Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 25, 2008

A couple years ago, I wrote a post about how we need to match gratitude with lament. That the two are necessary practices in a broken world. In that post, I called for “angst-giving,” but I didn’t really do it in a way that disses the Thanksgiving holiday.

In this little article, I hope to correct that. I’m not saying that gratitude isn’t a necessity for faithful living in a world dominated by the Powers. I AM, however, of the opinion that Thanksgiving is a tool of those Powers, rather than a way of faithfully resisting. Allow me to explain.

American Myth-Making

Thanksgiving Day conjures up a happy myth about pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down and sharing a roast turkey and a veritable cornucopia of tasty treats. It is a story of survival. The starving Europeans settled in an inhospitable land, and, on the bring of starvation, found hospitality from locals. Through honest work and tenacity, the colonists survived and were able to build a great nation, occupying this great Free Land that is a beacon of light to a dark world.

It is a day where we honor our founding priciples of sharing, kinship, and hard work. It is a day when we give thanks for our blessings. The blessings granted to us by our benevolent God who has decided to lay upon our strong backs the mantle of abundance and affluence. These things, we all know, must not be taken lightly. We must receive them with gratitude. And, in times like these we must express our gratitude by sharing with those less fortunate. After all, we are beacons of light.

Or, stripped of all of the propaganda and hypocrisy, we can tell the story this way:

Pilgrims came to this nation looking for a place filled with opportunities. Some came for religious freedom. Some came to start over. But all came with the hopes of prosperity. Upon arriving, the pilgrims found an abandoned village which soon became their own settlement. It was hard work building a new life. Their Protestant work ethic wasn’t enough to carry them through. Thankfully, they made friends with a local who already spoke English (Squanto) because he had learned the language while serving as a slave to colonists elsewhere. Squanto helped these pilgrims survive.

As time passed, the settlers formed an uneasy peace with the Wampanoag nearbye. At that time, the Wampanoag numbered at least 12,000–and were probably even more numerous in earlier days. But in the years that followed, they were almost wiped out. They, like many other peoples, suffered the genocide of white Christians who longed to fulfill their Manifest Destiny. As their numbers increased, the Native population decreased. Our “blessings” came at great price for those who previously occupied these lands.

In the words of the American folk classic:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

I’m not sure that everyone in the USA can sing these words with joy in their hearts. It isn’t just leftist rhetoric to say that our abundant blessings have grown up from stolen lands that were harvested, in large part, by stolen labor.

“Gracious Gifts of the Most High God”

The Thanksgiving holiday was instituted in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was in the midst of a war and the holiday was an attempt at bringing some sense of unity in the midst of conflict.

According to Lincoln:

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

This, it seems to me, is one of the great myths that is perpetuated on Thanksgiving Day. When we believe that our abundance comes from the will of God, rather than through our own sins, we (in some way at least) sanction our abundance. Now, that isn’t to say that we can be thankful for the stuff we have. It is to say, however, that if we are going to give thanks, it must be balanced by our giving of angst. We must lament and repent for the ways in which our affluence has come unjustly.

But Thanksgiving is hardly, if ever, seen as a day for lament. Unless, of course you are some sort of extremist or one of those “ungrateful” Native Americans who haven’t “let it go.” As an aside: Why is it that we say that African Americans and Native Americans should simply “let it go” when God encouraged the Israelites to remember the injustices done to them? Why, when talking about Scripture do we assume that the various empires “have it coming” when judgment falls for how they treated the Jews, but when it comes to the USA…

Thanksgiving Day is a day when we’re supposed to give thanks for affluence and abundance. It is a day so tied into the practice of our American Civil Religion that it is usually an unquestioned good. It is a day when we give religious sanction for Empire.


Perhaps Thanksgiving should not be for us a day where we thank God for all of our abundant stuff, but a day where we see our society without illusions. It should be a day where we look into the naked face of Empire, lament the sins of this nation in which we reside as we honestly thank God for those things that are truly blessings from God.

It is interesting that, in the New Testament, blessing is hardly ever tied to material wealth. In fact, it is quite the oppositve. It is the poor who are called blessed.

It is also interesting that, likewise, gratitude isn’t tied to material possessions either. We are told to be grateful and joyful because of things like suffering and persecution and salvation and whatnot. Yet, we’ve let our own assumptions about blessings spill into our spiritual lives and, because of this, we thank God for all the stuff we have (regardless of how we got it) as we actively try to avoid those situations and conditions under which the New Testament authors would actually call us blessed.

And so, this Thanksgiving, I encourage you to practice Angst-giving. Not as an expression of ungratitude. Rather, give thanks to God for those things that are blessings. And repent and lament those things that flow from injustice.

For more along these lines, check out Nekeisha Alexis-Baker’s excellent post over at YAR or Robert Jensen’s essay No Thanks to Thanksgiving.

Mark Van Steenwyk is the general editor of Jesus Manifesto. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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Viewing 9 Comments

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    Hmmm, not sure I've "digested" this enough for a truly thoughtful response - and I DO want to hear what you are saying - especially in this gluttonous, individualistic, consumer and self righteous/self centered/great white hope culture . . . . And, your writing always deserves a thoughtful response. Yet, my "gut" response is: maybe not?

