Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.
You are not supposed to celebrate Thanksgiving because COVID might kill you and those you love.
You are also not supposed to celebrate Thanksgiving because the Europeans who colonized the new world were genocidal maniacs.
Both of these foolish objections to our great national feast arise from the same cartoonish misunderstanding about history, humanity, and the state of the world in which we live. The state of that world is: it is fallen. Nothing else can be grasped if this central fact is not internalized first.
Because this is a fallen world, the history of human action upon it is mostly an unending litany of murders, rapes, slaughters, plagues, and other assorted tragedies. No culture is immune from this reality and no civilization has ever come into being without its fair share of originary violence. As Robert Royal has shown in detail, the native peoples of North America are not innocent of slaveholding or the atrocities of war. This does not make such things excusable, but it does make them commonplace.
And so we can understand very little by casting one side of the Thanksgiving story—the Pilgrims—as colonialist villains and another side—the Wampanoag Indians—as pure victims. That version of the story, besides being a fairytale, is also untrue.
The grown-up version of the story is this: out of concern for their children’s moral probity and in hope of helping to usher in God’s kingdom, 102 English “Separatists” stuffed themselves inside a 75-foot-long wooden cavern and crossed treacherous seas for 65 days until they came to a northern shore that had already been ravaged by disease, its locals wiped out by new infections against which their bodies were helpless. Having committed together to abide by the rules they set for one another, and after suffering the casualties of a brutal winter, the surviving Pilgrims met—astoundingly, improbably, and in their view miraculously—with Squanto, an Indian who had escaped European slavery and spoke good English. The compact between Squanto, Chief Massasoit, and the Pilgrims lasted for decades. It was an uneasy but humane peace between two battered and beleaguered peoples.
That’s the truth of it. And here is the remarkable part, the thing that stands out: against the usual human backdrop of suffering, violence, disease, and heartache, our forebears shared a meal. It was a moment in which were contained all the seeds of the American spirit: resourcefulness, endurance, faith, self-government, and the recognition that reasoned communion is possible between all men made equal by their one Creator.
Now we are told we must not commemorate that feast by re-enacting it as we do every year, because the possibility of death is all around us. To this I say: the possibility of death is always all around us. We are in no new kind of situation, and our task is once again the same as ever: to huddle together in the warm light of kinship while the ever-present madness of the world rages on around us.
Telling the story of the Pilgrims’ departure from Holland for the New World, Governor William Bradford wrote: “they left the goodly and pleasant city, which had been their resting place near 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift[ed] up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”
There are some things more important than everything else, some things that are worth the risk they entail. Building a new world in the service of God is one. So, I submit, is honoring one’s country and one’s forefathers in the presence of those most dear to us. If we wait to do so until the world is free of death and disease, we will die in the waiting. This is a fallen world and we are pilgrims in it, all of us. Grasp this, and go forth to live in joy. Happy Thanksgiving.