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Thanksgiving Under the Shadow of Imperialism

In Defense of Thanksgiving

Written by Jesse Whiteman

       For most American families, including my own, thoughts of American imperialism are not a regular occurrence around the Thanksgiving table. Indeed, Thanksgiving in my family is a time of remembrance and connection. We remember where we have come from, consider how blessed we truly are, and connect with loved ones who we do not see often enough. We crowd around what seems to be a larger and larger table each year and we share the things for which we find ourselves particularly thankful for on that day. We laugh. We cry. We are  drawn closer together. Young and old alike having proclaimed their thanks, the food is blessed and the feast begins. The next hour or so is somewhat of a blur, but, inevitably, Thanksgiving afternoon will roll around and you will find my family and me with full stomachs and happy hearts strewn about on couches to watch the Thanksgiving football game.

          No reflection on the underlying imperialism of America and Thanksgiving can ever eclipse the nostalgia surrounding these wonderful moments of joy and abundance for me. However, presented with the reality that Thanksgiving is more complicated than family, food, and football, I must ask how to balance two ideas surrounding the holiday. On one hand, we have the true good found in celebrating abundance and family. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that, on some level, our Thanksgiving feast is the result of happenings in the world which cannot be considered good. Certainly, much of the lifestyle enjoyed by Americans on Thanksgiving is made possible through the exploitation in both the past and the present. Moreover, while we eat much more than our fill on Thanksgiving, millions around the world wonder where their next meal will come from. Does this mean we should not celebrate Thanksgiving? Should I hang my head in shame as my family feasts this holiday season? Perhaps such responses are reasonable. I would like to suggest, however, that there is a better way.

      Let us not view our world as if it is in a downward spiral leading to continuous fights over lessening resources. Rather, let us celebrate the fact that our world is being redeemed by Jesus Christ, and this redemption takes the form of abundance and joy. America, amidst her complicated imperialistic history, is not the founder of our Thanksgiving feast: God is. Our God is a God who does not create need. He fills need. He is not a God of scarcity, but He is a God of overflowing and abundant blessings. When we feast this Thanksgiving, may we remember Who it is that provides for us. May we remember that our God is not done working in this world. May we bear in mind those whom God has called us to serve and share His redemptive story with the world. May we be both grateful recipients and willing vessels of God’s many blessings in the world.

 

Thanksgiving Has Always Been Political

Written by Anthony Barr

        Thanksgiving has always been tied to American politics and war. When the holiday was first proposed to President George Washington and the Continental Congress, it was in the context of celebrating the victories of the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson dissented, on the grounds that it would potentially violate the separation of church and state to have the government proscribe such a holiday. The holiday endured after Washington’s presidency as a celebration that any sitting President could choose to declare in any given year.  Until Abraham Lincoln, individual States had their own Thanksgiving celebrations at different times throughout the year, and for the most part, there was no national fervor attached to the holiday.

        If you want to give thanks for Thanksgiving as a national holiday, you have three key historical figures to thank. The first person who was integral in the nationalization of Thanksgiving is Sarah Josepha Hale. You have likely never heard of her, but Hale advocated for a national Thanksgiving holiday for some twenty years before she finally saw her efforts come to fruition when  her letter to President Lincoln resulted in his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863. While Lincoln can be thanked for his dramatic delivery of the speech, he didn’t write it. Thus, the third person to thank for Thanksgiving is the author of that speech, William Seward, who served as Lincoln’s Secretary of State.

         The 1863 Proclamation begins by recognizing the victories of the Union against the Confederacy, and notably, this is a speech given on the heels of the Battle at Gettysburg. Lincoln declares that, “It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year, defending us with His guardian care against unfriendly designs from abroad and vouchsafing to us in His mercy many and signal victories over the enemy, who is of our own household.” This is a savvy statement from the President and his chief diplomatic officer: the soldier in grey, no less than the soldier in blue, is American, part of the same household, and part of the same Union.

        Thus, when Lincoln ends his speech by asking Americans to pray for “a return of the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land,” that request has a certain political resonance. The request also has political urgency: the Civil War continues for another two years after this Proclamation.

        It has become a piece of cliched advice that one ought to avoid political   discussions at the Thanksgiving table; this may or may not be wise advice. Regardless, Thanksgiving is a national holiday, and one whose very history is inextricably tied to politics and war. It wouldn’t be out of place, therefore, to think about the current political implications that Thanksgiving might have. Maybe as you watch the Macy’s Day Parade and notice all the American brands on prominent display, think about the exported free market as a form of Western imperialism: the McDonaldization of the world. After the turkey dinner, when you turn on the football game and the National Anthem is played, maybe think about the political significance of a silent protest. And when President Trump invariably tweets out something like “Happy Thanksgiving, even to the losers,” maybe remember that some of those losers include the non combatant civilians killed in our latest Middle Eastern drone strike.

