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Donald Robinson: Finding words that give thanks

Its origins are more solemn. One of the most familiar hymns traditionally heard on this holiday is Martin Rinckart’s “Now Thank We All Our God.” It was written during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), one of the bloodiest and most brutal conflicts in human history. Rinckart was a pastor in the small Saxon city of Eilenburg, where more than 4,000 people died of war-related causes, plague and famine. Rinckart buried as many as 40 or 50 people in a day. The town’s two other pastors and his own wife were among the victims.

Yet Rinckart found the spirit to write one of the great poems of praise and thanksgiving. It is utterly free of malice or despair. It speaks only of praise and gratitude:

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;

Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,

With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;

And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;

And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

American proclamations of thanksgiving are expressions of our “civil religion.” Like most religious faiths, our national faith has varied in its beliefs and expression over the years.

Certain features endure. We have an enduring creed (the Declaration of Independence) and other sacred texts (the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address). We have temples (the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Capitol), sacred objects (the flag), and hymnody (the National Anthem, “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful”).

But when our national faith is invoked by leaders, the words reflect not only the character of the speaker, but the culture he addresses. Thus Obama, in his radio address at Thanksgiving last year, failed to mention the name of God, provoking a storm of outrage from evangelicals on the right. It must be acknowledged that his comments were pretty thin gruel, but they faithfully reflected what is left of the ancient faith on which our nation was founded.

We get a sense of the discrepancy here by recalling Abraham Lincoln’s two famous calls for national prayer in 1863. In March of that year, as the Civil War was reaching its most desperate stage, Lincoln set the situation in a spiritual perspective. Nations, he said, like individuals, are subject to the “punishments and chastisements in this world.” The awful calamity of civil war, now desolating the land, “may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins.” We had been the recipient of the choicest bounties of Heaven. “We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown.” But we had “forgotten God. ... We have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”

Who can read these words without recalling, to our shame, the sharp quarrel during the recent campaign over who “made” this or that — on one side, the arrogance of insisting that entrepreneurs had done it alone, and on the other, the implication that governments had been the principal collaborator. The lack even of a sense of mystery about the source of our blessings was astounding.

Later that same year, in his call for a national day of thanksgiving in November, Lincoln’s tone was more optimistic, though still profoundly theological. His proclamation urged that we not forget the source of our blessings. He even suggested that the agonies of war might stem from “divine wrath for our sins.” Our blessings, he declared, were not the result of “human counsel or mortal hand.” They were “gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

Any modern politician who spoke such words would be dismissed as a right-wing fanatic, unfit for national leadership. But as we hear, for example, the hopelessly inadequate measures advanced for dealing with global climate change, do we not long for leaders who can add notes of humility, confession and a sense of responsibility to our national discourse?

But where will such sentiments come from, without some shared account of the source of our blessings, the need for forgiveness, and confidence in the ground of hope?

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette that appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at drobinso@smith.edu.

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