Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Giving Thanks: Grace, Mercy, and American History

After a long hiatus of poetry and various rantings, it's time to take the cap off the old blogger's pen and actually write about some things in a more organized fashion.

This time of year, most folks--including my own family--are preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving. When i was younger, the basis of Thanksgiving as a holiday was given to us by our history teachers, obviously boiled down and sanitized, that it was a "time when the settlers and the Indians (which is what they called Native Americans at the time) gathered together and shared a feast." This was, one presumes, before the settlers decided that they'd rather just intoxicate the natives with firewater, slaughter them wholesale, and kill them with kindness by giving them blankets--smallpox blankets. A lot of the food that we now enjoy in America--corn and pumpkins being two of many--was given to us by long years of historical use by the Native Americans. The early settlers of Jamestown, not knowing what they were doing, at one point tried to eat datura stramonium, now known as "Jimsonweed," a contraction of "Jamestown Weed," in memory of their stupidity. A large number of them, of course, died from the lethal poisons--including atropine and scopolamine--in the plant. I'm certain the Native Americans could have told them--had they been asked--that this was a stupid idea.

The early settlers had moved into a world (not a "new world," as it was often referred to) that was in many ways different from the one they left behind. "Manifest Destiny," in its amoebic march to engulf and digest other cultures for its own benefit, had expanded into a new era of exploitation. The natives had lived in this land for millennia, quite independent of European culture. Even Amerigo Vespucci (after whom the Americas were named) and Christopher Columbus (a geographic dunderhead who died of syphillis) weren't the first Europeans to land on the soil of this land . . . archaeological evidence shows that the Vikings landed on American soil much earlier. Europeans, for the most part fleeing religious and social oppression, eventually began a new type of oppression, seeing the "savage and hostile natives" as ignorant creatures who needed to be "educated" and/or eliminated. Some people don't regard anything done by white Europeans as "wrong." The Native Americans attacked them, made war on them (nevermind the fact that they WERE here first, and had every right to defend their homeland from what eventually became aggressive and destructive expansion), and so it was obvious that the only "logical" course was to kill the natives to make "homesteads" where the white settlers could (over the course of time): plow under, clear-cut, and hunt species like the buffalo into near-extinction. Perhaps one of the earliest forms of biowarfare practiced on American soil was the "smallpox blankets," exposing the Native Americans to a disease that their immune systems had no defense against.

But i started talking about Thanksgiving, didn't i?

Jesus told a parable, once, about a Pharisee and a Publican (a tax collector) coming to the temple. The Pharisee "bragged" to God about what a good person he was, how he tithed from his largesse, and how glad he was that he wasn't a "heathen" like "that Publican over there." The Publican, not even daring to raise his eyes, begged instead for forgiveness for his wrongs. He was considered the lowest of the low in ancient Israel, a man who had literally "made a deal with the devil" by working for the invading Romans. Jesus told his listeners that the Publican went away right with God. At a time when we, in America, enjoy more wealth and freedom than many other nations, and have in recent times--with the exception of 9/11--been free from attacks from outside nations, we have it good. We were told after 9/11 that the terrorists "hate our freedom;" if that's the case, then the draconian wipeout of the Constitution done by the "Patriot Act" must have pleased them mightily. Even after that, we still have a great deal of freedom that a lot of other nations don't enjoy. And yet, rather than being grateful of this, we lord it over the "heathen nations," acting like simply being born on American soil makes us somehow "better" or "more moral." We act like the "planet police" as we invade other countries to "make them safe for democracy"--as long as it's our kind of democracy. God bless America? How about "God FORGIVE America?" I still believe that the USA is one of the best places on the planet to live. Even though there are forces within our own government who are hell-bent on removing any individual autonomy--the freedoms we send our children to war in foreign countries to protect--and eroding the Bill of Rights to the point where it's only a vain posturing, a fragile skeleton of the once robust concept it represented. We are hardly AWARE of the profound nature of these things we enjoy. The odious self-righteousness of our politicians and "world leaders"--here and abroad--is not only a smear to the reputation of America as it has been presented to the world, a land flowing with milk and honey . . . it is blasphemy. This year, at Thanksgiving, i want all of us . . . Christians in particular . . . to think HARD about everything that we DO have. When we sit down to tables laden with food, watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the football games on television, and relish good times with our family, friends, and loved ones, we should be astounded by what we have. And a part of that astonishment should be shame, both for the apathetic way we take these good things for granted, and for the evils falsely perpretrated in the name of God and of liberty. There should be no attempt to whitewash the history of the nation that proudly proclaims "in God we trust" when that hardly applies. Gratitude--true appreciation for the quality of God we call "Grace" (which is defined as the good things we receive that we don't deserve)--can never be blind, lest we forget to be grateful as well for "Mercy" (defined as the punishment we deserve that we don't get). People who are raised in comfort and relative wealth may develop a false sense of entitlement, that the world somehow owes them something . . . the World doesn't owe us anything but suffering and death.

I'm not saying you should spend Thanksgiving day in mourning, appalled at the gravity of our history. In fact, Thaksgiving should be just that . . . giving thanks to God for his mercy and grace, which surely staggers the imagination. When you're eating, sitting with your loved ones, enjoying creature comforts great and small, remember to be thankful for them. Be grateful to the men and women of the armed forces who are honoring their commitment, and who for the most part--in my opinion--are honestly going to war because they want to protect the freedoms we enjoy. And be constantly aware just how fragile those rights and freedoms are. They are, in fact, like muscles . . . they have to be fed and exercised in order to be kept strong. If they are neglected, they will grow weak and will atrophy, and when we most need to depend on them, they will fail us. It is that part of defending freedom that falls to each of us, as citizens of America. It is, really, a profound gift for those of us who have been born and raised in America, and such a gift should NEVER be taken lightly. NOTHING should be taken for granted; circumstances can change, and those good things you enjoy could be snatched away while you're not looking. Thank God also that each and every one of us has the capacity for a critical intelligence, if we only have the willingness to use it. Do not be wasteful ingrates . . . because much will be expected from those who are given much.

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