By Tom Ehrich
If stories based on a single letter from an eyewitness are true, Thanksgiving Day began as an immigrant feast, a celebration of gratitude: they had made it across the Atlantic Ocean, been welcomed by natives, and begun to carve out new lives in a new world.
My Puritan ancestors came in 1632, religious refugees from the establishment church whose eventual American presence I have devoted my adult life to serving. Ironies abound.
Those self-righteous Puritans in New Haven set about replicating the very religious intolerance that they had fled. They were so hateful that a colonial governor sent them packing. They ended up in the colony of New Jersey, where they founded a settlement called New-Ark. As a property owner, my ancestor was charged with maintaining a portion of the wooden wall that kept the natives out. It seems European whites forgot they were immigrants.
Such lapses in self-awareness are epidemic as Thanksgiving Day 2015 arrives. Whites have declared open season on people of color – forgetting that, as whites, every one of us is descended from immigrants and should be grateful, not haughty. Their targets are descendants of African slaves, who came here against their will, did the labor that built America’s first great fortunes, and have never been allowed simply to enjoy what they created. They also take aim at darker-skinned immigrants, like Hispanics and people from the Middle East, who come here to escape poverty and oppression – just as my ancestors did.
Seizing on terrorist incursions, some leading politicians are reinventing the fascism of the 20th Century, threatening mass roundups, ethnic-identity symbols, identity cards, internment camps, and deportations – as if the war my father’s generation fought against fascism had meant nothing.
The ironies keep on coming. Thanksgiving Day kicks off a shopping season that will try to instill feelings of deprivation, not anything resembling a horn of plenty. This will be a season of “I want,” not “I have and I am grateful.”
How can we enter into this holiday season without feeling sour and yet without lapsing into unawareness? It will do us no good if we create a festive table by ignoring blacks in Chicago and Minneapolis demanding justice, or by imagining that demagoguery is an aberration that will evaporate. I can’t just maintain my portion of wall that keeps out the needs of others. That wouldn’t be a feast of gratitude, just a celebration of privilege.
I don’t want to feel sour. I don’t to get lost in the ironies. But neither do I want to revert to childhood, when my parents kept Red Scare, Korean War, Joe McCarthy, John Birch Society, racial tensions and labor strife away from our family meal.
Yes, I felt safe and loved at that meal and will always be grateful for it. But I no longer see as a child. I need to see the world's suffering. I need to know that my joyful day is a gift I didn't earn, and that others aren't allowed to feel such joy.
I can’t just lock my door against the world. Faith doesn’t allow that.