was only after a community forum and presentations from different professors on the history of black-face did more understand the hurt that can be inflicted when we ignore the origins of a practice. Black-face is politically, spiritually, and socially incorrect wrong because it has been used historically to politically, spiritually, and socially dehumanize.
There are examples of lies painted all around us—false stories that are put in front of us in hopes of brainwashing us to not see certain parts of the true world around us. Like a ritzy resort in a third-world country, usually these stories have poverty hiding just on the other side of the wall. This time of year especially, stores do all they can to offer the lowest prices and at the same time, hide the poverty that is inflicted to achieve those low, low prices. That is why some Wal-Mart employees have said they are planning to strike on Black Friday. They are tired of hiding behind the resort wall… they want us to see them. Where I’m from in the Southeast, a grocery giant Publix is known for its heartwarming Thanksgiving commercials that are like a tapestry that tells the Norman Rockwell-esque story of the perfect Thanksgiving. They, like other grocery stores, do everything they can in hopes you won’t think about were your food came from—to pay no attention to the exploited farmworkers behind the curtain. (The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is working to change this practice. See their video: "A Tale of Two Thanksgivings" and sign their petition.)
As hard as you try…
You can’t separate practices from their shameful history.
You can’t separate political correctness from what is just plain correct.
You can’t separate the food you buy from the hands that picked it.
And you can’t separate the harm done in the past from a day of thanks today.
You can’t separate these things because what we say and what we do need to match. It’s kind of like a church that has a slogan of openness, but yet in practice, still holds on to its closed hearts, minds, and doors. And when you are part of a denomination, like The United Methodist Church, whose true story is one of discrimination and harm toward women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons, it’s not enough to sugarcoat the past and say everything is ok because you have some Black female clergy and gay people coming to church. When you do that, you continue as a willing participant in the harmful practices of the past—sort of like if you were to paint your face to make fun of another race or pass down the myth of Thanksgiving. We fool ourselves to think that if we just ignore the narrative, the harm and hurt will just go away, when in reality, it lingers and festers and causes us to repeat history.
So where does that leave us on this Thanksgiving? Ironically, I think we get a hint in our Eucharist liturgy titled “The Great Thanksgiving”. It is the practice much like Thanksgiving. We are called to remember that first meal where all were invited to share—even Judas. (Some of us eat together with people we don’t very much care for.) We are called to give thanks, because it is right to give our thanks and praise. But unlike the Thanksgiving myth, Holy Communion’s story tells us who we really are—that God formed us in God’s image and breathed into us the breath of life. It also tells a story, but instead of distorting our past, it tells us who we really are. It doesn’t say everything is ok because of Jesus, but it painstakingly tells the truth about how we turned away from God’s love, how ours is a story of oppressing and thus being oppressed, and how we are in need of forgiveness of others and of God. It tells the true story about the fullness of who we have been, who we are, and who we are becoming. It tells a true story about the fullness of Jesus Christ—who has died, is risen, and will come again. And it is a meal that believes that by eating and drinking these symbols of God breaking and pouring God’s self out for us, we are joined with God in breaking and pouring ourselves out for others.
And yeah, we don’t live out this Eucharistic meal when we leave the table like we should… our tables aren’t truly open to all when we are trained in the art of historical fabrication. But, I believe it is easier to redeem practices when at least the story you start with is true and good. It’s much more difficult to redeem a holiday like Thanksgiving when we can’t even be honest about its history. I believe the place to start is truth telling. Only then will we stop ignoring the narrative and instead, work to transform it into something life (and thanks) giving.
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Rev. Andy Oliver recently joined RMN as the Communications and Technology Coordinator. Andy and his partner Rev. Emily Oliver have two children: Liam, 3 and Evan, 1. Before joining RMN, he served as a United Methodist local pastor in the Florida Conference. Andy received his B.S. in Public Relations from The University of Florida and his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School. Connect with him on social media at www.andyoliver.me.