Truth and Fiction: Slanting Our Stories
Rev. Grace H. Simons
Rev. Joe Cherry
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When I was a child I learned a teaching verse added to the Thanksgiving Song - the one we sang first this morning. It goes like this: "The year 1620, the Pilgrims came over. The good ship Mayflower brought them `cross the sea. They landed at Plymouth Rock, then built up their houses. At harvest time they started our Thanksgiving Day." So there's the capsule version, right? I suspect I am not the only one who grew up with images of black-clothed Pilgrim families welcoming the local Native Americans to tables laid with roast turkey and all manner of good things. As I recall, some pictures showed the visitors, fresh from the hunt, bringing deer or more turkeys to add to the feast.
Over the years, I'd learned that the story was, shall we say, not entirely accurate. And I knew that the European explorers before the Pilgrims had brought diseases which decimated the Native population. I knew that the coming of settlers meant the beginning of conflict, warfare, and loss of both their lands and way of life for tribes all across the continent. And I remembered that the Pilgrims and Puritans had come largely for the freedom to practice their religion, but had no tolerance for other views. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson stand out as large examples; both were exiled by the Puritans. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson stand out as large examples; both were exiled by the Puritans for daring to dissent.
Despite all that, when David and I visited Plymouth Plantation this past summer, a few facts new to me and some different framing of things I'd heard before made me see all this rather differently. I learned that the Plymouth colony was built on the site of a Wampanoag village which had lost its inhabitants to disease only a short time before the Mayflower landed. The stores were still in good condition and helped to feed the newcomers in the first winter. I learned that the explorers in this area before the Pilgrims arrived had cheated and abused the generally trusting Native Americans, even kidnapping some to take them off to Europe as curious specimens. So Esquanto - you know, the one who was supposed to have appeared on his own and offering friendship and farming tips - Esquanto had been sent by Massasoit to keep an eye on the settlers in case they were up to something sinister. He was, indeed, helpful to the colonists; perhaps even the reason they survived. And he was always watchful.
I also learned that all the Mayflower's passengers were paid to make the trip. Only about half of them were actually Pilgrims in the sense being part of the group of religious separatists. The rest were hired on at the last minute. The passengers were to establish a settlement and send lumber, furs, fish and other goods to be sold profitably in England. It took the captain less than a year to figure out that plan wasn't going to work; that there would be no profit for a goodly time. He and the crew went back across the Atlantic the next summer. Along with all this, stories of Pilgrim and Puritan violence came more into my awareness. Harsh punishments, including beatings, branding and dunking were all too common. Not to mention the Salem witch trials. Things were far from ideal in 17th century New England.
I found myself wondering about the way we've sanitized and romanticized reality to come up with the story that's become common lore in America. Why do we tell ourselves tales so partial, so slanted and so unrealistic? How do these kinds of images affect our views of the world? Our views of ourselves and others? Does "everyone" do this? How did the story develop anyway? And when? I had heard something about it being surprisingly recent, but had never followed up on it. Maybe it was time. And then in researching a different topic, I came across a reference to a journal article on the way early New England Unitarians understood the violence of their Puritan ancestors. Maybe that would offer some insight.
As the morning's reading (The American Thanksgiving Holiday) explained, the story many of us learned as children has just enough truth to make it credible. But it is largely a fabrication of the late Victorian age. The only account written near the time of the feast was lost until 1819 - nearly 200 years after the Pilgrims landed. And it wasn't mentioned in any books or articles until 1841. By then New England had developed their Thanksgiving-complete with turkey - as an early winter festival. You may know that for a while, celebrating Christmas was punishable by fine in Massachusetts. Thanksgiving became their winter celebration.
Throughout the mid-1800s, Sarah Josepha Hale, who was editor of a magazine for ladies called Godey's, advocated for a national Thanksgiving holiday. A number of states had different dates and she wanted it to be consistent. It didn't happen in her lifetime. In 1881, Jane G. Austin [not the famous Jane Austen] published a novel that included a first Thanksgiving account which caught the public imagination. Most of the familiar paintings of the first Thanksgiving date from the early 1900s. Still, it wasn't until after World War II that stories of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving became standard in schools and the story itself a symbol of American unity. Whatever your immigrant identity, you were encouraged to see the Pilgrims as your ancestors.