        I think Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents. He combined   his deep moral vision with a sophisticated political realism that allowed him to achieve lofty goals through pragmatic political moves. I think that taking Lincoln as our example, we ought to balance out our impulse for nostalgia and sentimentality with the courage to reflect on our nation and the world. Thanksgiving is not, and has never been, about Hallmark movies and the warm fuzzy feelings those movies are expertly crafted to elicit. Thanksgiving is about the polis, her people, and her politics. There is room here, in this nation in this family, and around this table, for both the moral and harmonious vision of Thanksgiving and the pragmatism of Lincoln, the lofty ideals of Hallmark and the unflinching realism of our nation’s history.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sources: The American Presidency Project; Thomas Jefferson Foundation; Dickenson.edu; PBS.org

The Modern American Empire

Written by Gaelan Campbell

      In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson shaped what would be American foreign policy until even now in a single sentence. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” he proclaimed. World War I had been raging in Europe for a few years, and it was no longer sufficient for the United States to remain neutral. Imperialism threatened  our values as a free people, and so the United States government formally declared war on Germany. Soon after, the war had ended, but our struggle in Europe was not over. World War II broke out across Europe as the 40’s dawned, and once again the United States saw a threat to democracy, and joined the fight against the Axis powers. The world wars ended, the old colonial powers of Europe became shadows of their former selves, and a new power rose to take their place.

      As the new world superpower, the United State of America’s influence now stretched across the globe. As the Cold War with the USSR began to characterize the latter half of the century, the US was increasingly involved in more and more conflicts overseas. Sometimes this took the place of direct conflicts as in the Korean and Vietnam wars, but other times this took a more subtle shape.

      Just as we were fighting proxy wars across the far east, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to support the establishment of socialist republics in the Middle East, but they were met with resistance by fundamentalist islamic groups such as the mujahideen. In our efforts to combat the soviets, the US funded and supported these groups against the invaders. In the modern day, we fight groups that have their roots in those groups we trained and funded. Rockets and bullets that fly toward our own servicemen and women find their origin in American manufacturers, the guns that fire them being used by American trained insurgents.

      Today, there is no German reich, nor is there a USSR, but the United States still stands, stronger than ever as the only remaining superpower. Over the past decade we have been involved in numerous conflicts as part of the larger “war on terror,” and we have launched military operations in South America and Africa, destabilizing governments to initiate regime change to better serve “democracy.” American armed forces march through, and when they leave, American industry digs in. Our grandparents would be surprised to find a McDonald’s down the street from the Kremlin.

     We are faced with a paradox. We wave our flags and sing our songs about freedom, but there seems to be the question, “what is the world being made safe from?” In most major bodies of water, an American aircraft carrier sits within striking distance of every city in the world. American military bases exist on every continent, and we are still the only country to have ever used its nuclear arsenal on another country. To many US citizens, this is a necessary measure to preserve our fragile peace, but to countless more it feels like occupation. We tell the world that we bring freedom as we hold a gun to their head.

       When we head home for thanksgiving, we will sit around the table enjoying the comfort of our protected soil, while abroad our arsenal of democracy will bring our enemies to heel. Even within our own borders, Native Americans struggle against the US government to maintain what little sovereignty they have left. The irony of the stories we tell our children about the first European settlers and their meeting the natives is all too palpable.

       At over two hundred years old, the United States is still young by history’s standards. What will become of the great American Empire? What will history books say about the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Grappling With An Inheritance Of Imperialism

Written by SaraGrace Stefan

       Whenever I hear the phrase “Make America Great Again,” I can’t help but wonder– “again?”  What idyllic time are you referring to? Don’t get me wrong. It is a blessing to be an American citizen; we have freedoms of which others can only dream. As the daughter of a Romanian immigrant, I cannot dismiss the abundance of opportunities that we often take for granted.

       But, frankly, it is a disservice to the international community and to ourselves to ascribe to such blatant  statements as “Make America Great Again.” There are certainly great things that America has achieved; we have been blessed with a plethora of rights, however, we seem to consistently ignore the undeniable truth that these rights have been formed from a history of violence and imperialism.

       Imperialism is the practice of extending a country’s power (geographically, economically, etc.); This aggressive and invasive mindset makes up much of America’s’ foundation. The Mayflower brought the first pilgrims to North America in 1620. The rest, any fourth-grader can tell you, is history. Elementary school students all learn about Plymouth, Jamestown, etc. The first Colonies of the New World. But, North America was not “new.” It was the first time English settlers began colonizing, but the Native Americans had been flourishing on the continent for centuries beforehand.

       When the pilgrims called North America the “new” world, what they were really saying was “our new world,” implying that it was their new possession. Although Native Americans had been utilizing the land, they did so in a way that was communal and open, and thus the colonizers viewed North America as free for the taking. So, they took it.

      If a friend found a sweater in your closet, saw you weren’t wearing it that day, and thus took it as their own, you might be a little frustrated. But, maybe you’re a loving, generous person, and although you don’t quite understand your friend’s logic or customs, you let them borrow the sweater sometimes.

       But then your friend starts keeping the sweater, and even gets angry with you for trying to wear it. Then, when you finally try to discuss your frustration with your friend’s bizarre conception of possession, your friend gives you a new sweater, but it is infected with smallpox.

       Now, this is obviously a theoretical situation (where would you even get a smallpox sweater nowadays?), however the principles presented therein recur throughout all of American history.

       We see something we want, and we take it. American has taken land from the Native Americans, labor from the Africans, labor from the Chinese, land from the Hawaiians, trade from the Cubans…The list goes on and on.

      As citizens, academics, and Christians, we cannot dishonor those America has wronged during its legacy of imperialism. 

       This is not to say that we cannot celebrate the wonderful blessings that come with being an American. We are a country that lauds liberty, courage, and freedom. However, we must not celebrate without acknowledging that the history that gives us these things is filled with cruelty and violence. There was a cost for the things we are now so thankful for, and our forefathers very rarely paid it themselves.

       We must strive to improve our country and to pursue greatness, but not the “greatness” of a country built on theft and slavery. Rather, the greatness that comes from compassion and equality.

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