On the fourth Thursday of November, with forks piled high, children will ask, “What’s Thanksgiving all about anyway?” The answer is almost always the same. As the story goes, after surviving a hard winter, the Pilgrims shared a feast with their new-found Native American friends to thank God for the bountiful harvest. Like a jagged rock smoothed by the waves of time, the story has come to have an almost fairy tale-like quality of bliss and fortune. But, it was no fairy tale.
The Pilgrims made the choice to be thankful in an untamed wilderness, filled with adversity and already marked with graves. Less than a year prior they had arrived in what would become the state of Massachusetts, and already half of them had died. Only four adult women had survived. Despite the hardships, as the Pilgrims feasted on the harvest they had worked so hard for, they celebrated the freedom they now had to practice religion as they wanted. This freedom made up for what they lacked in material possessions.
The living legacy of the Pilgrims is the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits government from establishing religion or controlling its practice. While a good start, this has not always resulted in true freedom. For example, many Christians chain themselves to fundamentalism, become slaves to legalism, or find themselves victims of controlling religious leaders. Freedom to practice religion has never been the same thing as walking in true freedom in Christ.
It was in the context of yet another pursuit for increased freedom that Thanksgiving again came to the forefront of history over 200 years later. Even though the Constitution promoted freedom, it was not freedom for all. Many Americans found wealth, prosperity and peace, but for others slavery was a cruel reality. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, initiating the abolition of slavery. It was against this backdrop that he declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. Surprisingly, Lincoln’s declaration does not mention the Pilgrims at all, though the sentiment is the same. He asked the country, torn apart by civil war, to unite in thankfulness for God’s continued provision and faithfulness. He declared confidently that, “the country…is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.”
As Lincoln predicted, American freedom has increased over time. However, a century of injustice marred with segregation followed his declaration. The popular New York Times best-selling novel, The Help, by Katheryn Stockett, poignantly depicts life subjected to the Jim Crow laws that relegated African Americans to second class citizenship with separate bathrooms, water fountains and schools. Aibileen, an African American character in the book, expresses feelings about racial violence common to the era. “I choke then. The tears roll down,” she says. “It’s all them white peoples that breaks me, standing around the colored neighborhood. White peoples with guns, pointed at colored peoples. Cause who gonna protect our peoples? Ain’t no colored policemans [sic].” During the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, the Jim Crow Laws were overruled, but still inequality, discrimination and injustice remain insidious weeds with deep roots.
American’s have fought for, legislated, decreed and demanded freedom, yet as we approach Thanksgiving 2011, the pursuit is still on. This national passion for freedom is well expressed by the popular lyrics, “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!” Lee Greenwood wrote this song, God Bless America, to thank our service men and women who have died to preserve and spread freedom. John F. Kennedy said, “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it.”
A brief survey of American history bears out his words in terms of money, resources and lives. History has clearly demonstrated, however, that men can respect the freedom of others, but they cannot give it. The Founding Fathers acknowledged this in the Declaration of Independence saying that it is “God who gives liberty.”
Though government cannot give true freedom, most Americans would consider themselves to be free simply because they are Americans. The Apostle Peter says that in reality, “You are a slave to whatever controls you” (2 Peter 2:19). Over the last few years, it has become clear that the economy controls a lot of us. As fear has surged right along with unemployment, home foreclosures and increasing national debt, the silhouette of invisible chains has become increasingly visible. Proverbs tells us that, “The rich think of their wealth [savings, retirement funds, stocks, salary, homes and businesses] as a strong defense; they imagine it to be a high wall of safety” (Proverbs 18:9). A lot of walls have tumbled down in the past few years.
Jesus said that if He sets you free, “… then you are truly free” (John 8:36). Some of us have sacrificed this true freedom to chase after the American Dream itself. “Society says, ‘Chase after success,’ but the Bible says, ‘Goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life,'” says Pastor Abdullah Birdsong, author of Renovating the Mind. Good things should be chasing after you! Those who live in the freedom of Christ do not have to be strapped into the rollercoaster that is our economy today, going up and down with the unemployment rate, plummeting with the stock market or holding their breath for the second dip in the recession.
The writer of Psalms says to, “Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God… then call on me when you are in trouble and I will rescue you…” (Psalm 50:15-16). Thankfulness can be the vehicle for the paradigm shift from reliance on the imagined safety of success and wealth to God who is the strong tower, from the pseudo-freedom the world tries to give, to true freedom Christ gives.
This season, when children ask, “Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving?” the answer can be about so much more than pilgrims and feasts. Make it an opportunity to transfer the passion for freedom to the next generation, pointing to the true freedom that comes only in Christ.
This Thanksgiving, along with turkey, marshmallow sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, “… taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm34:8).
Tell us what you think about this article. Keri can be reached at [email protected]