“the most crucial things the Pilgrims have to say to us have nothing to do with Thanksgiving itself. Far more important than its indictment of the holiday, the Pilgrim ideal throws into bold relief the supreme individualism of modern American life. The Pilgrims saw the world in terms of groups—family, church, community, nation—and whatever we think of their view, the contrast drives home our own preoccupation with the individual.
It was with Americans in mind that French writer Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term later translated as individualism, and the exaltation of the self that he observed in American society nearly two centuries ago has only grown relentlessly since. The individual is now the constituent unit of American society; individual fulfillment holds sway as the highest good; individual conscience reigns as the highest authority. We conceive adulthood as the absence of all accountability, define liberty as the elimination of all restraint and measure the worth of social organizations—labor unions, clubs, political parties and even churches—by the degree to which they promote our individual agendas. In sum, as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon concluded, ‘our society is a vast supermarket of desire, in which each of us is encouraged to stand alone and go out and get what the world owes us.’
From across the centuries, the Pilgrims reminded us that there is another way. They modeled their own ideals imperfectly, to be sure, for as the years passed in New England, they learned from experience what we have known but long ago forgotten—namely, that prosperity has a way of loosening the social ties that adversity forges. By 1644, so many of the original colonists had moved away in search of larger farms that William Bradford likened the dwindling Plymouth church to ‘an ancient mother grown old and forsaken by her children.’ And yet, in their finest moments, the Pilgrims’ example speaks to us, whispering the possibility that we have taken a wrong turn. Anticipating Hauerwas and Willimon, they observe our righteous-sounding commitment to be ‘true to ourselves’ and pose the discomfiting question, ‘What if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life?’
… Yet if we are serious about engaging in moral reflection, we must at least be willing to let them challenge us, to ask us hard questions about our ways of thinking and being. And when they do so, when they ask us why we venerate unfettered individualism above all else, what will we say? What scriptural principle will we cite in justification? ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30)? ‘He who is called while free is Christ’s slave’ (1 Corinthians 7:22)? ‘So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another’ (Romans 12:5)? ‘Do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another’ (Galatians 5:13)? I’m not sure they would be persuaded.
… And so we end with two responses that should always emerge from substantive Christian reflection on this or any topic: humility and doxology. There are likely aspects of the Pilgrims’ behavior and belief that we do not admire, but there are also ways in which, in looking at the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving, we should see both ‘how we mean to live and do not yet live.’ The parts of the Pilgrims’ story that inspire and encourage us go hand in hand with elements that remind us of how far we fell short, exposing our love of the world and the things of the world.” Excerpts from The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History by Robert Tracy McKenzie