It is part harvest festival, which is common to all cultures. It is also a holiday celebrating religious freedom, which is singularly Puritan. It was the Puritans who fled England not many years before Charles I was beheaded by the arch-Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, and the Puritan Commonwealth established.
And Thanksgiving is also an interfaith celebration: on no other occasion do those who worship God as Jews and Christians, and now Muslims, come together to celebrate a common heritage that was hard won, and fought for, even after the Revolutionary War. It took the Bill of Rights with its freedom of religion clause, which has to be won anew in each generation. Ask Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses about their struggles with the Protestant establishment.
We can add to these themes, in our time, the burden of prosperity and the unrivalled plight of the hungry in our world. At least 24,000 people, many of whom are children, starve to death each day. Yet the leaders of nations set boundaries on the poor but never on the wealthy. There is a Letter to Reformed Churches from the Accra meeting, distributed by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches to its member churches, on the growing divergence between poor and rich nations (see the September 27, 2004 issue of Outlook). The letter pleads with us to consider the gap as intolerable in the eyes of God. It speaks harshly against the “empire of neo-liberal global capitalism” that perpetuates the disparity and contributes to the death of millions. It does not target the United States, but speaks instead of the rich North and the impoverished South.
Some folks are uneasy by this harsh critique of capitalism. One of our theologians averred that we need to be careful, for many of our members support capitalism. Translation: Capitalism has built our churches, colleges, and seminaries. Millions of dollars made in the market for prescription drugs have funded the most innovative theological education in the last fifty years. None is righteous, not one.
But why all the hand wringing over what some have dared to point out as weakness and danger? Our little systems have their day. A vigorous debate, world wide, encouraged and supported by the United States, might go a long way toward undoing the worst impact of “our way of life” upon the impoverished and the dying. They called us to the table for such conversation, yet we barely showed our face.
So on this Thanksgiving I am thankful that I am challenged to greater and more enduring faithfulness to the God who made the earth for all creatures, and who rejoices, not only in the saving of a lost lamb, but in the fullness of human life made good and sweet. And most surely, for those who have the courage to enter the fray, we are now seeing the differences between bounty and booty. It’s not a pleasant learning. But rejoice in our new-found identity: We are not made to be pirates and thieves, but generous servants who do not rest until the table is full, and no more children die from hunger. Thanks be to God!