Attentiveness: Hospitality and Covenant

American Thanksgiving is unique. Most countries celebrate political liberation or independence and various holidays of a religious nature (such as Thaipusam, Deepavali, Vesak/Wesak Day, Yom Kippur, and Eid al-Fitr). American Thanksgiving, however, is rooted in national identity, Christian history, and intercultural encounters and covenant. It is a myth (in the technical sense[1]) with much history—the unique Puritan history of New England—and a degree of romanticism.[2]

When we lived in Singapore, on Thanksgiving Day our children would often put on a drama of that first festive event, which included Pilgrims, indigenous peoples (Wampanoags), a turkey, and prayer. The drama reinforced for our children to be thankful and it also served to enable our local Singapore guests to understand a little better America and American culture.

We all know, on the other side of critical theory and post-colonial studies, that U.S. history, in fact all history, is much more complex and has involved more violence than we have been led to believe.

However, despite the complexity and contradictions, as Christians, it is important that we can still see our history, our country, and our civic lives with the eyes of Christ. The violence and oppression in the world must not have the last word for Christians, nor should it be the predominant theme. The depravity that seeks to define the human story must not take precedence in our lives and teaching. The Lord knows oppression and violence that is endemic to humanity. However, being aware of the evil around us, we need to shift our gaze and see the light that shines through. “Whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). There are times when it is difficult to think on these things. Yet we are commanded to do so for the sake of our souls and for the sake of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.

Therefore, it is important to have holy pauses to thank God.

This Thanksgiving, I am thinking about hospitality and covenant. Part of the Puritan story is that amid disease, intertribal fighting and colonialist deaths, there was grace. Where? A Patuxet young man, who had been enslaved by the Spanish (and later escaped to England) and who ended up as a peacemaker between the English and the Wampanoags (as well as other indigenous groups). We know him as Squanto (Tisquantum), who learned both Spanish and English and helped to write treaties between the new immigrants and local peoples. He shared with the English his knowledge regarding growing corn and gathering other food and helped ease tensions with various groups during a time of immigration and disease. Ironically, his former village, which was devastated by disease, became the first settlement for the Pilgrims.

The English Puritans defined their community lives by covenants. Their churches in New England were generally founded with a particular covenant that all new members would sign. So, when it came to relations with their new neighbors, these Pilgrims naturally turned to a form of covenant. What was finally agreed upon became one of the first peace treaties in North America. It was a parity covenant where both sides agreed to the same terms and neither side required submission of one to the other. It is the only covenant with indigenous peoples that we know of that was not broken during the lifetimes of the signatories.

Tisquantum helped to pen the Pilgrim-Wampanoag Peace Treaty, signed on March 22, 1621, between Governor John Carver of the Plymouth Colony and sachem (chief) Massasoit (Ousamequin) of the Wampanoag Confederacy. The treaty remained operative until the death of Massasoit in 1661.

Hospitality and covenant agreements likewise abide at the core of our faith. God, our host, invites us to commune with him. God also has covenanted his love toward us; it is a love that is unconditional.

So, this Thanksgiving I am going to reflect on God’s covenantal love and welcoming hospitality. We have so many opportunities as Americans to offer such hospitality to others who need extravagant love that reflects our Savior.

“Come to me all you are weary and heavy laden,” Jesus says. May we as individuals, as families and as churches be equally hospitable and thus reflect the heart of our Savior to the world.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Enjoy your time with friends, family, and the “pilgrims” in your life.

[1] As defined in Merriam-Webster: “a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone especially: one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society.”
[2] As with most all colonial history there is disease, trade, migration, deception, and war between indigenous peoples and some of these people with the colonialists. Here we focus on the unique features of treaty and hospitality.

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.

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