First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
Grateful Atonement
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore  November 20, 2005


I love Thanksgiving.  I like the purpose – being grateful for all we have and have been given.  I don’t think we appreciate often enough how blessed our lives are here in America. I like turkey, stuffing, yams, peas, and pumpkin pie.  I like having a reason to get family and friends together.  I particularly enjoy our Thanksgiving cooperative dinner we have here – so sign up today if you haven’t already done so.

Much as I enjoy this holiday, it is also a yearly reminder of ingratitude, particularly of how badly European immigrants have treated native peoples.  For many with an indigenous ancestry, this national day of thanksgiving is a day of mourning.

The indigenous people the Pilgrims and later the Puritans encountered here were a highly developed culture.  The Wampanoags, Pequots, Massachusets, Nausets, Nipmucks, and Narragansets were agricultural people who had cleared a significant amount of land to grow a rich assortment of crops including corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, and tobacco.  To enrich the poor soil they had figured out how to use fish as fertilizer.  Some of the tribes used crop rotation.  They planted corn and beans together so one would grow around the other preventing the need to do much weeding.  After the harvest in which all freely participated, the Narragansets erected a long house “sometimes a hundred, sometimes two hundred feet long upon a plain … where many thousands gathered.  Inside dancers gave away money, coats and knives to the poor.”  They would dig six-foot holes to bury their corn in grass sacks to feed the tribe through the winter and have seed for the spring.  These native people were no savages waiting for our civilizing influence.

The first misery Europeans brought to America was disease.  One reason the Pilgrims were able to settle in Plymouth was because small pox had decimated the indigenous population.  They just moved into the place an Indian village had been.  Whole villages were wiped out dying horrible and gruesome deaths.  All the Europeans needed to do was replant the existing fields left unused by the ravages of disease.

In ten years after the first Pilgrims arrived 20,000 Europeans settlers had crossed the ocean to follow them.  Less that 20% of the land was useable for agriculture.  The natives who had been farming for many generations had already established themselves on the best property. As much of the arable land was still occupied by native peoples, the Puritan immigrants frequently set up settlements near the native villages.

This proximity created friction.

The Puritans had no sense of multicultural appreciation for native cultures.  The natives were a frightening threat to project of building the Promised Land, the New Eden, the New Jerusalem.  Sexually repressive, the Puritans were horrified at the open and relaxed way the Indians enjoyed their sexuality.  They demonized native religious beliefs as “diabolical, and so uncouth, as if … framed and devised by the devil himself.”  These Indians didn’t control their appetites or work to separate mind from body.  They represented everything English men and women in American thought they were not – and, more important, must not become.  And when a population is demonized, genocide cannot be far behind.

The first Thanksgiving proclamation, in reality, heralded the beginning of that genocidal project.  The governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s proclamation in 1637 commemorated the massacre of 700 indigenous men, women and children who were celebrating their annual Green Corn Dance in their own house.  The English and Dutch ordered Pequots from their long house.  As they came forth they were killed with guns, swords, cannons and torches. The rest were burned alive in the building.

We are still struggling with how two cultures can live side by side without wanting to obliterate the other.  Watching the riots in France and seeing multiculturalism being attacked worries me.  The bombings in London by immigrants who effectively isolated themselves from their host nation points up the flaws in the British approach to multiculturalism.  The bombings don’t undermine the importance of multiculturalism, but rather underscore the need for it.  Both France and Brittan are not effectively teaching appreciation of the host culture to immigrants AND appreciation of other cultures to their indigenous populations.

As a male of European descent, I feel a great burden of guilt as I read this week about the horrible destruction wrought by Europeans on Native Peoples.  That is just the beginning.  Spend any time reading European history and the atrocious stories of man’s inhumanity against man fill page after page.  Any voice calling for tolerance, equality, and reconciliation fades quickly once armed men gather to face each other with weapons in their hands to defend blood and soil.

