FEASTING, FASTING, AND FAMINE
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on November 23, 2003
This is the time of year, it seems, when everyone in the world is virtually obsessed with food. For Americans, at least those that have enough money to pay for the ingredients, it is preparation for the annual orgy of excess which is our national holiday of Thanksgiving.
It is strange to me how this holiday became so focused on food, football and parades. It is true, of course, that even the first Thanksgiving, which included the pilgrims who had lived through a terrible winter of starvation and deprivation, cold and hunger, illness and death and the friendly Indians who helped them survive, also focused on food. In fact, the traditional foods we associate with Thanksgiving - turkey, corn, squash, potatoes, oysters, pumpkins and cranberries were the foods served at that feast of thanks. They were the foods native to New England. So it is appropriate that we remember their suffering by having our own feasts of thanksgiving for having survived the year, reaped a good harvest, and being surrounded by friends and family. But I do think we have gone a bit overboard!
As for the rest of it, I wonder what Sarah Josephine Hale and Abraham Lincoln and even Franklin Roosevelt would think about our present ways of celebrating. Sarah Josephine Hale was the editor of Godey's Lady's Book and the author of, among other things, "Mary had a Little Lamb." She is also the person credited with having Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. It took many years of advocacy, but finally, in 1863, President Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving. Franklin Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday to lengthen the holiday shopping season during the depression.
Although we often refer to Thanksgiving as our "secular" holiday, I guess because unlike Christmas and Easter and many other holidays, it is not directly tied to the teachings of the Bible, or of any other religious text, although most religions talk about gratitude and giving thanks to their god.
When President Lincoln proclaimed it a holiday, however, he presented it as very religious. His words sound very much like our present president. The infusion of religion into matters of state is nothing new. Hear his words in the context of our present situation:
"It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord.
"We know that by His divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world. May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.
"But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelt in the heavens."
It is interesting that Lincoln made this proclamation in the midst of the Civil War, when the nation was rent apart, many were suffering severe deprivation, thousands of soldiers on both sides - and all were Americans - were being killed and maimed. Yet he makes little reference to all this, and speaks instead of "our choicest bounties" and "peace and prosperity." Is it the duty or propensity of presidents to try to put the best face on things and not dwell on the negative. One could substitute the word "Iraq" for the word "Civil" in this proclamation and it could be given by our current president.
But while we are all focusing on the good, giving thanks for the positive things in our lives, we also need to be aware of what is not so good. While we are preparing for the feasting, we should remember those who have no homes to go to, or without homes at all. What about the cold and the snow? What about those with no food today or any day? What about those who are spending the holiday hoping they won't be beaten, although they will be? What about those who are divorced, or separated, or without their children or spending their first holiday without a loved one who has recently died? What about those who decide this is the last day on earth they can bear to live out?
These are important questions. Statistics show that there is more domestic abuse on Thanksgiving than on any other day. Supposedly it is because so many men get drunk and ornery sitting around drinking beer and watching football on TV. It might also have to do with having eaten too much fatty and sugary food. Thanksgiving is also the prime day for suicides. Too many people cannot reconcile the happy-dappy family-oriented holiday with their own lonely and miserable lives. We need to think about these people as we enjoy our plenty and give thanks for our comfortable lives.
These people are a part of our holiday as well. They are a part of our every day, but they open the doors in our minds and hearts more powerfully during the holidays. We must not forget them. We must do what we can, each and every day. These people, these harsh realities, touch our lives and sometimes we just want to shut down. We want to close ourselves in and protect ourselves from the painful lives of others, or from the pain in our own lives.
Every day, it seems, some reminder of the pain of people arrives in the mail, or appears on TV. At this time of year, we are bombarded with solicitations from international rescue groups, religious organizations, child welfare advocates, and many others. There are those inimitable red kettles at every store, with the infernal bells ringing to remind us of the great need so many people have. It is hard to ignore all this, yet it becomes so overwhelming at times that we cannot cope. We are forced to recognize that among the feasting that is so much a part of the holidays, there is also famine.
We think of famine mostly in Africa and some other "underdeveloped," or "third world" countries. But there is also famine, or at least severe hunger, even here in America. One out of every eight children under the age of 12 in the U.S. goes to bed hungry every night. In the United States, hunger and race are related. In 2001 46% of African-American children were chronically hungry, and 40% of Latino children, compared with 16% of white children. Inequalities in consumption are stark. Globally, the richest 20% account for 86% of consumption - food, energy, communications, paper, vehicles, etc. - while the poorest 20% consume a minuscule 1.3%.
It is ironic, isn't it, that another way in which we are currently obsessed with food is our growing concern about the epidemic of obesity in America, especially among children? We are being told that obesity is a larger health problem than cancer, heart disease, or smoking. We have let our culture of plentitude consume us, as we consume more and more food, especially unhealthy food. Something is very wrong with this picture.
