This morning I woke up thinking about turkey. Not the one I’m going to eat in a few hours. Two turkeys, to be precise, who go by the names “Honest” and “Abe.” While driving home last night I had the privilege of hearing the President of the United States pardon these two birds and spare them from the fate of their brethren. It is a heartwarming American tradition, albeit relatively new; I was surprised to google it and learn George H. W. Bush started doing this in 1989.
But the American tradition of pardoning, of showing mercy, goes back farther. We rebuilt Japan after dropping the bomb, and we rebuilt Europe after victory there in World War II; today, former enemies are now some of our strongest allies.
Recently I went to Appomattox, where General Lee surrendered to General Grant, signaling the end of the brutal civil war that had brother fighting against brother. It was important to President Lincoln that the confederates be shown mercy, as long as they promised not to take up arms against the Union. Grant honored his commander’s intent, not only issuing pardons to each soldier, but including in the terms that each confederate could keep their personal side arms and horse if they had one, so they could get home safely. Reportedly, when the confederate officers and soldiers surrendered their arms and battle flags, it took a solemn four hours, and both sides wept at the gravity of it all, and the weight that was lifted. I can hardly think of a more humbling experience to witness.
Lincoln’s phrase “with charity toward all and malice toward none” is the essence of a beautiful American tradition. When I read and hear stories in the current news cycle, I wonder if young people simply missed learning about the moment that healed a war-torn nation. Many community organizers today are peddling resentment like carpetbaggers, while the communities themselves are poisoned by this sham medicine with a shiny label and a catchy hashtag, justifying violence and hatred. The reaction to this is just as sickening – anger and fear warp into genuine bigotry where at one time a live and let live attitude sufficed.
On this Thanksgiving, I am saddened that my country is once again torn by civil war. I feel angry that I can’t share an opinion without fear of being verbally pummeled by half my friends, whom I respect, love, and with whom I don’t always agree. I feel fearful that we’ve lost the humility required to live peacefully despite our differences. But when I feel angry and sad, I turn to gratitude. I look for the good, and the helpers. I look to my God to help me see what is true, and I don’t fashion the truth into a weapon; I use it as a torch to keep me warm and light my path. If it lights a way for others, all the better.
Thanksgiving is the ultimate expression of humility. An entire nation pauses in our collective lives to acknowledge God as source of all blessings. It has been this way since the first Thanksgiving in 1619 at Berkeley Plantation just a few miles down the road from where I live, and in Plymouth with the pilgrims. George Washington issued a Thansgiving proclamation, and Lincoln codified it. It is the quintessential American spiritual holy day, and one we need more than ever.
May we pardon each other this Thanksgiving. May we offer clemency to those we dislike. May we be compassionate to those who, in their hurting, hurt others. May we forgive before apology is offered. May we hold no malice, and withhold no charity. May we know Who gives us life, and be grateful. May we know that we, too, are forever pardoned, maybe not by our fellows, but always by our Father.