26 November 2014
Though the early decades of Plymouth Plantation included a number of fortuitous alliances as well as violent skirmishes with Native tribes, the famous meal shared between Natives and Pilgrims became, ultimately, the American institution known as Thanksgiving. That was then and this is now, a considerable distance from crowded, clouded with fossil fuel hazed highways, parades swollen with cartoon floats, nachos drenched in squeeze-cheese and pickled jalapeños consumed during breaks in bone-crushing football games, those early meals had vision. Perhaps then they could even see a reality far beyond what they knew of the prosaic day-to-day: they conjured Jerusalem.
And so it was for the authors of the Plymouth Sabbath School Hymnal, published in Brooklyn in 1858, more than two hundred years removed from Plymouth in 1620, this imagined Jerusalem was, in its own way, far away from the trouble and torture of their (and our) mundane existence. Yet its allure was so dear as to be near and beloved. "Jerusalem! my glorious home. Name ever dear to me! When shall my labors have an end, in joy and peace and thee! When shall these eyes, thy heaven built walls, and pearly gates behold? Thy bulwarks with salvation strong, and streets of shining gold?"
The early Pilgrims were Calvinists, strict in their enduring faith. The first pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn was Henry Ward Beecher, a descendent of Calvinists and fierce abolitionist, who would have found the Pilgrims' yearning toward Jerusalem 200 years earlier to be totally intolerable. Though make no mistake: he yearned himself--just in the language and in the time and in the historical framework that was more suited to his generation. "There happier bowers than Eden's bloom, nor sin nor sorrow know; Blessed seats! Thro' rude and stormy scenes I onward press to you. Why should I shrink at pain and woe? Or feel at death, dismay? I've Canaan's goodly land in view, and realms of endless day."
In this yearning is a lesson. We don't have to accept the world for what it is--even its idealizations. We can always change what we inherit while giving honor to and singing the praises of those who came before us.
Last night while walking to meet a friend for a beer, my own fellow settlers on the sidewalks of Vanderbilt peered heavenward to see helicopters, like flying army jeeps, hovering overhead, tracking the protests of New Yorkers who marched in solidarity with those in Ferguson. A few wealthy enough to own slaves were able to do so in Plymouth; but seeds were planted then for an American enterprise that would capture, enslave, torture and murder countless lives sacrificed on the altar of the idea of religious freedom. It would require war, more death, Reconstruction, lynching, the Civil Rights movement and countless more lives, given up for a greater, ever expansive freedom, but a freedom no less setting its sights upon "Canaan's goodly land in view." Some of Plymouth's early inhabitants held slaves; others killed Native Americans. Still others loved the Other unconditionally. In every generation we get to decide who we want to be.
My friend and I spoke about the helicopters and the protests and the still long road ahead in overcoming the pain and woe of racism. But mostly we talked about earthly Jerusalem.
The summer's war with Gaza. The lives lost. The hardened hatreds. Stabbings. Shootings. Lynchings. Cars running down pedestrians. The total collapse of the peace process. The dreadful, fearful, irretrievable sense of lost hope.
Pilgrims of one God marching on Pilgrims of another God, each seeking to extinguish the other.
We talked and we argued and we talked and we argued; and as the night wore on we heard each other more and more. He in his insistence that the Jewish people remain a "light unto the nations" and me in my insistence that especially when we see our brothers and sisters saying and doing things that we find morally repugnant we never stop trying, never stop believing, that "Canaan's goodly land" is within our grasp. We live in the world we inherit. Where we go and what we do with it is up to us.
This is the Jewish Hymnal. This is how we do it. Words--and the deeds they breed--can break the chains of hopelessness.
Here is my Thanksgiving wish for you:
Where there is hunger, feed it.
Where there is no shelter, build it.
Where there is hatred and bigotry, banish it.
There is too much pain we are causing one another in this world.
And so, where another states his pain, listen. Reach and speak across the divide. Difference need not be mired in stasis but rather should flow, be in a constant state of change in growth: "let justice roll down like water, righteousness as a mighty stream."
Let us all be Pilgrims of Hope. Let's break bread for Peace. Now.
"Jerusalem, my glorious home! My soul still pants for thee; then shall my labors have an end, when I thy joys shall see."