    I confess my experience is skewed. I am a 2nd generation US citizen, the direct result of some folks in the US sending a bag of beans to a small village wherein my Grandparents were attempting to survive having lost their first born to starvation and praying for food enough for their own survival as well as the survival of my Aunt - their second born. (They had survived thus far on foraging for root plants and eating rats.) They lived. They emigrated to Canada and then the US as refugees. I wouldn't say they "prospered" since in their previous country my Grandfather was a highly educated publisher and in his new country he rented a small farm (he was a lousy farmer). Yet they were always grateful in a significant way for God providing for their physical needs . . . and Thanksgiving ended up being one of their favorite celebrations and a most significant expression of their thanks to God.

    Then, about 10 years ago when I was in India around the Harvest time, I was deeply moved by the "Thanksgiving" tradition in that culture.

    I'll give you that we have a sordid past in the strictest sense of US History - but that bag of beans came from the US. That is the US story as well. I guess I've never really gotten into the "myth" of the pilgrims . . . but my story makes me deeply grateful not only for food to eat but for my country - of which I am a fierce critic. Were I living in the country of my heritage - I would not have that option and I would - as my grandparents did - be standing in bread lines in 2008. I like to think of myself as a "progressive" thinker - after reading your missive I must re-evaluate my line of thinking.

    On Thursday I'll be sharing a major feast with my small church community - and some friends we've met along our short journey. In planning we've had very interesting conversations about "traditional" foods - realizing that "traditions" are pretty limited and limiting. Praise be to God who redeems and transforms!

    Thanks for your constant provocative thoughts - and for sharing them! PAX
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    Just one small addition to my (way to long) previous response. The Indian Thanksgiving feast made our Thanksgivings look pretty wimpy - I've never feasted like that before or after - and these people were truly the POOREST of the poor. Interesting stuff.
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    It's amazing, the food/hospitality traditions abroad. I lived in Kuwait, and hospitality was a HUGE priority for the Arabs there - God forbid you do not have enough food, so there was always too much.

    The Filipinos I ate with would fill my plate again if it got to be half full.....the Indians would rent out hotel conference rooms and cater baby receptions for friends, family and casual acquaintances (far out of their budget).

    It's a completely different mindset, and it comes with it's own benefits and concerns.

    I guess my caveat would be that, regardless of one's prophetic distance, there is also a time and a place to celebrate. The ointment poured on Jesus' feet could have been sold and spent on the poor; but that's not always its best use.
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    Thanks for that.

    I appreciate the articulation of many important points. One being the mind crushing injustices committed against Native Peoples and another highlighting that wealth is not always a sign of "blessedness", but rather the New Covenant offers a very different picture of what blessedness is.

    Also, I found that the point you made of the Israelites remembering their redemption from Egypt and connecting it to other struggles of oppressed peoples to be very insightful and important. I think that attitude is rampant when dealing with these sort of issues. It's like what? Get over it?

    The critique of "American Civil Religion" is an important one.
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    As a Canadian, it's probably easier to agree with you today (since our Thanksgiving was weeks ago). However, I need to admit that our countries treatment of its aboriginal peoples hasn't been much different than yours.
    One more thing in a litany of violence perpetrated in the name of Christ, freedom of religion, manifest destiny, or whatever other 'nice' term you wish to use. Sigh.
    As people who claim to follow Christ we have some unwanted skeletons in our closet. But we can individually choose to move forward. Doing what we can to help heal the past, and endeavoring to not repeat it.
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    Two things on this....

    First, the quote from Woody Guthrie's song has been taken hostage - both by you and culture at large. Read in full in it's original context, it argues against the unjust structures of society:

    As I went walking I saw a sign there
    And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
    But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
    That side was made for you and me.
    In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
    By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
    As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
    Is this land made for you and me?

    Secondly, the gist of your article is solid. A great case example from the scriptures is from Amos, where he argues against their prosperity which they (Israel) say is from God:

    This is what the LORD says:
    "For three sins of Israel,
    even for four, I will not turn back {my wrath}.
    They sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals.

    They trample on the heads of the poor
    as upon the dust of the ground
    and deny justice to the oppressed.
    Father and son use the same girl
    and so profane my holy name.

    They lie down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge.
    In the house of their god
    they drink wine taken as fines.
    I also raised up prophets from among your sons
    and Nazirites from among your young men.
    Is this not true, people of Israel?"
    declares the LORD.

    "But you made the Nazirites drink wine
    and commanded the prophets not to prophesy.
    I will tear down the winter house
    along with the summer house;
    the houses adorned with ivory will be destroyed
    and the mansions will be demolished,"
    declares the LORD.
    You trample on the poor
    and force him to give you grain.
    Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
    you will not live in them;
    though you have planted lush vineyards,
    you will not drink their wine.
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    I'm familiar with the origins of "this land is your land." I quoted it in an attempt to be ironic. The words themselves have often been used in aid of empire. I link to the wikipedia article so that folks could dig deeper into the somewhat activistic undertones of the song.

    Thanks for the Amos beautifully illustrates the point I was trying to make.
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    You're very welcome.
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    i love you sir.


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  • Trying to follow » Blog Archive » Others Thoughts On Thanksgiving

    November 26, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    [...] Angst-giving [...]

  • Links for November 26th | jonathan stegall

    November 26, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    [...] Angst-giving : Jesus Manifesto Great post that calls us to practice Angst-giving and reject the myths that Empire gives ...

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