For years, I’ve gotten a sinking feeling in my stomach as the month of November draws to a close and this day looms. On the one hand, Thanksgiving is about joy and gratitude. It is a time when I travel to see family and friends, welcome a few days of rest and look forward to the holiday season. In my mind, I know it is a good thing to have a day where the sole emphasis is to give thanks to God for all God has done. I also appreciate the opportunity to celebrate all that my loved ones do and are to one another.
I guess the trouble with Thanksgiving for me begins with the history of the indigenous people who were here long before America was even an idea. It is a day that celebrates the gift of food the Wampanoag gave to the Pilgrims as they suffered from disease and hunger. It celebrates how this native tribe who had already experienced raids and slavery at the hands of the Europeans nevertheless taught these foreigners the skills necessary to grow their food and survive. And yet inextricably linked to this now mythical tale are years and years of treachery, racism and violence, blessed by Christian language no less, against millions of indigenous people. Small pox blankets, “civilizing” schools, broken treaties…they are bound together with our Thanksgiving celebration no matter how we try to reinterpret the day’s meaning and baptize it with new Christian themes and metaphors.
Becoming vegetarian and now vegan just ratchets up my Thanksgiving sweater’s itchiness. The thought of all those living, breathing turkeys—beings that experience suffering and pain, that long for sunlight, that understand in their own primitive ways what it means to be free—locked down in darkness (or penned on their “free range” farms) awaiting slaughter is hard to bear. Through no fault of their own, these creatures who had the unfortunate luck of being born into a less “advanced” (and less violent) species, are mutilated, abused and butchered so people can serve their burnt flesh on a platter and gorge on their bodies. What does it mean to say “thanks” to God for our food given the conditions these creatures endure? How can this be a “happy” meal when all of this unnecessary killing is done for no other reason than we like turkey flesh and we can wield power as we will?
Perhaps the trouble with Thanksgiving for me is that there is a whole lot of thanks but not a lot of repentance. There’s a whole lot of “grace” but not enough confession. At the very least it would be nice if more people saw the complexity and contradictions of the day. Rather than giving into the myth, getting sucked into the television set and going about their business as usual, it would be nice to know that other people were feeling a bit itchy about the whole dang thing too.
At the very least, that might make me feel a little less nervous.
Information on the origins of Thanksgiving gleaned from Jacqueline Keeler’s essay “Thanksgiving: A Native American View.” See also historian William Loren’ Katz’s account. For more information on the treatment turkeys face on factory farms and so-called “free-range/organic” alternatives in the U.S. visit Farm Sanctuary.
I wrote this reflection (sans a few minor edits) and tacked it onto my bulletin board at work shortly before Thanksgiving in 2008. It was later posted over at the Young Anabaptist Radicals site.
Nekeisha Alayna Alexis is the co-founder of Jesus Radicals and co-organizer of its annual anarchism and Christianity conference. She is an occasional writer and speaker with numerous interests including animal ethics from a Christian and anti-oppression perspective. She joined the Anabaptist/Mennonite tribe in 2003 and works for anti-racist transformation within the church. She also takes part in ecumenical conversations as part of the Ekklesia Project.