Thanksgiving is hard for me to celebrate. As a history nerd, I cringe when our preschoolers dance around a stage and sing about friendship between pilgrims and Indians. The history of this holiday is so much more complicated.
Yes, it is true that in 1620, Native Americans and Pilgrims ate a meal together. We leave out the fact that there was a deep mistrust between the two groups-that Pilgrims were known to raid the Wampanoag villages. We erase the fact the “heathen natives” believed in forgiveness and helped the Pilgrims anyway. We forget that the Wampanoag showed up with 90 warriors because the pilgrims were shooting off guns in celebration. The 90 stayed to feast to make sure the pilgrims weren’t lying about not waging war against them.
Only a few years later, the colonists forgot how the natives helped them survive. Colonists mostly wiped out the Wampanoag tribe that feasted with the Pilgrims at Plymouth.
Just 13 years after this “first Thanksgiving feast,” settlers in Connecticut massacred 700 men, woman and children of the Pequot tribe and called it “a day of thanksgiving” for ridding the land of the “heathen savage.” They shot and bludgeoned the men and burned the woman and children alive-these people who called themselves followers of Christ.
This holiday is complicated. It is somewhat about compromise, but it is covered in blood, theft, and dark, dark sin by those who claimed to be doing the work of the God of the Bible-the God I worship.
Christians in America have never been very good at admitting dark, historical community sins. We like to pretend they didn’t happen. We paint them over with revisionist history and a happy story about Native Americans and Pilgrims helping each other and gathering for a feast of friendship. That feels comfortable if you are white Christian, but ask a Native American how they feel about this holiday and their response may sound much like this part of a 1970 speech written by Frank B. James, a Wampanoag descendant:
"Today is a time of celebrating for you -- a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People… When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Let us always remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white people.”
So what do we this knowledge? Must we wallow in guilt, refusing to celebrate Thanksgiving? Of course not. But, we must acknowledge the dark history of our fathers and as a community, ask for forgiveness. Community repentance is such a foreign concept to us individualistic Americans, but it is necessary for healing. God is a community in himself as a Triune God. He always intended for us to live and breathe in community. It only makes sense that he calls us to confess and repent as a community.
Especially on this day, a day of thankfulness, we must remember that this day cost an entire ethnic group their lives, their land, and their dignity-and thank God that we have a Savior who covers even the most heinous of sins.
As we gather around our tables and bow our heads in prayer, let us thank our God who is a Forgiver, Healer, and Lover like no other. Let us be thankful that He is God who offers salvation based on no merit of ours, but on the sacrificial blood of His Son. Let us be thankful that though our Christian Pilgrim fathers ruined the gospel with murder and hate, that our God preserved the truth.
Let us thank the One who can pick up the ashes of our nation and form something beautiful from it. Let us abandon the false hopes of political idolatry and power over others under the guise of religious liberty. Let us strive to be better than our forefathers-to actually love those, who don’t look or worship like us, as Christ loves them-as he calls us to love them.
We cannot change the murder our forefathers poured out on the Native Americans. There is no use in wallowing in guilt. But, we can work toward a better America-one where every ethnic group and person of color is valued as a human with dignity, created in the image of our God.
As any good history nerd would do, here our sources:
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