Thanksgiving is our Altar to an Unknown God

It wouldn’t be a treasured holiday if someone didn’t take the time to rain on your parade. It’s my turn:

In chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is in Athens and stands at the Areopagus to try and persuade an audience of pagan Greeks to become Christian by appealing to their own philosophers. At the outset, Paul greets them in this way:

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.

…Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

At the core of Paul’s complaint about the Athenian religious practices is that they have no idea of the kind of god they’re actually worshiping. Pagan gods had to be appeased so that they would bestow benefactions on the people, but there was a recognition that gods of other lands whose names they didn’t know might feel left out, so an altar to unknown gods was a way of covering their butt against those foreign gods.  In Paul’s mind, this reflected a genuine, fundamental misunderstanding about the way the cosmos worked. People were worshiping and giving thanks to a god whose character they knew nothing about. They just wanted to make sure the good things kept flowing their way.

The U.S. American holiday of Thanksgiving is a kind of altar to an unknown god. Forgetting for a moment that the holiday itself is built on a utopian misrepresentation of relations between Native peoples and colonizers, it is probably the single most religious thing most Americans do. Gratitude is recognized by everyone–even science– as a universally good character trait and has become a kind of religion unto itself. Thanksgiving presents itself the high holy day of the religion of Gratitude, and for weeks leading up to it we get to see and hear who are the most pious adherents to the faith. 30 days of gratitude, pictures of gratitude. But to whom or what are we expressing gratitude? Is it possible to be grateful without being grateful to someone? Are we grateful to the randomness of the universe that brought all these good things into our lives?

(You could probably imagine Paul saying, “Americans. I see how extremely thankful you are, for I went into your homes on Thanksgiving and heard you utter prayers to an unknown god…)

When many Americans sit down for their annual feast this week, they will offer a prayer of thanks for food, family, freedom, military servicemen and women, firefighters, police, Donald Trump, nice houses, health, wealth, generic blessings. To whom? Most would say, “God.” To which I would say, “which god?” We like to rattle off a laundry list of the benefactions that our god has given, as if we’re afraid that if we don’t, the benefactions might just stop.

I question which god we’re talking about because we live in a world that is extraordinarily skeptical of religion and god in general, and yet one day of year it’s okay to belong to the religion of Gratitude because it’s not a god that actually asks anything of you.  For Christians, expressing gratitude ought to be first and foremost done for who God is. We proclaim (as Paul did) that God is revealed through the risen Jesus, and the character of God is most fully known by the character of Jesus, who submitted to Roman torture and was executed by the religious and political forces of his day. This God is the kind of god who takes sides with the oppressed. This God is with families of police violence. This God was already standing with the Native people in this land even while those who claimed to be bringing God here came and slaughtered them not on behalf of YHWH, but on behalf of Mars, the god of war (*Side note: I find something especially intriguing about the fact that Paul’s speech takes place on the Areopagus, which means Mars Hill) . This is the kind of God that asks you to find him with the oppressed.

So yes, I question the fact that the very American leaders who daily bring the world closer to the brink of nuclear war can have the audacity to sit down at Thanksgiving and give “Thanks”  and we all pretend that we’re giving thanks to the same god who the next day will bless their bombs. Yes, I question a one day a year pass on the evil, racism, hatred, sexual aggression that is engendered the other 364 days by so many.

Gratitude is essentially a kind of prayer, and on the one hand is heard by God regardless of the person saying it or even what name they use or don’t use for God. Paul affirms, in a slightly backhanded compliment kind of way, the religious zeal of the Athenians because he does recognize a grain of good in it. But Paul, we’re told just before this passage, is disturbed by their idols. Prayer to an idol, worship to an idol, is not actually that much better than no prayer at all. Prayer and gratitude are, in many ways, about what happens to us, not just what happens in the world, but we forget that the object of our gratitude and prayer is actually what shapes us. Gratitude to an idol, whether its an unknown god or money, or a host of other self-serving objects, results in a life that resembles that idol. I would submit that many who will offer prayers of thanks this Thursday offer them to the gods of war, money, power, and whiteness.

Christianity as a whole in the US has forgotten the character of the God to whom we say we give thanks. It has forgotten that God looks like Jesus, and it has forgotten that Jesus always bears the marks of suffering and death because he continues to suffer with the poor of the world, in whatever shape that takes. So of course on the one day that everyone is expected to be quasi-religious, we’re part of the rest of Americans who are just totally confused as to what god we pray to. Of course Thanksgiving is followed by Black Friday and rampant consumerism for the next 5 weeks until we come to the next holiday where we don’t quite know what it means.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Paul goes on to say, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

From our prophet and poet extraordinaire, Wendell Berry, who if he were on Twitter, he might steal the REI slogan, #optoutside.

    Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,
go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods
and along the streams. Go together, go alone.
Say no to the Lords of War which is Money
which is Fire. Say no by saying yes
to the air, to the earth, to the trees,
yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds
and the animals and every living thing, yes
to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.




One comment

  1. agraymatterweb · November 20, 2017

    Good post. I’ll admit that I was resistant to the message at the start, but came onboard by the end.

    I especially appreciate this line: “I would submit that many who will offer prayers of thanks this Thursday offer them to the gods of war, money, power, and whiteness.”

    I’ll add, my initial skepticism, which I think can fit with your message. Our culture, and our biology, cause us to hate our own lives. We want more money, more power, more privilege, a bigger house, more time. And the pursuit of that more is a main cause of evil in our world. If a day of gratitude helps break some people of that drive, then at least abstractly, it is a good thing.

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