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A Standing Rock Thanksgiving

A recent social media meme pointed out the terrible irony of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday at a time when Native Americans are being tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and sprayed with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures.

I would add two more words to describe that confluence – fortuitous and Eucharistic.

I realize the risk in both of those words just now, especially a Christian liturgical word that has carried so much colonial and neo-colonial baggage, a religious rite that traveled with conquerors and pioneers who scattered, decimated, and killed the native tribes on the very land those same tribes now seek to protect. I take this risk hoping the ongoing standoff at Standing Rock will inspire more communities to engage in courageous and decisive action at the intersection of racial history and ecological fragility.standing_rock1

I fuel this hope, especially at this time of year, by remembering that Christian faith began not with a text or a doctrine or an institution, but with radical social practice – table fellowship. As the gospel writers portray it, Jesus was constantly getting in trouble for eating with the wrong people.

Who sat at your table – and whose table you joined – mattered a great deal in that first century society, nearly as much as the character of your sexual relations. Both food and sex perpetuated hierarchies of social value, relations of power that stratified ancient Mediterranean communities just as they do today. Jesus cast these hierarchies aside – much to the ire and even revulsion of many in his own community; this eventually cost Jesus his life.

The earliest Christians continued that practice of table fellowship, which they came to call “Eucharist,” the Greek word for thanksgiving. At those shared tables, both then and today, Christians do two interrelated things: we remember the violence of a state-sponsored execution and we proclaim a hopeful faith in the God who brings new life from such pain and suffering.

Josiah Royce, a late-nineteenth century American philosopher of religion, described a genuine community as a people who share both memory and hope in common. People who share only memory but no hope often fall into a paralyzing despair; people who dwell on hope with no shared memory can easily drift into utopian fantasy. A genuine and indeed beloved community, Royce argued, will always share the intertwining of memory and hope. He applied this description to Christians at the Eucharistic table.

We have some daunting and likely gut-wrenching work ahead of us as Americans living in a deeply divided, fragmented, and increasingly hostile society. The wounds and scars that divide us are not new, of course, but for many white liberals like me, too many of those wounds have gone unnoticed for too long; we have not held enough memory in common and we have lived with too much untethered hopefulness.

America cannot be “great” nor can we move “forward together” without remembering more honestly and bravely how firmly our national roots are planted in a violent past, without hoping for a future in which my thriving and flourishing are inextricably bound up with yours.

The family Thanksgiving table likely cannot bear the weight of that crucial work. Perhaps that’s why our faith communities still matter – our synagogues, our churches, our mosques. Perhaps the standoff at Standing Rock can become the occasion for forging new modes of multi-faith solidarity, a fresh vision of shared tables on sacred land, a way through painful memories toward a hopeful horizon.

Perhaps so – and if so, then white Europeans will once again owe the courageous indigenous peoples of this land a profound debt of gratitude.

(Click here to support the water protectors at Standing Rock.)

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Unsatisfied, Thankfully

I love Thanksgiving – the food, the friends, the many reasons to give thanks. Others dread this day, maybe because of family arguments that will inevitably ensue around the table, or having no family at all, or just because all the Norman Rockwell nostalgia over holidays never quite seems to match reality.

More than nostalgia, holiday hype promises much more than it can deliver – perfect happiness and fulfillment. So just in case fulfillment eludes you today, you can always go to the mall tomorrow, the official kick-off of the holiday shopping season.

Holiday hype distills a more general feature of American society today: our obsession with food and sex and our simultaneous confusion about both.

In a society with growing obesity rates, publishing houses churn out new cookbooks nearly every week, which often occupy one of the largest sections in today’s big-box bookstores. Similarly, advertisers drench popular culture with sex and sexuality – on billboards, in magazines, and television shows – as if sex is the only thing any of us wants, which each of us will somehow get if we buy their products.

If we can’t get sex, perhaps we can have food, or perhaps eat while waiting for sex. Few rarely admit that neither food nor sex really matches the exaggerated promises for happiness and fulfillment peddled by their purveyors.

I once heard a conference speaker begin his talk with an old joke. “Sex is like pizza,” he said. “Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.” People laughed but a bit uncomfortably; they knew it wasn’t true.

When sex is “bad” there’s hardly anything good about it. More than a few people find sex far less satisfying than they’ve been told it ought to be and then wonder if there’s something wrong with them for not liking it quite so much. For others, sex has too often been a site of control or manipulation, or worse, violent trauma. Still others turn to either food or sex or both as analgesics, hoping they might deaden the pain of loneliness or of failed relationships or of the ever-elusive quest to find life “satisfying.”

People are confused about these things for good reason. Western culture trains most of us from an early age to see ourselves as consumers in a world brimming with commodities. Endless consumption defines the meaning of life itself. St. Augustine’s fifth century insight about the dangers of desire seems particular apt today. As western culture throws itself into the frenzy of consuming, desire withers. Pursuing more and more “stuff” anesthetizes hunger until we hardly know what we really want.

Consider what many will likely experience on this Thanksgiving Day (including me). Staggering away from the table of feasting, nearly every bodily system will shut down to focus on just one task: digestion. The very last thing on one’s mind at that moment is desire.

That moment works perfectly to describe a consumerist culture, which runs not on desire but on digestion. We shop, buy, eat, consume, and digest as much as we can in a vain attempt to touch the deeper longing that most have now forgotten. I call that forgotten longing the “desire for communion.”

That’s why I continue to focus my spiritual practice on another kind of “thanksgiving” – the Eucharist. That ancient Christian rite of worship is familiar to many but it’s also quite peculiar. One of the more peculiar things is this: we call it a “meal” and sometimes a “feast” but we receive only a tiny piece of bread and just a sip of wine.

That’s peculiar for good reason, because the Eucharist is not supposed to be satisfying. The word eucharist means “thanksgiving,” but it’s not supposed to make us feel the way many of us do after a feast of roast turkey.

The Eucharist turns on desire, not digestion. The rite is meant to reawaken our desire and sharpen our hunger, not just for more bread and more wine, but hunger for an end to poverty and homelessness; hunger for a flourishing planet of social and economic justice; hunger for that kind of communion with each other and with God that we have not yet enjoyed in its fullness.

I am truly grateful for many things. As I sit down later today to a wonderful meal with good friends, I will be giving thanks. And I will try to keep that other table of Thanksgiving in mind as well, to sharpen my desire for a world where everyone can enjoy God’s abundance.