by Michael T. McRay “I find it ironic on this Thanksgiving Day—a day of sharing, hospitality, and welcome—that our nation is divided as to whether we should extend hospitality to those seeking refuge in our borders.” Such was my dad’s opening remark as he welcomed dozens of family and friends into my parents’ home in Murfreesboro. Thanksgiving is indeed a peculiar holiday, with more than one irony—and too much convenient collective forgetfulness.
While pausing amidst busyness to remember that for which we should be grateful is an important—even essential—exercise, the national myth surrounding Thanksgiving is deeply problematic, and terribly ironic. Schoolchildren decorate crafts of European pilgrims and Native Americans celebrating the first Thanksgiving, with smiles as plentiful as the food. We preserve a lovely story of friendly meetings between pilgrims and natives, where pleasant conversation must surely have accompanied laughter and sharing. Perhaps we tell ourselves that the native peoples of North America then graciously relocated to make room for the light-skinned foreigners arriving on ships.
But that isn’t true—the European invaders killed them. They chased them, burned them, beat them, raped them, evangelized them, tortured them, and displaced them. Many natives call Thanksgiving “Thankskilling” or “Thankstaking,” and indeed, they’ve remembered that era of American history far more accurately.
Consider the Pequot Massacre of 1637. Five time Plymouth County Governor William Bradford had this to say about it:
Those [natives] that escaped the fire were slain with the sword; some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so that they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire…horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they [the Europeans] gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.
Not only did the European invaders wreak havoc on the natives of this land, those invaders often attributed their victories to God and gave thanks. Thus, the more accurate (though still admittedly simplistic) narrative might sound quite similar to our current fears: Immigrants with strange tongues and strange beliefs arrived from across the sea, many with fervent religious ideologies, and then conducted genocide. Before Columbus arrived, the Native population living in now-U.S. territories is estimated to have been around 10 million; by 1900, it was 300,000.
This Thanksgiving, it is indeed ironic then that so many people this country fear the arrival of Middle Eastern refugees, claiming that ISIS may have infiltrated their ranks and could bring religiously-motivated terror to this country. But to paraphrase John Oliver, only once in American history has a group of immigrants arrived on these shores and wiped out the current residents—and we celebrated that last Thursday.
For those of us who claim Christianity, our resistance to welcoming refugees presents theological problems. According to biblical text, after Moses leads the Hebrew people out of Egypt and they arrive to Canaan, God consistently reminds them to be kind and fair to the stranger and foreigner among them, “for you were once foreigners in Egypt.” Jesus talked later about doing to others as we would want others to do to us. A great many people in our history came here looking for opportunity, freedom, and new lives. Then, a great many of them killed the people they found here and kidnapped and enslaved darker-skinned folks from Africa to do their labor for free. It seems we might be wise, even if only in penance for our unspeakable national sins, to extend a welcoming embrace to those seeking the same refuge here that we believe our predecessors sought. The engraved poem on the Statue of Liberty boasts these words: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / … Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Perhaps, to match popular sentiments today, we should chisel in “unless they are brown, Muslim, and from the Middle East.”
But we are now in Advent season, the beginning of the Christian year. We are awaiting the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, God With Us. Not long after this brown-skinned Christ is born into an occupied land in the Middle East, his life is in danger, and his family flees, traveling across borders to find refuge in Egypt. The significance of this narrative must not be lost. If we proclaim Jesus as the incarnation of God—God with skin on—then we must also proclaim that God was a Middle Eastern refugee.
Advent is not just about anticipation; it’s about preparation. We don’t just wait; we get ready. This season, let’s remember that the brown-skinned, Middle-Eastern refugee Christ is arriving soon.
Are we ready?
Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the new Community Outreach Coordinator at the Tennessee Justice Center, founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. You can follow him on his blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.