The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by a group of people who were then, and in many circles would be today, labeled a bunch of religious kooks. They grew up in a world in which “freedom from religion” of one sort or another often trumped “freedom of religion.” We console ourselves with the idea that such barbaric times are over, but this Thanksgiving we must consider just how similar the Pilgrims might find our era to their own. We have forgotten that the original context of the whole Pilgrim undertaking was global religious persecution.
The Plymouth Pilgrims endured persecution of the same kind as religious minorities today. They were people who weren’t afforded the right to act on their beliefs according to the dictates of conscience. Counting that problem of conscience intractable, they literally left civilization behind. They endured a grueling trip across the ocean and a bitter first season on a new continent, during which fully half of their group died. Their experience could be counted among the most difficult imaginable, and it was one which began and ended with religious persecution.
That context makes the one historical detail we do remember, their big feast, all the more relevant. As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, we must remember its true significance and meditate on the ongoing persecution of religious minorities in our time.
The Arab Spring has been the stage of mass intimidation of Christian minorities in places such as Egypt and Libya. Dalit (Untouchable) Christians in India are denied the educational subsidies open to other Dalits. A local Pentecostal church in Russia was recently bulldozed during the night. Believers in Northern Nigeria are targeted by the Hausa population’s attempts to either force them out of the region or into Islam.
Religious persecution is not restricted to exotic places. It is also occurring in the United States. Historic Catholic adoption agencies in the U.S. have been all but strung up because of a continuing 2,000-year-old commitment to their sexual ethic and support for marriage. Christian institutions of many stripes are being forced to pay for what their consciences tell them is murder, under threat of millions of dollars in penalties. Christian student groups at universities such as Vanderbilt and Tufts are shamelessly singled out for unjust treatment while service-minded, neighborhood-loving New York City churches are facing bans on renting public spaces.
No doubt the Pilgrims, relatively seasoned cultural dissidents, would make a few stock suggestions to those of us today advocating for global religious liberty. First, decide on the front end of your struggles whether faithfulness or popular favor will be your goal — it has been only rarely possible to stay popular while fighting for something worthwhile. Second, put a renewed focus on explaining the message to people, for those who know nothing about (in this case) the Christian gospel will have few reasons to ensure liberties for its exercise. Third and last, show grace to those who show none to you, not simply because it is rhetorically effective but because you trust in a God whose insight into and power over the situation will always be greater than yours.
I have experienced comparatively little outright religious persecution in my life, but in every instance, I was outraged and incensed. Thus, it is hard to understand how, in many cases of great religious persecution, whether of the Pilgrims or contemporary believers such as the recent Pakistani Christian martyr Shahbaz Bhatti, there was gratitude and peace.
To comprehend a response of gratitude in the face of hatred, we must remember that the first Thanksgiving was a form of protest. It was not a protest against one’s oppressors, mind you, but one against the toxic effect of one’s own ingratitude. For Christians, acts of gratitude and thanksgiving aren’t a civic duty or patriotic tradition. They are the only legitimate response to the belief that there is a God whose sovereign purposes are both good and unstoppable.
The Bible advances this idea most famously in Philippians 4, where Paul, a man in prison himself, advises the church: “The Lord is near. Rejoice in the Lord always Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The Pilgrims’ gratitude was possible only because of their belief that they were not the masters of their own destiny. That belief, that a God wiser and more powerful than they were held eternity in His hands, actually freed them to be grateful and at peace. This probably explains why gratitude seems so difficult to us today. We feel we alone are to thank when things go well, and we feel despair in hard times because we don’t turn to God for His perspective.
When the daily news seems to proclaim the imminent death of the global Church, that’s when events like Thanksgiving are most important. They give us a blueprint for how to order our hearts toward God amid persecution, and they remind us of the never-ending need to fight for the freedom to exercise one’s religion according to the dictates of conscience. The travails of religious dissidents in the 17th century and the 21st century aren’t very different. We must not miss the opportunity to make religious persecution, the true context of the first Thanksgiving, the centerpiece of our families’ Thanksgiving Day prayers this year.
Ben Stevens works for Greater Europe Mission in Berlin, Germany.
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