Thursday, November 24, 2016: After-feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos & Celebration of American Thanksgiving
“The image we depict must not be that of one who is unlike God; for one who is harsh and irascible and proud would display the image of a despot.”
There is something particularly American about Thanksgiving Day.
This isn’t to suggest that other countries, other cultures, lack a sense of gratitude for God’s bounties. Nor do I wish to suggest that other places don’t set aside a time for the public celebration thanks to God. Gratitude is foundational to all healthy cultures and communities—secular as well as religious—because gratitude is intrinsic to the human heart.
There is a deep human need to say thank you.
But like I said, there is something uniquely American about Thanksgiving Day. It isn’t the food. It’s not the gathering of families. It’s not even the hours and hours of football.
It is rather that, as we read on the back of the Great Seal of the United States, we who hold ourselves out as a Novus Ordo Seclorum, a “New Order of the Ages,” a new political order, a new kind of community, take the time to thank the Creator for His many gifts to us.
Ours is a secular country not in the sense that we think that religion—and specifically, Christianity—is purely a private matter to be tolerated only if it remains outside the Public Square. Rather, our “secularism” is based on a respect for the conscience of the individual.
Such respect isn’t meant to suggest that we are merely individuals, that we live in isolation from family, friends, and the myriad communities that make up any health person’s life.
It is rather to say that whatever our agreements or disagreements, we pledge ourselves to respect each other’s conscience.
This mutual respect for conscience isn’t an end in itself; this would be a radical form of individualism. Such a view of the person will corrode the life of any community.
Our mutual respect is different. It is rooted in the notion that divine grace doesn’t compel but persuades. God offers Himself freely to each of us in the secret depth of our heart.
It is this absence of divine coercion that is the pattern, the archetype if you will, of our Novus Ordo Seclorum.
And today, we set aside time to thank God whose grace and love and bounty is the foundation of our Nation.
In his essay, “What I Saw in America,” G.K. Chesterton said that we are “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.” He goes on to say that this doesn’t mean we “apply consistently this conception of a nation with the soul of a church” or that, somehow, America is exempt from “danger of tyranny.”
His point is that what Americans do, we do because of creed, of our respect for the hidden conversation between God and the human heart.
While we are grateful to God for His material blessings to us—for food, family and yes, football—what we are most thankful for is this conservation. It is this conversation that reveals our true dignity and worth as human beings and which services as the touchstone, the interpretative key and guiding moral principle of both the American Experiment and American culture.
Because we are, still, fundamentally a religious people, we tend at times to apply uncritically the biblical teaching about Israel or the Church to our country. This is wrong and it makes an idol of America.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t, judicial, find inspiration and guidance as a Nation in the Scriptures. Today’s epistle is one such example.
Paul tells us to the Colossians to “put on compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience.” He goes on to say that above all they are to forgive each other “As the Lord has forgiven you.” This good word for the Church is an equally good word for our nation.
The love we owe our fellow citizens is necessarily different from the love we owe our family or our brothers and sisters in Christ. This love our fellow Americans is, necessarily, thinner, more abstract because it is love for the many millions of people almost all of whom we have never met and will never know.
But love it remains.
The form it takes is this: That respect your conscience. This doesn’t mean we agree with each other. Much less does it mean that we must agree with each other.
It does mean we must think well of each other and not take our differences—political or religious, moral or cultural—as evidence of malicious intent. You are not evil because you disagree with me and for me to say, or believe, otherwise is wrong and shameful.
Ironically, and here we can draw inspiration from the Gospel, it is the “foreigner,” the one who sees the American Experiment from the outside, who is often best able to express admiration and gratitude for the freedoms Americans take for granted.
We often say that we are a nation of immigrants. Another way to say the same thing is that we are a nation of men and women who risked all for the sake of freedom.
Whether they sought economic, cultural, religious or political freedom is secondary.
Freedom, by its very nature, is one and indivisible. To neglect, or worse, attack one form of freedom is an assault of all its other modes since none can exist without the others.
And freedom, in all its forms, is in the service of our response to the hidden prompting of grace.
It is to thank God for this freedom. Today we express our gratitude to God for the ability of the individual to say yes, however falteringly and inadequately, to the “still small voice” of God (1 Kings 19:11-13, NKJV) .
Gratitude to God is not a feeling but an action. In the social dimension of human life, it is rather a matter of respecting the conscience of the individual. Such respect is no more important than when we disagree bitterly with each other.
Such respect requires that I think well of my fellow American and resist the temptation to ascribe malice as the motive for our differences whatever these differences might be.