In the fall of 1970, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts held a commemorative Thanksgiving celebration on the 350th anniversary of the first landing of the Mayflower. The event’s organizers, including Governor Francis Sargent, invited Frank “Wamsutta” James to speak at the event. James was the leader of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head and president of the Federated Eastern Indian League.
The event’s organizers requested to review James’ speech in advance of the event. Once it had been reviewed, James was informed that he would not be permitted to give the speech as written. An alternate speech, written by the event’s public relations team, was provided to him. A representative from the Department of Commerce and Development explained to James that “…the theme of the anniversary celebration is brotherhood and anything inflammatory would have been out of place.” James decided to deliver the original speech that Thanksgiving day on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth and thus the National Day of Mourning was inaugurated.
Does it matter what we are thankful for? Apparently.
Growing up, I was taught to be thankful for anything and everything. “Give thanks in all circumstances,” is the Apostle Paul’s admonition to his church, and by implication we feel compelled not just to be thankful in all circumstances but for all things. Who would ever stop a child from thanking God for whatever comes to mind: a bird singing, a bouncing ball, a decadent chocolate cupcake, or the cancellation of classes for inclement weather? Be thankful for them all!
But of course that doesn’t mean all are necessarily a) beneficial to us, b) beneficial to all, or c) as important for our well-being as the next item on our list. In fact, it is possible to be thankful for something that isn’t really helping us at all! If an alcoholic thanks God for his 9th drink of the night, is his gratitude insincere? No. But maybe ill-placed.
Which should lead us to think about what we are thanking God for this Thanksgiving. The existence of a National Day of Mourning as an alternative to Thanksgiving Day should give us pause to consider carefully what we are grateful for when we lift up our health, our education, our national security, our prosperity, and our freedoms as reasons for celebration. What was the cost of these gifts and are we OK with how we got them?
What’s my point? Well, it’s not ‘don’t be grateful.’ Keep thanking! For everything! But consider the objects of our gratitude as windows into our lives, our history, our view of life, our beliefs. We are thankful for what we value; what we thank God for should reveal to us what is closest to our hearts.
This Thursday, I will be thanking God for health, for security, for the freedom to worship, for steady incomes and savings. But I’ll also be thanking God for a purpose in life, for the chance to bless my community, for the means to help my neighbor, for a God who is willing to be patient with me, for family that puts up with me, for a country that after almost 250 years of existence, still hasn’t got it right and is willing to admit it, that wrestles and fights and struggles to be just and right and good despite grave indiscretions in the past. I am grateful for prophets and pundits who won’t let me be too happy with the status quo. I am grateful for the opportunity to work for a better world.
Consider what you’re thankful for this week.