In a season of disharmony, discord, distrust, and disorder, it is often painful to stop, to pause, and to give oneself distance enough to consider what must be recognized as good, and true, and beautiful, even in what seems a cesspool of existence. To give thanks, though, is not only necessary, it is salubrious! In his many excellent stories, J. Michael Straczynski loves to remind us of the Old Testament notion of “selah,” to pause. In that pause and in that quiet, we reflect. The same ideas have been expressed in the twentieth-century discussions of leisure and the Sabbath by such profound thinkers and writers as T.S. Eliot, Josef Pieper, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. After all, God rested on the seventh day. After proclaiming all of His creation good and His creation of man very good, He blessed, sanctified, and hallowed the seventh day. In Exodus, God (through Moses) takes this even further than He had in Genesis.
Remember that thou keep holy the sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labour, and shalt do all thy works. But on the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: thou shalt do no work on it, thou nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy beast, nor the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them, and rested on the seventh day: therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it.
In one of the most moving commentaries ever written on the seventh day, The Sabbath, Professor Heschel reminded us to think of it as an embrace, not a prohibition. “The Sabbath comes like a caress,” he wrote in 1951, “wiping away fear, sorrow, and somber memories.” Yet, he cautions, one should never think of the Sabbath in cyclical terms, though it comes every seven days. It is, he wisely notes, “not an interlude, but a climax.” We do not merely resist the urge to labor, we celebrate the joy and delight of living, co-creating with God “a palace of time” as “perfect rest is an art.”
That our American Thanksgiving holiday comes from a Lincolnian attempt to solidify his influence in New England should not detract too much from the holiday. After all, many thanksgiving proclamations have come from princes as well as tyrants over the years. Just as our rejection of the heresy of Donatism reminds us that no one but God is perfect, so a proclamation of thanks should be greater than the proclaimer. Yet, as I had the privilege of noting earlier this month at The Imaginative Conservative, I am quite proud of being a descendent of the Pilgrims even as I disagree with much of their theology. They most certainly would disagree with mine!
As noted in that previous piece for The Imaginative Conservative, the Pilgrims, through nearly incomprehensible sacrifices, brought with them their families, their Scripture, and their faith in English Common Law. Armed only with these three things, they had the confidence to build a colony and, thus, a new way of life. Or, at the very least, they reformed an old way of life for a new world. In their classic book of American political thought, Basic Symbols, Wilmoore Kendall and George Carey see the Mayflower Compact, not the Declaration of Independence, as the founding document of America.
Given the profundity of the assertion of and to self-government, the Pilgrims certainly deserve our respect and admiration, whatever disagreement we might have with their theology. From 1620 on, most of our colonies followed the model of the Pilgrims, establishing community after community based on this idea or that idea, this need or that one. The tireless pioneers proved over and over that human beings could govern themselves whatever the odds and circumstances.
When the Mother Land began to enforce—for the very first time in a century and a half in 1763—its own laws and vision of what the colonies should be, the colonists understandably balked. Their communities came from the blood, treasure, and toil of their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents as well as that of their closest neighbors, not from some parliament 3,000 miles distant. When pressed as to the reasons why he fought the British at the short-lived Battle of Lexington, April 19, 1775, Minute-man Levi Preston told a historian in 1843, “Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
In his own extraordinary analysis of the United States and the future of the western world, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that all rights come from one basic right, the right to associate. All types of Americans, the Frenchman marveled, are “forever forming associations” of every kind and variety. Some to build hospitals and prisons, and some to end the “scourge” of alcoholism and house the homeless. The Pilgrims had known this well, as had all of their colonial descendants. Those who fought the British knew this as well, and did those who formed a whole variety of local, regional, and continental committees, assemblies, and Congresses. The U.S. Congress unanimously affirmed and codified the right to associate in Article II of the Northwest Ordinance, passed on July 13, 1787. Any and all contracts written between two or more parties—as long as absent of fraud—superseded and trumped all political longings and manipulations. While we generally associate such contracts with businesses and economic enterprises, they applied equally well to the creation of families, churches, and schools. The United States as a whole affirmed, yet again, the right to assemble and petition in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights (1791).
Of course, I do not want or desire to conflate that which is sacred with that which is profane. The Sabbath does not exist for the right of association. Yet, as we pause and reflect on the many great and grand blessings bestowed upon us as Americans, we would be foolish to ignore the tradition of self-governance, of community building, and of the right to association. Once again, it is healthy to remember what we should cherish. Plato, after all, told us we must love what should be loved and hate what should be hated. In rough times, we too readily remember the hate part but forget the love part. As you celebrate your time with your family, eat turkey and mashed potatoes, and watch, for the 1000th time, Home Alone, don’t forget to give thanks—to all of those who came before us and, especially, to He who created us in His image to know, to serve, and to love Him.
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