It has had different titles for each publication with each publisher changing my original and more polemical–and slightly in jest–title, “Why Christianity Must Kill the White Man.” Seriously. It was just a joke. Laugh. I’m a white guy. I enjoy living.
[The art of satirical polemic is often lost on those concerned with making a safe buck. Plus, by ‘White Man’ I mean an ideology of ‘whiteness’ deemed normative for what it means to be human–so, not an actual skin tone, as I’ve never actually met a ‘white’ person, yet I know lots and lots of ‘white’ people. Convoluted? No, not at all.]
So, here you go, with a brand new title to boot.
A Relatively Simple Argument for Fasting on Thanksgiving (Or, Why No One Should Kill Anyone–Unless We’re Speaking Metaphorically, For Instance, In the Sense of Killing the Ideology of “Whiteness”–Which is All I Meant with the Original Title).
Considering that virtually none of the standard fare surrounding Thanksgiving contains an ounce of authenticity, historical accuracy, or cross-cultural perception, why is it so apparently ingrained? Is it necessary to the American psyche to perpetually exploit and debase its victims in order to justify its history?—Michael Dorris
Of all the holidays that both the United States and the church celebrate, perhaps none is quite so mired in confusion as Thanksgiving. Our history books paint us pictures of pilgrims and “Indians” (this is, still, not India) surrounding a large picnic table sharing the goods that both brought to the meal. Of course, most of us are by now aware of the fictitious nature surrounding many of the myths of Thanksgiving. One of the most self-serving myths suggests that the English and Natives were great friends. It was only a mere generation after the so-called first Thanksgiving of 1621 that the vast majority of Natives in the New England area had either fled to Canada, been sold into slavery, or massacred by the English.
To even refer to this autumn meal as the first Thanksgiving is anachronistic. The history of Thanksgiving is quite muddled and only becomes solidified as a national holy day centuries after 1621. President George Washington proclaimed a Thanksgiving in December 1777 in order to pay homage to their victory over the British at Saratoga. President John Adams declared Thanksgivings in 1798 and 1799, while Thomas Jefferson spent his tenure as President without declaring a day set aside for giving thanks.
These days of commemoration had nothing to do with “Indians and Pilgrims,” nor were they even celebrated in November. Thanksgiving does not become a fixed national holiday to be annually celebrated in November until President Abraham Lincoln established it in 1863. Even then, it undergoes another shift when President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1939, moved Thanksgiving up a week in order to bolster a depressed economy.
This brief venture into the history of Thanksgiving is not, however, the aim of this article.
What I am more concerned about is what it is that Christians are celebrating when we recognize Thanksgiving as a holy day. Though it has become, harmless enough, a time set aside for families to get together in order to eat a lot of food, watch a lot of football and give a lot of thanks, we must ask the question: What is it that Christians are being grateful for?
Prior to the European invasion of the Americas, conservative estimates suggest that there were 30 to 50 million natives occupying what is now known as the United States (some estimates go beyond 100 million). There are now only 2 million or so Natives in the United States. Where did they go? As the comedian Chris Rock so eloquently put it on one of his comedy tours: “Everybody wants to save the environment. . . . I see trees everywhere! . . . When’s the last time you saw two Indians?”
It would be funny, if it were not so true. There are several reasons for the almost complete annihilation of the various tribes of Native Americans. The most brutal include the conquering of Natives via violence, starvation, and plagues—all of which were introduced by the Europeans.
King James praised God for sending the plagues amongst the savages, and what God failed to do the U.S. Calvary took it upon themselves to accomplish when they introduced smallpox to Natives and relegated the remaning to reservations incapable of nurturing life. I daresay no one has suffered as much at the hands of the “white man” (and woman) than Native Americans, yet each year we continue celebrating Thanksgiving as if God blessed us for coming over and introducing so much misery and oppression to its native people.
When the Wampanoags were asked by the Massachusetts Department of Commerce in 1970 to select a speaker to mark the 350th celebration of the pilgrims landing they chose the late Frank James. Though his name was anglicized, he forever remained a Native American (he was known as Wampsutta by his own people). Due to concern by the white people in charge of the ceremony, James was asked to present a copy of his speech before he was allowed to read it.
What follows below is a partial glimpse of his speech: “It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people. Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans … Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his people welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation … This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people … Our lands have fallen into the hands of the aggressor. We have allowed the white man to keep us on our knees.”
Though there was nothing in his speech that was false, he was not allowed to present it. Truth was not a welcomed component of the white people’s celebration of the European invasion. What they would remember would be what they wanted to remember. Even if it was nothing but lies.
Even when it does not benefit us, perhaps especially when it does not benefit us, Christians are to be truthtellers. Our settlement in this country was only possible due to the enslavement and massacring of its natives. We all have blood on our hands.
This does not mean, however, that we are to live lives of perpetual guilt because of our heritage, but it does require that we live lives that enact justice, that attempt to find solidarity toward those we have for so long wronged. I am not entirely sure what such justice would look like. I imagine we would need to leave that up to the Native Americans.
What I do know is that our celebration of Thanksgiving Day must take a different shape. Christians only have one true thanksgiving celebration and that is the Eucharist. The Eucharist means thanksgiving, and it is in our feeding on the broken body of Jesus that should enable us to better understand those bodies that were broken in order for us to be where we are today. This is not to equate the sacrifice of Jesus with the sacrifice of American Indians; rather, because we feed on a broken savior, we have the resources to better name those who have been, likewise, broken. I think that the most interesting, the most counter-cultural, perhaps the most subversive (and, more importatly, faithful) thing a Christian could do on Thanksgiving would be to fast.
After fasting as a means of protesting the lies that have become a part of the mythos of the birth of this nation, Christians could cap the day off by celebrating the Eucharist. Perhaps then we might find a way to truthfully move forward in regard to our past with our native brothers and sisters.
And now, for the enrichment of your musical taste-buds, NOFX’s take on the situation.
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.