Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ironies on this Thanksgiving Day

Ah, the day of Thanksgiving has arrived. We are all primed for whatever version of the holiday that now kicks off the Christmas shopping season. We are teased by football and classic movies of the day. We assemble with friends and family and we feast, we gab, we connect. We gather the stories of Thanksgivings past and family members still with us and not. We laugh, we argue, we eat.

Thanksgiving is a non-aggressive holiday. It can appeal to everyone, without reference to race, creed or faith of any or no kind. It is all you want it to be, or none of what others find correct. It is your day.

Yet, we have our myths don't we?

Some part of the myth always starts with this:

Pilgrims came to America, in order to escape religious persecution in England. Living conditions proved difficult in the New World, but thanks to the friendly Indian, Squanto, the pilgrims learned to grow corn, and survive in unfamiliar lands. It wasn’t long before the Indians and the pilgrims became good friends. To celebrate their friendship and abundant harvest, Indians in feathered headbands joined together with the pilgrims and shared in a friendly feast of turkey and togetherness. Happy Thanksgiving. The End.
Almost nothing of this is actually true, or at least it barely clings to the truth.

The Pilgrims were disaffected members of the Church of England who wanted to separate from that state church. Such was not acceptable in the England of King James, who was ironically pursuing one definitive "bible" translation that would unite his kingdom under one "interpretation". I say ironic, because the Pilgrims which included the then child William Bradford, were utter fundamentalists. They would flee England and King James believing their very lives were at stake. They would rely on their Geneva bible, but eventually the KJV became "the" bible of the fundamentalist movement.

After slipping away to the Netherlands (they were not free to leave without express permission of the sovereign), they gathered together informally. They worked at mean factory labor, but tried to live in some community of as they understood the early Christians did. They decided after some years, that the Netherlands was not the "promised land" and they started looking for alternatives.

Obviously the ultimate choice was the new lands of America. They went there,  to be free themselves,  but additionally,  to establish a theocratic state of their own. They often secured passage for their own dissenters and others wanting passage to the colonies. They remained largely separate from these others, as they instituted laws making it a offense to the community to not attend church.

The Native populations were rapidly becoming victim of European diseases, and whole settlements of Native peoples were wiped out. The surrounding tribes became suspicious of the colonists who were moving along the eastern seaboard.

The Pilgrims, given their rather dismal initial numbers were fearful that as they sickened and died during that first winter, the Indians would become aware of their straits and attack.

A new myth was created.

What was done with the dead? According to the myth, the bodies were taken out late at night and buried in the corn fields, with corn being planted over them to mask the fact that they contained bodies. This to fool the Indians as to their numbers.

The truth? The dead were taken out to the surrounding woods (also the nearly dead who would surely die), and set up against tree trunks and muskets placed in their hands. From afar they were to look as sentinels guarding  the settlement.

The first Thanksgiving?

Oh it did occur. Contrary to the fairy tale told to grade schools and above, we were not all friendly with the Indians. The Pilgrims  were in league with one tribe only, the Wambanoag. They had been devastated by plague and were being pressured by nearby tribes who saw an opportunity to take their lands. So the Wambanoag joined with the Pilgrims in a non-aggression, mutual help compact.

One day, in the late fall as the Pilgrims were harvesting crops for the winter (some of which the Wambanoag had taught them how to plant), Massasoit, chief of the Wambanoag showed up unexpectedly with a band of his warriors. They went out into the woods and killed a few deer and returned and ate with the Pilgrims. That constituted the first Thanksgiving.

It was not remarkable to anyone at the time. William Bradford, who would be the governor of the colony for most of the rest of his life, made no mention of the fact in his diaries which he kept faithfully since his childhood. Nor was it included in his history of the colony which remains the basis for most of what we know about Plymouth colony.

In fact, Thanksgiving was not declared a holiday until Lincoln, who did it as a measure of unity to a union in disarray and war.

What I found most ironic in learning the truth of this group, had nothing to do with these myths and stories however. It had to do with marriage.

As you know, fundamentalists drive the conversation when it comes to marriage equality and they claim that the bible clearly mandates that marriage can only be between a man and woman.


Yes. Because William Bradford married in the Netherlands before the journey to America. His was a civil ceremony done by the local magistrate. Why was this?

Because Bradford was an extreme literalistic, and his examination of the bible indicated that at no place or part had God ever spoken about marriage being a religious act. Therefore, Bradford assumed (quite correctly) that marriage was a civil act. This was the normal interpretation I might add, for years later the Catholic Church finally relented and began to bless marriages because people wanted the church to bless their civil unions. They would arrive on the steps of the parish church and the priest would come out and offer them a blessing.

Bradford thus exercises first among those that would settle in America, the idea of separation of church and state.

Kind of puts a factual clunker on the fundie notion today that God has declared marriage to be "between one man and one woman". Again, it is wishful thinking on their part, but to, I would contend, gloss over the homophobic fears of those that claim it as their truth.

Just a bit of fact to set some records straight.

The readings today tell the story of the ten lepers. They plead with Jesus to heal them. He sends them off to the high priest. One returns, goes to his knees and praises God and Jesus. This one, is a Samaritan, hated by Jews, unclean by definition. Jesus praises the foreigner among you who by his faith is more attuned to God's good mercy than the rest of the Jewish lepers are. 

If we take the Thanksgiving myth, regarding as true, then we see the perfect example of Jesus made anew. The Natives welcome and care for the foreigner among them, recognizing we are all "neighbors" as Jesus intimates in his recognition of the Samaritan leper. 

Now we have the opportunity to welcome the foreigner who needs us to survive. Will we do as Jesus asked us? Or will we play the trickster as the early Puritans did? Will we welcome and care for the Other among us as Massasoit did? Or turn away Syrian women and children? Will we be the other lepers who failed to realize that God had just acted in their lives and give thanks? Or will we be like the Samaritan leper who was overwhelmed by the charity of God and worshiped in adoration? 

Which will we be? 

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