Unless you were an Indian, of course. They were cast in stereotyped and supporting roles. It's worth noting that the story came after most tribal lands had been lost to settlers and the tribes themselves had become weakened remnants. Beginning in the 1970s, Native American groups have protested the now traditional story and celebration because of all this and also because of the way we gloss over the destruction visited on tribes all across the land. They believe that Thanksgiving is more properly a day of mourning. That seems unlikely to be accepted, but Native American culture and legal standing have gained much more recognition since their protests began.
The article about New England Unitarian attitudes that I mentioned is not, I found, directly concerned with Thanksgiving. It does, however, offer a way of understanding the Puritan and Pilgrim history of both achievement and violence. Plymouth colony was absorbed into Massachusetts Bay colony in the 1600s, and the Unitarian writers simply referred to `Puritans,' whom they regarded as their ancestors. They honored these forebears for their establishment of institutions which they valued and which served them well. By the 1820s, Harvard College held a very honorable legacy. Many pivotal events before and during the Revolutionary War had taken place in Puritan territory. The Unitarians considered Puritan contributions to law, education, civic institutions and to the establishment of the new country to be important and laudable. At the same time, however, the Puritan history of violence, both toward Native Americans and toward any dissenter or stranger in their midst, challenged Unitarian theology and their ideas about human nature.
The study considered fiction written by Unitarian women in the 1820s. By looking at their scenes of Puritan times, Daniel Buchanan has discerned their attitudes and explanations for the dual reality of their ancestors. Recall that in Puritan theology human depravity and predestination were foundational. God was a judgmental and uncompromising figure. By His grace and in accordance with His inscrutable will, He had selected some people for heaven in advance. The rest had no hope of escaping hell. The Puritans believed themselves to be among the elect - even writing their histories as replaying stories from the Bible. They were chosen people, founding a New Jerusalem. It would be a City on a Hill. Thus their actions were all part of God's plan, and maintaining strict adherence was a virtue. If violent means were used, well, it had to be. The victims had no hope anyway. In reading these descriptions, I found myself thinking of the term "collateral damage."
In the stories, this attitude is condemned and the emergence of `family love' is its antidote. This virtue is within us all, Puritans, Unitarians and everyone else, the writers said. But this love is suppressed and distorted by the theology of predestination and the fear of God's wrath. Thus the authors wrote of characters who spoke up to more traditional Puritan figures and softened their judgmental approach. Writing about 200 years after the Mayflower landed, the Unitarians tried to understand how such violence could have been accepted. They used the differences between their theology and the Calvinist beliefs of the Puritans to explain what had happened. This explanation is similar, actually, to arguments we make about the effects of impoverished or abusive environments and the difficulty people have in overcoming them. Buchanan theorizes that this explanation allowed the early New England Unitarians to simultaneously disapprove of Puritan violence and honor their many civic and educational achievements.
This application of their theological view allowed the Unitarians to be realistic in seeing both the virtues and the faults of their ancestors. We don't seem to be able to do that very well. We tend to divide the good guys from the bad, to see ourselves as heroes and demonize our opponents. We want to turn away from someone we've admired when we learn they've done something of which we disapprove. While we say that we know all us humans have our limitations and failings, we find it hard to actually deal with that reality.
An example: Thomas Jefferson is one of our most well-regarded and beloved founders, yet he was a slave holder, and his children with Sally Hemmings were not recognized. He did not, like many liberal figures of his day, free his slaves on his death. These contrasts are hard for us to hold in our awareness. We want to honor the writer of the Declaration of Independence, the President, the figure behind the Louisiana Purchase. But what do we do with the slave holder, the father who didn't count his children of color? We could ask similar questions about nearly every other prominent, accomplished figure. One engages in sexual dalliance. Another has questionable financial dealings. Yet another has a history of drug or alcohol abuse. Someone is personally abusive to staff or family members. You can imagine endless examples. How shall we regard these imperfect people?
