Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. For me, it’s a day for gathering with family and friends and enjoying a feast together—though for vegetarians like me, that feast includes no turkey.
According to historian Robert Tracy McKenzie, Thanksgiving was not an American tradition until Abraham Lincoln, aiming to unite a divided nation, proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1863. Lincoln focused the holiday on contemporary events, not the Pilgrims and Indians sharing a harvest feast. Though this national day of Thanksgiving was supposed to be about offering thanks to God and celebrating His goodness, it has become a celebration of gluttony, filled with shouts of competition as we watch football games. American Indians mourn on Thanksgiving Day, as they remember the suffering and pain inflicted on their ancestors by a troubled history of war, genocide, and disease. We have certainly not been very good at showing generosity and kindness towards those who are different from us. To the modern secularist, occasions of offering thanks to God are uncomfortable parts of our history. The Pilgrims had a narrow understanding of freedom and had no problem forcing what they thought was right on others. Mingling church and state to enforce religious observances should always be avoided, but morality itself should not be separated from the state. The grace and kindness the Indians extended to the Pilgrims who were in harm’s way and the Pilgrims’ deep gratitude for God’s care and blessing are aspects of the Thanksgiving story that I do not want to lose.
That the Indians helped the first Pilgrims, who would not otherwise have survived the winter, and that they shared a harvest feast together are accounts worth redeeming and celebrating. We can reclaim Thanksgiving as an opportunity to share with our families and friends and to extend such gratitude to others—strangers, the poor, outcasts, different ethnicities, and even creation itself. Jesus said that when you make a feast, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13–14).
The idea of a Thanksgiving feast originated long before the Pilgrims. In the Bible, meals were important occasions. The Day of Tabernacles, a day of celebration and thanksgiving following a fall harvest, was most similar to the American Thanksgiving. In America, Thanksgiving is a tradition that has been used at pivotal moments to bring the nation together. A Thanksgiving meal enjoyed by family and friends is like a sacred feast that can bring an entire community together, reminding us that that we are one people. God promises to one day serve such a banquet to all people: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6, ESV).
I love the image of God fixing a table with a lavish feast. By preparing such a meal for all people, God will join us in a thanksgiving celebration. If we think we have reason to celebrate a fine Thanksgiving meal with our family and friends, here is a feast that is greater. Someday, all the people of the world will celebrate, eating together at the same table. God promises to serve this banquet to all, and the text indicates that it will include exquisite meats, gourmet desserts, and even some vintage wines (Isaiah 25:6, MSG). I remember quoting this verse to a health-championing reformer, who could not believe that the mention of meat and aged wine was not denounced in the text. Apparently, God sympathizes with human enjoyment of delicious food in fellowship with others. Isaiah 26:8 further adds that God will “banish death forever,” erasing all signs of death. Eating meat and drinking aged wine (which the Pilgrims were reportedly fond of) is not the focus but rather the way God is presented as loving all people.
It’s the way we treat God’s creation—human and non-human alike—that really matters. As theologian Stephen Webb says,
The Bible is full of wars and battles, just as the Bible is full of meat-eating, but that is because the Bible is a realistic book, written about and to a fallen humanity. We should not take the biblical description of human behavior as our norm and goal. Instead, we should look to the biblical prescriptions found in the accounts of what God originally intended and what God promises for the world. Vegetarianism is not a prerequisite for Christian faith, but it is a consequence of the Christian hope for a peaceable kingdom, where God will be all in all and all violence will come to an end.(Good Eating, 2001, p. 288)
It is our forgetfulness and neglect that cheapens the way we treat God’s human and non-human creation, encouraging abuse and excess. Consider that the average American consumes 274 pounds of meat per year.
Christians are often irritated or confused by my choice to be a vegetarian. They feel an urge to tell me that vegetarianism is not required for salvation, as if defending meat eating is the only version of being saved. Sorry, but I cling to the cross, not my dietary choice. I understand that we can never earn God’s grace, but neither can we receive His grace with an “I don’t care” faith. I have come to deeply admire the communities that are concerned with healthy eating and that are sensitive to animals in which my fellow Christians lack concern. We would all do well to engage in a Thanksgiving that expands our horizons to include God’s creation. What would life look like if we expanded our thanksgiving to express overwhelming gratitude toward the poor, the outcast, and the stranger? What if we overflowed with thankfulness for the gifts of creation, extending our love to turkeys, chickens, cows, forests, rivers, and springs? Can we celebrate our thanks to God through mundane things? Can we show our gratitude through ethical living that encompasses compassion and love, thanking God for neighbors, nations, and nature? I am not saying that people should not eat meat, but where is the gratitude and thankfulness in putting living creatures in distress, shooting them up with hormones, placing them in crowded cages, and turning them into tasty morsels? How can we see everyone and everything through God’s love? How can we recognize and celebrate our dependance on a compassionate God every day?
I want to turn away from the negative aspects of the Thanksgiving holiday—the careless forgetfulness, the broken promises, the gluttony, and the mindless consumption of creatures—aspects that do not express gratitude and dependance on a merciful God. A feast dripping with meat juices and rich foods seasoned with marrow might have symbolized the richest abundance ancient people could have imagined, but today, I can think of a better one—a fine feast dripping with grace, compassion, and forgiveness towards others.
The symbolism associated with celebrating a meal with all people reaches beyond the menu to God’s banqueting practices, which are filled with love and generosity towards all the people of the world. Instead of gorging ourselves around tables loaded with turkeys and other meats, let us remember those who suffer and mourn. We should all think about the choices we make and whether they reflect our loving God. May our hearts be open to gratitude and may our treatment of others be steeped in God’s overwhelming love.
Craig Ashton Jr.