Though European heritage is particularly brutal, it exemplifies a human propensity for violence that, to greater and lesser degrees, we all share.  As European conquest and colonization is responsible for so much of the suffering around the world, I feel those of us who recognize its evil have a special responsibility to renounce it and commit them to choosing another path.  My vision of what our congregation can be is a place to learn to accept difference, a place to practice the skills of peacemaking, a place to cultivate non-materialistic values and meanings, a place to practice gratitude and love rather than greed and hate.  This congregation can be a place where we put our ideals into practice.

Acknowledging the harm European civilization has done by learning about it helps weaken false pride.  To tame self-aggrandizement, Europeans need to recognize the harm they have done.  But the process cannot end there.  The next step beyond remorse must be a commitment to a non-oppressive, non-racist, peaceful way of being in the world.  Another way to say that is “love thy neighbor.”

We have another choice besides succumbing to the weight of historical evil.  Our inherent worth and dignity can inspire us to counter and overcome the forces of evil that swarm around us.  Jesus taught the way.  Moses taught the way.  Buddha taught the way.  Mohammed taught the way.  Krishna taught the way.  They all agree the central commitment we must make again and again is to follow the path of love and abandon the path of hate.

What better place to recommit to loving thy neighbor but right here in this room.  A simple corn muffin serves to remind us of the gift of kindness given European Pilgrims in their first year here.  Let that gift inspire our own heart opening to give the gift of sustenance to others.


Litany of Thanksgiving

Leader:  Each one of us came into this world needy.  Our caregivers fed us, changed us, kept us warm and protected us.  They taught us, played with us, guided our first steps, opened doors for us, and sacrificed for us.

Congregation: For these gifts I am grateful.

Leader:  Our communities of origin anticipated our needs by building schools and hospitals.  The community made space for our caregivers to make a home for us.  For many of us that community brought us fresh water, took away our waste, maintained our roads, protected us from fire and provided public safety.

Congregation: For these gifts I am grateful.

Leader: When our nation was threatened, our elder’s and their friends and relatives went to war to protect our borders.  When natural disasters struck, our elder’s helped their neighbors get back on their feet.  And when leaders needed to be selected or decisions made, they voted.

Congregation: For these gifts I am grateful.

Leader:  We inherit the goodwill of countless people: the relatives who brought us here to begin new lives; the kindness of strangers we never knew and even those Native American’s who helped the Pilgrims survive the first winter.  Each one of us has received an abundance of blessing handed down through countless generations.

Congregation: For these gifts I am grateful.

Leader:  And yet, often we have not been appreciative and taken these gifts for granted.  At one time or another, we may have bit the hand that fed us, damaged our precious bodies, squandered our parent’s generosity, and neglected the need of our neighbor.

Congregation: For these harms I feel remorse.

Leader:   Our ancestors have harmed Native Peoples and each other.  They have plundered the natural resources of our planet, stripped the topsoil, fouled the air and waterways – often in our name, to create a better future for us.

Congregation: For these harms I feel remorse.

Leader:  It is painful to remember the ways we have been harmed or the ways others have been harmed in our name.  With greater awareness of this harm held together with remembering the gifts we have received, recognizing the reality of past evil can stimulate our desire to choose a different path today, let us begin again in love. 

Congregation: Remembering these harms and these gifts, I choose to begin again in love.

Leader:  We gather here to create a community guided by love.  Each Sunday, we renew our commitment to that cause through welcoming all free seekers, through excitement and inspiration of the human spirit, responding to trouble, and sustaining one another.  Chastened by our history and our shortcomings and inspired with gratitude for our blessings and our opportunities, let us renew our commitment to choose love and life over fear and death.

Congregation: Chastened by our history and our shortcomings and inspired with gratitude for our blessings and our opportunities,
 I choose love.  I choose life.

                                                By Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore

Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore.  All rights reserved.

Some sources used in this sermon:

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki, © 1993, Back Bay Books – Little Brown.

Why I Hate Thanksgiving (the Original Version) by Mitchel Cohen