Michelle Gillett: Timeless words on Thanksgiving

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STOCKBRIDGE >> The world feels like a sadder place than usual right now, but most of us in this country are, at least physically, far enough removed from the crises in Europe and the Middle East to experience them in the abstract. We see the news, read the papers and are horrified and angered, but if you are like me, you are grateful to wake up in the morning without worrying about when or if the Berkshires will be blown up, or if your relatives will be kidnapped and tortured.

There is plenty to worry about on our home soil — lack of gun control, fear of immigrants, peculiar people running for president — but for the most part, we are secure, most of us have employment, food and shelter. Still, with so much tragedy across the world — the attacks in Paris, the bombings in Syria, the thousands of refugees forced to flee their homes, and so much more — we will probably be a little more earnest in expressing our thanks this Thanksgiving.

When we sit down at the table to celebrate this uniquely American holiday, some of us will say grace, some of us will take turns going around the table telling what we are thankful for, some of us will instruct our grandchildren about the first Thanksgiving. Although we credit the Pilgrims and Native Americans for originating the holiday when they gathered to celebrate the harvest, George Washington was the first to make a day for giving thanks. At the request of Congress on Oct 3, 1789, he proclaimed in part:

"Whereas ... both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

"Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks — for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation — for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war — for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed — for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted — for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us..."

Nones on the rise

Washington's proclaimed day of Thanksgiving was a test run. We began celebrating Thanksgiving annually in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens," to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November."

People are down on religion these days, and praising our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens, might not be first and foremost on their how to express gratitude lists. A lot of the world's problems these days are due to growing religious extremism. In America and Europe, the number of people affiliated with a religious institution is declining. The nones (as in none of the above when you are asked to check the box for your religious affiliation) are on the rise according to a Pew survey.

As NPR's religion and belief correspondent Tom Gjelten pointed out, "as people become wealthier and more educated, they tend to become more secular. That could be one thing that's going on. We also know that people are not doing things in groups as much, they're living more independently, doing more things alone."

But maybe we should pay attention to what both Washington and Lincoln proclaimed the day to be — one of praise and gratitude to a higher being, one who would guide and bless us and render our government wise and just (and God knows we need that particular blessing).

Granted, they wrote their proclamations a long time ago, before "nones" was even part of our lexicon. But their proclamation might be what we need to honor right now. David Brooks, in a recent New York Times column, "Peace Within the Texts" quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: "the secular substitutes for religion, nationalism, racism and political ideology — have all led to disaster. So many flock to religion sometimes, especially within Islam, to extremist forms." What results is altruistic evil — a group of believers that "seeks to destroy those outside (the) group by apocalyptic force."

Indisputably, Sacks says, we need to fight fanatics like ISIS with military weapons, "but we need ideas to establish a lasting peace." The Bible teaches love, but it also teaches justice.

I think that's what Washington and Lincoln had in mind when they asked us to offer prayers and supplications to the Lord and Ruler of all Nations. Brooks says that Sacks' great contribution is "to point out that the answer to religious violence is probably going to be found within religion itself among those who understand that religion gains influence when it renounces power."

If you are searching for some way to express thanks this Thanksgiving, read Washington's proclamation before you dig into the feast.

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.


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