Tuesday, June 2, 2009

11-18-2007: 33rd Ordinary Time (C)

Malachi 3:19-20/Psalm 98/2 Thessalonians 3:7-12/Luke 21:5-19
Thanksgiving is a myth ever in the making. Some look to it as the founding myth of the nation, evoking at one and the same time the contradictory notions of mutual tolerance (Pilgrim and Indian sharing turkey sandwiches – with mayo) and Manifest Destiny (Pilgrims as Israelites in a new Promised Land – heads up, you American Canaanites!).

"A city set upon a hill," as the Puritan John Winthrop saw the American adventure, would be a theocracy of the cruelest sort. Pilgrims, that radical wing of the Puritan party, might have parleyed with native Indians to ensure their own survival but they didn’t hesitate to punish, by extreme measures, those in their own colony who didn’t tow the line. Nathaniel Hawthorne exposed the hypocrisy of his Pilgrim ancestors in The Scarlet Letter, the novel that cast adultery as the main character. As with theocracies in general, Hawthorne seemed to posit, control of sexual behavior is the ultimate test of power.

We look back at the Pilgrims and claim that America was founded on the desire for religious freedom, though the Pilgrims were less tolerant of religious difference than any modern-day mullah. We look back and claim that brotherhood was found that first Thanksgiving when colonist and native sat down at dinner, though once dessert was finished it got pretty ugly. Pilgrims left their native England because they felt the Anglican Church was becoming too Catholic in its ritual (they probably would have starved to death before sitting down to dinner with a Catholic). And, as with the religiously maniacal, it was their conviction they were God’s chosen people and this new land was theirs by divine right.

The American experiment, however, has been a success in so many ways. The values of self-sacrifice, industriousness, charity and, above all, personal freedom have given light to that "city on a hill" not so much because of the Pilgrims, but despite them. Every culture needs a foundation myth, an archetype that embodies its notion of itself; someplace in time to conveniently hang its historical hat. Pilgrims, turkey, and Plymouth Rock have become just that for America. But history, like life, is a complicated and murky affair. The greatness that is America owes as much to those business-minded, shrewd New York colonists as to the rigid Puritans; and the waves of Catholic emigrants from the poverty-stricken Europe of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did far more to forge American ideals than any judge at the Salem witch trials.

And did you know that before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth they first landed on the very tip of Cape Cod in a place to be called Provincetown which, in one of those delicious historical ironies, would become a mecca for gay vacationers who at times pay homage to their Puritan forerunners by dressing up in Pilgrims’ wear (cross-gendered for sure) with a big scarlet letter on the breast. But even parody expressed with disdain is an imitation of sorts - flattering - in spite of itself. And so the foundation myth morphs and continues – a hopeful sign in an aging culture. Something to be thankful for.

No comments:

Post a Comment