Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving and the Wrath of God

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.

Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and not we ourselves
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.

For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. As a child, of course, I liked Christmas better because of the presents. But that changed even before I became an adult. Thanksgiving has all of the enjoyment of the family get together without the added pressure of finding the right gifts.

As a child, I also loved Thanksgiving for the Pilgrims. Growing up just a few miles from Plimoth Plantation, I took special pride in their sacrifice and resolve and faith. When I learned that Thanksgiving had been made a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln, who was (and is) my favorite president, it only added to my reverence for the day.

Over the years, the revisionists have done their best to spoil my reverie, but they have not succeeded. I know that the Pilgrims and Native Americans did not have the idyllic relationship of the Thanksgiving portraits. And I know that the Pilgrims were not without fault, but I am still inspired.

When I opened up the New York Times on line this morning, I went immediately to the op-ed page, as I always do. And I found an article on Thanksgiving, by Elyssa East. The teaser looked promising: “The Thanksgiving holiday has come to mirror our transformation into a nation of gross over-consumption, but it wasn’t intended to be a day of gluttony.” Sadly, I was disappointed. The article does make the basic point advanced in the promotional sentence. She does write about the original meaning of the day and the connection between Thanksgiving and fasting. But she clearly looks down on the primitive beliefs of our Pilgrim ancestors.

East writes, To the Pilgrims and Puritans, the community-wide fast, or “day of public humiliation and prayer,” and the thanksgiving feast, or day of “public thanksgiving and praise,” were equal halves of the same ritual. But the fast was not merely a justification for a community-wide gorging. Both customs were important components of a religious rite that served to pacify an angry God who was believed to punish entire communities for the sins of the few with starvation, “excessive rains from the bottles of heaven,” epidemics, crop infestations, the Indian wars and other hardships.

The fast and the thanksgiving were primitive religious rites to “pacify an angry God.” In her view, they believed this God would starve a whole community in order to punish a few sinners.

Ouch. Perhaps I am overly sensitive, but I take this explicit critique of Pilgrim theology as an implicit critique of modern Christianity. And if I am being overly sensitive in the case of this particular essay, that critique is used repeatedly by the new secularists, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

So I want to give at least a partial response.

First, we wouldn’t base a critique of modern medicine on what seventeenth century physicians were doing. The basic goals of health and wholeness have not changed, but we no longer use the same methods to achieve those goals. Our understanding evolves over time. This is true in theology as well as in medicine or science, or history or mathematics.

Second, we should not underestimate the Pilgrims. Thanksgiving for them, as for the Psalmist before them, started with the fundamental understanding that “it is God who made us, and not we ourselves.” Everything comes from God. To recognize this gift, was a source of awe and wonder, which led to thanksgiving. This sense of Providence was not transactional. It did not depend on what they had done, but simply on who God is.

Finally, we need to be careful in our interpretation of the Pilgrims’ apparent belief in “an angry God.” They did believe in what they would have called “the wrath of God.” But we have a hard time understanding that as they did. Like us, they spoke symbolically. The words point beyond themselves. They believed in God, the Creator. But I don’t think they believed that created the world the same way that you and I might build a house, nor do I think they thought that God gets angry the way that you and I get angry. Their understanding of the wrath of God, like the prophets of Israel before them, was that when our behavior runs counter to the purposes of Creation, there are consequences. This is not because “God loses his temper,” (as if God were a big angry man!) it is because of the way the world is.

Abraham Lincoln was very much in tune with this understanding of God’s wrath when he gave his Second Inaugural Address. In that remarkable speech, he began by admitting what no politician would ever admit today, that there was no point in a long address because so much had already been said about the great Civil War which was consuming the nation. But in a few words, he reflected deeply on the topic, and suggested that the war was the inevitable consequence of the sin of slavery. They problem was not God’s anger, but God’s justice. The consequences were built into the universe. He writes:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

Lincoln understood our civil religion better than anyone. At the time of our greatest crisis, he brought us back to our foundation.

Beyond the turkey and trimmings, we can give thanks for Lincoln and for the Pilgrims. And with them we can join the Psalmist to “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness endures forever.”

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