The seemingly benign aspect of Thanksgiving, a eucharistic like thanksgiving meal incorporating all the elements of American religion, functions as something just short of myth. The meal celebrates the great good will of Pilgrims embracing God’s good earth and her native people sharing together in the plenteous bounty of an emerging millennial kingdom. Here, at its beginning is the Eden of the American experience in which nature meets grace. Of course, it wasn’t until around the time of the American Revolution that the name “Pilgrims” came to be associated with the settlers, at which time they became symbolic of the American faith. (The name itself a false description implying mere pilgrims on a religious pilgrimage across a new holy land.) Myth conjoined with national identity may appear benign only from the perspective of belief. The blood and soil of Germany or the folk myths of Japan function in a role of invented tradition which demonstrate the dark side of the founding myths of the nation-state.
The Meiji Restoration, in Japan, puts on full display the necessity of having something to restore as the unifying element which would form the core doctrine of the modern ideology. The Kojiki, with its depiction of the emperor descended from the Sun Goddess, served as the myth to give divine dignity to the newly emerging Japanese identity. The emperor restored to centrality is putting God “back” in the center of a socio-political system which must posit the reified element from which it emerges. Though there cannot be said to be a “Japanese” identity until it is forged in the modern period, for the identity to function it must have eternal roots in the mythical past. The tradition does not predate the modern practices but the legacy is a necessity to obtain a unified ideology and population. The Emperor was not only the center of a new identity but would be the means of mobilizing the population in a religious world war. Japanese, German, and American identity are built upon imagined communities, the stories of which are contested, quite literally, on the world stage. The modern needs the imagined myth from which to forge the common culture, but by definition the shared values of the nation (constituting a religious-like identity) cannot tolerate counter-myth.
In the description of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, what Germany lacked at the end of World War I was an enduring subject or identity, and the Nazi notion of an Aryan race filled in this mythical role. Nazism as Alfred Rosenberg says, is a resuscitation or restoration of Odin (Odin is the God of wisdom, poetry, death, divination and magic). Odin is dead but as essence of the German soul Odin is resuscitated in National Socialism. The height of German thought “restored” by Nazism forges an identity from out of a mythic Aryanism, setting up the ideology of restoration and return.
The deadly aspect of the myth is that pure humanity is gained in differentiation and contrast with its polluted present identity. Just as the Japanese is precisely not Christian, the German Aryan is precisely not Jewish. In Hitler’s description, the Jew is not simply a bad race, a defective type: he is the antitype, the bastard par excellence as he has no culture of his own. He is man in the abstract, as opposed to the man of singular, concrete identity forged from the blood and soil of Germany. The race linked to blood is repeated endlessly by Hitler. Blood is nature, it is natural selection; the material sign of a “will of nature” (Mein Kampf, pp. 390, 581), which is the will to difference, to distinction, to individuation.
Both the Aryan and Japanese myth focus on the Sun, the gestalt for distinction and sight serving as the backdrop for all forms of differentiation. Roman Emperor worship likewise was connected to Sun worship (the Unconquerable Sun, Sol Invictus, later identified with the Emperor). The Jews invoke the Roman Emperor at the trial of Jesus (“We have no King but Caesar”), and as they are swept up into cultic state identity they sacrifice the Jewish Messiah. The will to power, the power of distinction and difference represented in the mythological Sun gods, is the original National identity. The Aryans, the Japanese, the Americans, the Jews, give rise to cultures which bear, in Hitler’s words, “the inner features of their character” (MK, p. 400). The delineation of this character is etched in the blood, the Other must die that the Volk, the nation, would be formed.
The colonists were not innocent refugees, mere pilgrims, as by 1620 hundreds of Native people had already been to England and back, mostly as captives. This unimproved – formless people (Hitler’s depiction of the Jews often echoes in descriptions of the Natives) were “wild,” mere roving heathens, and the land they occupied open for the taking. The Separatists and Puritans constituting the “Pilgrims” were, from the beginning, intending to take the land away from its Native inhabitants and establish a new “Holy Kingdom.” In a Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623, Cotton Mather praised God for the smallpox epidemic that wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag people who had been their fellow diners at Thanksgiving. This blood for which Mather gives thanks is “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for better growth.” The sacrifice of the Wampanoag is the divine opening of the new kingdom.
Sorting out myth and truth surrounding Thanksgiving may be aided in pitting the Eucharistic thanksgiving meal against American Thanksgiving. Both are meals expressing thanks for the abundance of the earth in providing food. The use of bread and wine as signs of gratitude, employed by Jesus, are first seen when the priest Melchizedek offered bread and wine to thank God the creator for the fruits of the earth (Gen. 14:18-20). In both meals, thanks is offered in the midst of an impending death. The Words of Institution of the Lord’s Supper are: “He took the bread, and giving thanks, broke it,” and, “He took the cup, and once more giving thanks, he gave it to his disciples” (see Lk 22:19, 17 and 1 Cor 11:24). The impending death is not hidden or mythologized by the meal but accentuated. Jesus alludes to his death and to the traitor in their midst. There is an inherently demythologizing element in the discussion of betrayal, death, sacrificial servitude, and the reversal of nation building in the Lord’s Supper.
Included in American Thanksgiving are all the elements of myth (in a Girardian sense) covering over the genocidal inclinations, the unfolding betrayal, the sacralizing of those betrayed, all of this already present in the hearts of the “Pilgrims.” (Even the beloved corn of the sacred tradition was stolen from the natives, along with many “pretty” items taken from Wampanoag graves.) The American myth hides the death dealing intentions of the “Pilgrims.” Christ exposes the death dealing nature of these “inner features” (Hitler’s depiction) and this is the original Gospel message: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). The true thanksgiving exposes the murderous complicity in the invented myth underlying nation building.
The great irony of the American Myth is that it defangs Eucharist and Church by enfolding it into the founding of America. On the Manataka American Indian Council website it notes the mythic element to each part of the Thanksgiving story, ending by noting the possibility that the myth about the “Pilgrims” landing on a “Rock” (they did not land at Plymouth Rock) originated as a reference to the New Testament in which Jesus says to Peter, “And I say also unto thee, Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) The appeal to these scriptures gives credence to the sanctity of colonization and the divine destiny of the dominant culture.
At a minimum the myth surrounding Thanksgiving should not be accepted as benign storytelling, as from such myths religious identities are forged.