Gellman: The Moral Greatness of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the most important American holiday because it is the only day when we Americans truly find each other. July 4th is close, but its celebration amounts to little more than barbecues and fireworks—and maybe a local parade thrown in for good measure. Veterans Day ought to be the most important, because it reminds us that our freedom was not just inherited, it was purchased with blood and sacrifice and immense courage and patriotism. Sadly, Veterans Day is just another sale day with somber ceremonies at cemeteries placed on the evening news. Super Bowl Sunday is a contender, but it is really just a Thanksgiving Day for the NFL, and who can get misty-eyed about that? On Thanksgiving we have it all: football and the Macy's parade, family gatherings combined with an atmosphere of civic virtue that effortlessly morphs into secular thankfulness for the nonreligious and thankfulness to God for the pious among us. The only virtue that embraces both atheists and the orthodox is the virtue of thankfulness. Thanksgiving Day embraces us all.

For secular Americans, Thanksgiving is powerful and glorious. Although religious folk believe that thankfulness must have a divine object, Thanksgiving Day does not require a divine address. Thankfulness in its secular form is the awareness that selfishness will destroy us. Civic virtue is knowing that we have been given more than we deserve here. In the end, it is service to others, prompted by this sense of virtue, that most clearly establishes the moral greatness of Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, the moral power of Thanksgiving is overwhelmed by the parade, the turkey and the football games. Even the joy and moral virtue of family gatherings are just the decorations of this day and not its profound essence. Gandhi said, "To a hungry man God is bread." And Thanksgiving brings God and bread to hungry people in America. For those moved out of their inadvertent selfishness into places where they see the faces of poor people, Thanksgiving is often the beginning of a morally defensible life. When one realizes that people are hungry here, the crushing plight of the hungry in far-off lands becomes somehow more tangible. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, "What seems to us more important, more painful, and more unendurable is really not what is more important, more painful and more unendurable, but merely that which is closer to home. Everything distant, which for all its moans and muffled cries, its ruined lives and millions of victims, that does not threaten to come rolling up to our threshold today, we consider endurable and of tolerable dimensions." The moral greatness of Thanksgiving lives in the way it helps us to hear moans and muffled cries that are drowned out by our noisy and self-centered pursuits the rest of the year. More people donate turkeys, volunteer to work in soup kitchens, and collect clothes on Thanksgiving than on any other day.

Cynics complain—they always complain—that these fleeting self-congratulatory acts do nothing to solve the systemic problems of hunger in America. I do not agree with this counsel of despair. I know that many regular volunteers and full-time workers in food rescue organizations like Island Harvest took their first tentative steps into serious civic virtue on Thanksgiving. These simple acts of Thanksgiving kindness have made all the days after Thanksgiving different and surely make all the balloons look small.

The moral greatness of Thanksgiving is also seen in its impact on religious Americans. The only time many religious Americans pray with people who do not believe exactly what they believe is on this day. The interfaith Thanksgiving service is a staple of the religious calendars for many faith communities. These interfaith services teach their participants how to pray in ways that will not assault or embarrass their guests. They force the preachers and prayer leaders to find themes that unite and uplift. They cannot be triumphalist and yet they must be authentic. They cannot be insipid but they cannot be aggressively particularistic. These services cannot seek and do not create converts, but they do create something of far more enduring value to American religions: they create friends. Following our interfaith service, we mingle. People of different religions don't mingle enough. Thanksgiving mingles the religions of America, and that is not a small thing. In fact, it is the achievement of a remote religious possibility.

Thanksgiving also offers a way into American culture for many recent immigrants. Integration and assimilation into America is not easy for many immigrants, and not even a goal for others. You can accuse me of making too much of this, but I am standing my ground here. My ancestors were told that the streets of America were paved with gold. Not true. The streets of America are paved with turkeys.

May we all have a morally great—and happy—Thanksgiving.