I suspect that our habit of telling our stories as though we have always been the good ones, the exemplary heroes, makes us less able to hold the complications and complexities of reality. Research shows that the expectations we bring shape our view of information. If we've only heard good things about our kind, how open will we be to evidence that we've been in the wrong? If we know we've done something really wrong, how can we admit it, try to make apologies and amends, and recover good standing? That's not supposed to be needed by good people like us.
If a person or group commits a terrible act, will we condemn those who share some of their characteristics? Will we see ourselves completely separate? Muslims today find themselves vulnerable because of the attacks of September 11th and the recent shooting at Fort Hood. Fifty years ago, scenes of police dogs threatening black protestors in the South aroused national condemnation - and also made it easy for Northerners to disclaim their own racism.
I am not asking idle questions. Besides the far-reaching incidents, we come upon smaller variations every day. We find ourselves at odds with, say, a County Supervisor or a School Board member. Can we keep our opposition principled rather than personal? What if they don't? It's definitely a challenge! Maybe a friend or church member says or does something that offends us. What next? We're told it's best to talk with the person involved, but more often we complain to someone else or distance ourselves and limit or end the friendship. Sometimes people leave a group, or the church, especially if they are offended several times.
What if we're the offending party? Everyone says and does thoughtless things now and again. Or maybe we're voicing positions that ought to be reevaluated. Will we know what we've done? If we do, how will we respond? Will we actually own it and apologize? Or will we claim that the offended party is too sensitive, has no sense of humor or is making something out of nothing? Do these questions have the ring of reality? I hope so. And I think we'd be better off if we had more models, more examples of how to tell someone when we've been offended, of making a sincere apology, of mending relationship. Perhaps we would be aided by more realistic stories that can better shape our expectations.
Which brings us back to Thanksgiving. [Did you think I'd forgotten about that?] So we know the story is mostly fiction, highly romanticized and that it ignores some unsavory realities. Does fixing that - owning the fact that the Pilgrims did a number of things that we can't approve, that a lot more was going on and most of the story was invented some 350 years after the facts - does that mean that we shouldn't celebrate? That we shouldn't be reminded about the importance of gratitude?
Well, I might not be the best person to answer that question since I am a self-announced fan of Thanksgiving! And certainly both culture and law will keep recognizing the holiday. We can shift the emphasis, though, moving away from the romanticized story and remembering that the holiday - like all our important days - has multiple roots. Certainly it's part harvest festival and part gathering of friends, family members and others who may not be all that close, but come together to share a special meal. The very act of sharing a meal has its own significance, its own way of connecting people. We can remember and honor the sacrifices that many made to make our lives what they are. We can voice the truth that all of us are here because of the efforts - and the love - of those before us. Some of those efforts involved a lot of pain and anguish, abuse and survival. Some of our ancestors were themselves party to that abuse. We cannot change that history, but we can own it. Determination and perseverance despite all odds has made our realities possible. We can give thanks for much of this, even though some parts of the picture are difficult.
A few weeks ago, Paula Braxton talked about developing a practice of gratitude. She reminded us that making deliberate efforts to be thankful, to notice and appreciate the gifts of our lives, changes our awareness. Maybe it even changes our realities. In other sermons, I have talked about gratitude being a springboard for acts of kindness, compassion and generosity. As we become aware of our many blessings, it's quite natural to want to share them. That gives us and those around us still more to appreciate. If a holiday helps us to be more realistic, more connected to others, more appreciative and more compassionate, I'd say we'd best keep it. More, we'd best embrace and develop it!
So thanks. Thanks for being part of this congregation and helping to make it the vibrant community it is. Thanks for being here this morning, for sharing and for listening. Thanks for joining for the potluck after the service so that we can get better connected. And thanks to everyone who is helping to put it on - from planning to food, to cleanup. Thanks to each of you, for all you do here, in your families and in the larger community. It all enriches our reality. Thanks. And Happy Thanksgiving!
November 22, 2009
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We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.