Friday, November 26, 2010

Now Thank We All Our God

As with most things, I approach Thanksgiving as a spectator sport. There's a cultural battle over the meaning of the national holiday, or least that's what it looks like on my Facebook wall. On one side are my conservative evangelical friends, who with fetching earnestness encourage us to give thanks to God for blessing us, and for letting us be Americans. On the other side are my Christian anarchist friends, and others who lean that direction, who find in Thanksgiving a heinous paean to imperialism and genocide. And I have to admit that being thankful for being an American just means being thankful to be on the dominant side of the imperialistic dyad, which is a little like thanking God that you're not a dog, a Gentile, or a woman.

Some are holding protests against Black Friday, or declaring "Buy Nothing Day" -- and here, too, the earnestness is fetching. I am reminded of Eugene McCarraher's reflection that "talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism," but I suppose I can't blame them for wanting to feel like they're doing something. I'm somewhat sympathetic to their way of seeing things, but I don't share their enthusiasm, or their identification of the problem. I made the following comment in reference to a "wanted" poster of Columbus on Peter Walker's Facebook wall:
On one hand, I feel ya. Violence is not, by any stretch of the imagination, uniquely white or European, but it's hard to get away from the realization that our nation came into existence through genocide, deceit, and oppression.

On the other hand, name for me a society that isn't, at some point in its history, based on conquest, displacement, or treachery. The actions of our forebears were not some anomalous aberration from the norm, but the norm itself in plain relief. White guilt is predicated on a latent ethnocentrism that suggests that our "enlightened" white European predecessors, of all people, should have known better.

Refusing to celebrate Thanksgiving might honor those who died needlessly, and the ways of life and forms of wisdom that are gone to us forever, but feeling bad about the past won't restore indigenous peoples. Moreover, focusing on this one day and this one period in history too easily elides the ways in which our present society is sustained by oppression and violence.
The way to honor the victims of history is not to burn dead white guys in effigy but to work to abolish oppressive structures.
What I find interesting is the way in which these perspectives mirror each other by taking Thanksgiving seriously. In solid agreement that Thanksgiving must mean something, must be invested with some kind of quasi-cosmic significance, they wrangle over that meaning. I suppose in some ways they are recapitulating theological debates over the Lord's Supper.

Like the Eucharist, Thanksgiving is steeped in blood. Like the Eucharist, Thanksgiving is a contested site of theological import. And, like the Eucharist, perhaps what is important about Thanksgiving has less to do with the metaphysics of meaning than with who is at the table.