Saturday, 28 November 2009

Thanksgiving – a time to recognize and atone for past injustices

Sermon by Jim Rigby, priest of St Andrews Church in Austin, Texas, USA, 22 November 2009

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

Thanksgiving has become a problematic holiday for many of us. We want to appreciate the wonderful gifts of life, but the holiday is housed in a story that now requires us to be dishonest.

In school, I was taught a view of history that assumed people of European descent were the centre of a story that culminated in the founding of our country. In all those years of history classes, we did not hear directly from one slave or native person. That distorted view of history became the foundation from which I did politics. I just assumed that, in any conflict, we are good and they are bad. We want peace, they want to hurt us. We are basically honest, they can’t be trusted. I believed we are better than others because of the unexamined mountain of propaganda upon which I stood.

A few decades ago this false innocence was shattered by a conversation with a visitor to our church who had worked for the CIA. He told me about the horrors of US foreign policy. He talked about the routine slaughter of innocent civilians to protect the business interests of corporations overseas. I did not believe him. I thought he was crazy. Slowly and reluctantly I began to investigate for myself. What I discovered broke my heart.

It is not possible to find truth today if we begin by refusing to let go of a lie about yesterday. The founding myth of the American empire is that Columbus discovered America. You cannot discover a country where people already live unless those people don’t count. By repeating that story every year we silence the victims of the American holocaust. If native people count, Columbus did not discover America. If native people count we cannot say that God gave us this land. If native people count, we cannot claim as blessings things that were actually seized by violence.

I do not believe we should feel guilty about what our ancestors did to people centuries ago, but I do think we should be honest about what happened. And when we are honest about the past, it is very difficult not to see that we are doing many of the same things in the present. Guilt is the only non-pathological response to our relationship to the Third World and actual political change is the only alternative to that guilt.

It can be very difficult to wrestle with these issues when friends and family call us to the old stories. That is why on 22 November, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, our worship will be a service of atonement to prepare us for the Thanksgiving season. Our goal is not to feel guilty, but to be honest. If we remember that God loves all people equally, we will also remember that children of God must humble themselves and bring justice to all people.

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