Who Belongs at Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving?

As we draw close to one of the most significant United States’ holidays in Thanksgiving, myth busting season is upon us. Critics of the holiday call into question the veracity of its moral roots, pointing to the injustices surrounding the event as evidence of an exclusionary past. Defenders argue in favor of the holiday’s integrity and see it as a unifying moment in American history. Fundamentally, this disagreement poses the question: who belongs at Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving?

A few weeks ago this question was asked at a two-part panel event hosted by Gordon College, featuring many notable speakers within evangelicalism and academia. Both sides to the conversation were discussed, including some middling perspectives which sought to provide depth to the conversation. It was a highly informative and intellectually engaging evening.

The first panel headed by Dr. Matthew Rowley (University of Leicester) Richard Pickering (Plymouth Patuxet) Nicolas Rowe (Gordon College), and Stephen Alter (Gordon College) was titled, “Thanksgiving at 400: Revisiting American History and ‘Founding’ Narratives.” Here the speakers discussed the origins of the Thanksgiving moment, various approaches to history, and the nature of historical memory. 

Matthew Rowley started the event off by detailing two approaches to American history, ones that inevitably affect how we think of Thanksgiving itself. On the one hand you have the “Make America Lament” crowd, or the 1619 analysis: those who focus nearly universally on the injustices of the past as defining America’s legacy. On the other side, which Rowley calls the “Make America Great Again,” or the 1776 Commission perspective, are those who see American history as a linear set of moral progressions. The left/right political divide noted in Rowley’s distinction is apparent. While many progressives tend to narrowly recite history as a story of power and oppression to empower their activism, those on the right often counteract by valorizing the most honorable elements of the American story. Both approaches have some merit, but sorely lack balance in how they weigh historically complex topics.

To this problem Rowley proposed a “Make America Better” approach. Those who hold to this perspective agree “that Americans need to lament” in response to the injustices of the past, but that “in confessing the bad about the past, they also confess the good.” This approach, he said, “looks for historical progress and knows how the struggle for justice and equality in the present is animated by the ideals of the past. However hypocritical or short sighted the people originally espousing those ideas were.” As someone very sympathetic to calls to reflect on the wrongs of our national history, but also equally skeptical of those who tend to paint history with broad brushstrokes, this approach is quite appealing. In a world where our retelling of history is distorted through virtue-signaling from all sides of the aisle, Rowley offers a tool to think constructively about the past.

The importance of thinking sensitively about history is perfectly captured by Richard Pickering and his analysis of the Thanksgiving moment. Pickering described the first Thanksgiving meal between the English settlers and the Native Wampanoag tribe as an example of “diplomatic excellence,” especially of King Massasoit’s leadership. Before the meal took place, both communities were in a vulnerable place, as each experienced severe incredible losses of life through sickness and tragedy. Yet, in this moment, “they are able to reach towards one another with a sense of realpolitik.” In light of this history, Pickering urged the audience to not think of the first Thanksgiving in “the terms of those that were celebrating the first Thanksgiving after the closing of the American West…[where] it was perceived that native peoples had been suppressed and decimated.” Instead, the Thanksgiving event he said, “was evocative of communities doing deep listening, and the hard work of getting along.” It spoke to the character of the Native Wampanoags. If they wanted them dead, all Massasiot would have had to do “was leave them alone, because they would not have known how to raise the corn that sustained them.” Overall, Pickering ended with an image of Thanksgiving as testifying to the value of hospitality and peacemaking.

Despite the praiseworthy picture of diplomacy Pickering described, Dr. Nick Rowe and Dr. Alter noted throughout their speeches how the historical memory and meaning of Thanksgiving has often been detached from its original context. Both go through a lot of history—too much for me to concisely handle in this piece—which pose legitimate critiques on a glossly view of the American story. Oftentimes, Dr. Rowe said, “There are things that historical evidence uncovers that memory does not want to retain, like the conflicts with indigenous groups, racial anti immigrant sentiment that color illustrates, or even its engagement with African Americans.” In response to the past, memory “is often very picky about what it takes from the table…and wants to forget parts of the menu.” This memory will distort history, “to redo the menu because memory is not just about identity, but also about power.” It will often be employed in service to group identity. Alter reflected much of the same sentiment in his survey of history as well.

Both Dr. Rowe and Dr. Alter posed legitimate questions to how we think about Thanksgiving today, ones I believe even the most patriotic American should be able to reflect on. While it is certainly a worthy task to praise the most valuable elements of the past (the Thanksgiving moment especially), how do we think of them without ignoring the more difficult parts of our history? The parts which have historically not welcomed everyone to the table? 

The answer is important for how we approach Thanksgiving today, a holiday that since Lincoln’s proclamation, claims America’s blessings are for all to enjoy. Is this true though?

The second panel, “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Table: Christian Perspectives on American Identity, Inclusion and Immigration,” focused more on this problem. This panel was headed by Mark Charles, Soong-Chan Rah (Fuller Theological Seminary), Nicole Bibbins Sedaca (Freedom House), and Roberto Miranda (Lion of Judah Church). Throughout this event, it was interesting to see how the diverging perspectives lent themselves to Rowley’s three approaches to history. Charles and Dr. Rah more closely aligned with “Make America Lament,” Dr. Miranda with “Make America Great Again,” and Ms. Bibbins Sedaca with “Make America Better.” Nonetheless, each speaker had interesting things to say.

Charles and Dr. Rah both argued that our memory of the Thanksgiving event has become inseparably tied to the notion of American exceptionalism. A notion, Charles said, which “is the coping mechanism of a nation that’s in deep denial of its genocidal past, as well as its current, racist and sexist reality.” Ms. Bibbins Sedaca also acknowledged how the injustices of the past violated America’s founding principles, but noted that “the greatness of those principles are not diminished by the human failure at every step of our history.” These three speakers were somewhat of a contrast with Dr. Miranda, who explained from his perspective as a pastor how the Thanksgiving moment represented a useful narrative, “which exalts gravity, the goodness of God, racial reconciliation, and sheer human resiliency.” Much more was said throughout the evening (not all of which I agree with) and it would be hard for me to do each of the speakers justice. I would highly recommend you watch the panels for yourself. 

So who is invited to the table? How do we wrestle with difficult historical questions? What are the false narratives about Thanksgiving we hear today? How should Christians respond?

The two-part series poses many interesting questions and does not come to all the answers. You might even leave more confused, but that is a good thing I would argue. Don’t be content with simplistic narratives about history. History is often a messy thing. The approach of the historian in the midst of this reality, as Richard Pickering said, “is one of constant questioning, looking at other people’s lives, how they inform ours, and being gentle about it, holding the lives of people in the past as tenderly and as respectfully as we will want to be held 400 years from now.” As Thanksgiving draws near, let’s do just that. 

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