While we are busy over consuming, our Muslim friends (and enemies) are observing the Holy month of Ramadan, during which time they fast. Muslims are not to eat or drink during daylight hours. Smoking and sexual relations are also banned during the month. At the end of the day, when the light is so dim one cannot see a thread hanging in front of one's eyes, Muslims have a meal, called Iftar, and then visit with family and friends. The next morning, the fast begins again. I wonder what a Muslim would do in Barrow, Alaska, where I heard yesterday they are beginning three months of unremitting daylight.
A fast broken once a day might not seem like a terrible sacrifice for those of us who are too well-fed to begin with. But remember that many Muslims live in the very countries where famine and hardship are prevalent. They start their fasts on empty stomachs. And remember their fasts also include any liquids, which is doubly hard in the dry desert countries in which so many Muslims live.
We are experiencing now an escalation in suicide bombings and terrorism during this holy month. Militant Muslims have turned this traditional month of piety into a season of death and destruction. During Ramadan so far, suicide attacks have killed at least 133 people, and injured hundreds more. Now I can almost understand how hunger and deprivation, along with the anger and frustration about what is happening in the Arab world might drive people to acts of terror. But hunger is not the reason. The most militant Mullahs teach that attacks against those who wrong you, or threaten Islam, are forms of worship and piety. And if the acts are performed during Ramadan, there will be even greater reward in Heaven.
It seems strange to us. Fasting during Ramadan is an act of piety; it is supposed to purify the soul and bring one closer to Allah. The good that is acquired by fasting can be destroyed, according to the Quran, by telling a lie, committing slander, demonizing a person behind their back, making a false oath, or exhibiting greed or. Nothing about killing.
During Ramadan Muslims are also expected to say special, longer prayers at the Mosque. Some spend entire nights in prayer. On the eve of the 27th day, close to the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the Night of Power, when Mohammed supposedly first received the Holy Quran. It is the time when God determines the course of the world for the next year.
When Ramadan ends in two more days, there will begin a three-day celebration with food, gifts, and more prayers. Perhaps it is a kind of Thanksgiving for having survived this long month of fasting.
Ayn Rand wrote, "Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday. In spite of its religious form of giving thanks to God for a good harvest and other blessings, its essential secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producer's holiday. The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production."
I hope she is wrong about that. I find her interpretation disturbing because it suggests that traditional meanings of Thanksgiving have become lost in a culture of insatiable materialism. As we celebrate this harvest meal we would do well to recover meanings that transcend conspicuous consumption.
What I like best about Thanksgiving is sitting around the table with friends and family. Sitting around that table, we are reminded of the ways in which we are bound together, one generation after another, by tradition, by love, and by duty or desire. We are reminded of the bonds that exist among and between us as we are of those ties that have been lost or severed. We rejoice in the addition of a high chair as a child joins the table for his or her first Thanksgiving and we lament the death of loved ones whose presence at the table will now depend on our memory.
If we are fortunate, the table around which we will sit will be transformed by the spirit of the day into a communion table. Not a communion of bread and wine (although they will certainly be present), but a communion of people, a communion marked by the deeper sharing of ourselves. A communion that reminds us that we are not self-derived, self-sufficient or self-sustaining. A communion that reminds us not of successful production, but of the earth's bounty and our obligation of careful stewardship.
Thanksgiving can be one of the most secular of our national holidays or one of the most religious. It depends on which meanings we take from it and give to it. At the least, the meaning of this day should be a deepened sense of gratitude, of thankfulness. As UU minister Mark Belletini has written:
"In a world where the wheat and the weeds grow in the same field, where suffering and greed often seem to us to be as plentiful as joy and justice, the call to bless comes to us, swelling in our hearts, the call to single out the graciousness of this life with words of thanksgiving and beauty."
That is the purpose of this holiday: "to single out the graciousness of this life." We can tell our children to say thank you. We can tell them that they should feel grateful for all they have. But we cannot make them grateful. They must discover the sense of gratitude within themselves. They must discover their own blessings. The most that we can do is to share our thanksgiving with them, to express our own gratitude that they might recognize it within themselves.
This sense of gratitude
calls to mind another kind of harvest Percival Chubb wrote about:
"From the harvest of the soil we are given occasion to garner a harvest of the heart and mind: A harvest of resolve to be careful stewards of all life's gifts and opportunities. A harvest of reverence for the wondrous power and life at work in things that grow, and in the soul. A harvest of gratitude for every good which we enjoy, and of fellowship for all who are sustained by earth's beauty."
But as we express our own gratitude for the richness we enjoy, let us also find ways to express our concern and care for those who do not enjoy such richness. As we devour our feast of plenty, let us remember those who have little or nothing to eat. As we say our prayers of thanksgiving, let us be one with the Muslims who will be celebrating the end of their period of fasting, and offering prayers to their God. And, as we begin, the day after Thanksgiving, our annual ritual of shopping and consumerism, let us set aside something for those whose lives are filled with famine.
This is the larger meaning of Thanksgiving. May our thanksgiving be expressed in stewardship for our home, the earth, and compassion toward those companions who travel with us, friend and stranger alike.