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Giving Thanks – to what end?

by Antonios Kireopoulos 

New York, November 24, 2005 --For many Americans, Thanksgiving offers a break from distressing reports of torture, terrorism and war.  Should this be so? 

In the United States, we give thanks on a regular basis for what we have.  At this time of year, we do so ritually:  in houses of worship and around our dinner tables, we recall the peaceful exchange of food and hospitality between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, the desire for religious liberty that prompted the Pilgrims to move to the New World in the first place, and the multitude of other freedoms subsequently enshrined in the constitutional, historic and cultural legacy of the centuries to follow.  

As a more or less religious citizenry, we typically understand this bounty in terms of blessings, as divine gifts.  For this reason, the very idea of a national Day of Thanksgiving resonates with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others.  We also typically understand that the enjoyment of these blessings brings a responsibility to nurture them.  What might our respective faiths tell us about how we’re doing on that score? 

Since its founding, the United States has been a beacon of hope to the world in terms of human rights.  Today, our torture of detainees, directly or through extraordinary rendition, makes us a target of contempt.  Thankful as we are for the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” the religious belief that all human beings reflect the divine imprint calls us to resist all assaults on human dignity, and thus to reject torture.  The fact that there is even a debate raging in Washington on the McCain Amendment is more than a little unsettling. 

In the area of civil liberties, the United States has historically served as the model of jurisprudence for other countries.  Today, assaults on constitutional guarantees – attempts to dismantle due process, the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, and basic privacy norms – call into question our commitment to justice.  Thankful as we are for the principle that all should be treated fairly before the law, the religious conviction that we should treat others as we would wish to be treated leads us resist threats of social injustice.  It would seem that fear has so manipulated us that we are willing to sacrifice, through such things as the Graham Amendment and the USA PATRIOT Act, the ideals that have made our country great. 

As for security, the United States has for the better part of a century been the military bulwark against invasion here and tyranny abroad.  Today, with the policy of preemptive strike, the manipulation of intelligence to justify war, and the willingness to use white phosphorus in Iraq, our country is now seen as a major threat to security worldwide.  Thankful as we are for American eagerness to defend the common good of all, the religious understanding of altruism and self-sacrifice causes us to resist abuse of power, not least of all because it recklessly puts our uniformed men and women in harm's way.  There is great irony in the fact that, for all the talk of supporting our troops, we rarely, if ever, have been allowed to see their flag-draped coffins on television. 

And what of global citizenship?  For the last 60 years, the United States has consistently led our global neighbors in the great enterprise of international cooperation.  Today, with a penchant for unilateralism, blustering in the United Nations, the discarding of treaty obligations, and disregard for environmental protections, the US is fast becoming the lonely bully on the block.  Thankful as we are for the sense of community that gave strength to our cities and towns, the religious affirmation of community as the locus of human flourishing makes us resist isolation.  In a post-9/11 world, a self-righteous self-understanding is not an option. 

This Thanksgiving, let us truly be thankful for our blessings.  But let’s make sure that, as we give thanks, we remember our responsibilities. 

Dr. Kireopoulos is the Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace at the National Council of Churches USA. This Op-Ed was developed for use by media during Thanksgiving week 2005.

Contact NCC News: Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2252; Leslie Tune, 202-544-2350



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