Who Belongs at the Thanksgiving Table? Christianity, History, and Immigration

November 17, 2021

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The four-hundredth anniversaries of the Mayflower landing and the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, come at a time of great debate and polarization about the past. For some, the Pilgrims represent the promise that America is a haven for the distressed and a refuge for the weary. For others, the Pilgrims are a parable about power and imperialism. In the American church, likewise, polarized histories cut between and through denominations, exacerbating the intra-Christian “culture war.” Unable to articulate a clear and universally convincing narrative about where the nation came from, many Americans feel anxious or even threatened in discussions about the past, present, and future of the country.

Much as the Mayflower story has been used to support both pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant stances, scripture and theology have also been used for cross purposes, to either welcome or keep out the immigrant. The wake left by the Mayflower is still felt, particularly by Indigenous communities impacted by the loss of land and by African Americans whose ancestors’ subjugation was intertwined with European liberty. Centuries of immigrants who felt excluded because they did not descend from Pilgrim or Puritan stock have also experienced this wake. To complement a recent symposium published by The Review of Faith & International Affairs on these questions, the Berkley Forum invites scholars to re-examine Plymouth history and the legacies of “founding” narratives by exploring the complex relationship between colonial history, Christianity, and attitudes toward immigrants.

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How is “owning” the past or laying claim to a founding national narrative linked with belonging to the nation in the present? How should Christians remember a history of violence, slavery, land theft, or white Christian nationalism? Do Christian scholars—especially historians—have a particular responsibility for intellectual and civic leadership, reckoning with the past and helping create conditions for a more inclusive and reconciled future? If we think of the nation as a table, perhaps a Thanksgiving one, who “belongs” around it? Who is the host, and who the guest? What are the criteria for inclusion, and who gets to decide? 

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