Old-fashioned stories that romanticize the first Thanksgiving have a few basic factors in common. The pilgrims look as if they’ve just stepped out of a fashion catalog. The settlers recall a bountiful harvest in their new homeland. Peace and security must have been foremost on the list of reasons to give thanks. The pilgrims had made it this far, even though they lacked the amenities that life in their old homeland would have afforded them.
Today, of course, our story has changed. Our world news still reports threats to harvest and homeland security, but from a totally different perspective. Consider the mess in the Middle East. By “mess,” I mean bloodshed, chaos, and total lack of order or control, where the only objective is domination by any means available. This mess is all over the world, but it is highly concentrated in the Middle East.
The Middle East is predominantly Muslim. It is as if the Christian world of the West is once again warring against the world of Islam. And yet, contrary to earlier battles between Muslims and Christians, today’s warfare does not have much to do with religion and belief in God, or with doctrine or morals. Instead, much of the cause of war is “groupthink,” a reminder of George Orwell’s creative terms in his book 1984. The more current term is newspeak, but it doesn’t convey the force of groupthink.
Groupthink happens when people don’t act on principles or convictions, but instead go along with the crowd just for the sake of conformity, to fit in and be accepted. Groupthink is not particular to warmongering Islamic radicals. It is part of what drives many so-called Evangelicals in our Western society. We are all victims, at one time or another, of limited and narrow thinking. But some groupthink is more dangerous for its effects on the lives of entire populations. To be sure, our Judeo-Christian heritage does have a bearing on how we think and how we act and react in our groupthink. Groupthink wallows in superficial decisions that are more intent on conformity than on rationally arriving at the best conclusion.
The battle between East and West is not overtly religious but rather rooted in varying cultures and lifestyles. Religious belief is a noteworthy part of the problem, but beliefs and practices are grounded in cultural, societal, and ethical concerns. Supposedly, our enemies are fighting for Allah and we are fighting for all those things that have created our American way of life and our social norms and conventions. Looked at from this point of view, we have to ask ourselves: What are we doing in the Middle East? Are we trying to bring democracy and the American, Western way to an alien people? This is not going to work. It has never worked in the past and it will not work now. This is a clash of ideologies as well as religious beliefs and practices.
The battle is cultural, and since Islam is a political religion, a theocracy, their basis is religious while ours is nationalist and patriotic. The entwinement of religious and political forces in Islam is evident in the leadership of Iran: the mullahs, imams, and the Ayatollah himself all have great political as well as religious influence. This somehow compels our Western cultural prejudices to wonder how those “holy” men can be such warmongers! It is a religio-cultural phenomenon that we have to learn to wrap our heads around. Iran is a theocracy, not a democracy; rule is by God, not by the masses.
We in the West cringe at the idea of religious leaders being overtly involved in the political process, especially when it might descend to bombings, revenge tactics, and death and destruction. But this very thing happened in the Middle Ages when Pope Urban II preached a Crusade to recapture the Holy Land from the infidels in 1095. The tension between Muslims and Christians has a long and sordid history.
A more modern example of Christianity’s active political involvement is in Latin America and the great movement of liberation theology begun in the 1950s and ’60s. Liberation theology was a religious and moral response to the injustices rendered against the poor and disenfranchised in those poor countries. Notably, Pope John Paul II did not care for this activity from church leaders. He wagged a scolding finger at Father Ernesto Cardenal, a leader in the movement, when he landed in Managua, Nicaragua, on a papal visit in 1983. But those were different times in the church, and I suspect that today Pope Francis would embrace Father Cardenal and lift him off his knees. In fact, in February of this year, Pope Francis effectively did just this when he removed the canonical penalties Pope John Paul II imposed on Father Cardenal 34 years ago.
As far as radical Islam is concerned, I would venture to say that most of its combatants do not bring a broad critical perspective to the Qur’an and the teachings of Muhammad, just as many Evangelicals have little knowledge of the “big picture” of Christianity. Capturing the big picture requires a holistic approach to the Christian testament. It is not enough to pick out this verse or that chapter, this event in the life of Jesus or those words—proof texts, as they are called. If we are going to understand what Jesus was all about, we must capture the spirit and essential message in his words and deeds.
Radical Muslims and Christian Evangelicals who find death and destruction, terror and hatred in the Qur’an or the Christian Testament are victims of groupthink. And the larger the group, the deeper and more embedded is the think. Faith in God, a deep and profound understanding of the Qur’an, and a moral and doctrinal conviction that adheres to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad are hardly at the foundation of the hostile and bellicose attitude that creates and sustains an ISIS, a Taliban, or an Al-Qaeda.
Examine the lives of the recruits from foreign countries, including the United States, who have confessed allegiance to the cause of radical Islam and you begin to understand the circumstances driving those who give their lives for Allah or for a prize in the life to come. As in many conflicts that divide our nations, ultimately it stems from a cultural struggle between the haves and the have nots. (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would be pleased with such an assessment.)
Our battles today are for or against a lifestyle, a politic, the way we live, the way we conduct business and commerce. Certainly there is something real and authentic about whether one’s deity is called Allah or God. But, for the most part, the fighters on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq likely do not care about our confusion over the three persons in one God, or whether we are really monotheists or polytheists, or other nuances of Christian belief. They focus on what they believe in, whether or not it is valid. They know that their God is one and Allah is his name. They may know a bit about what their religion promises about the afterlife. They have fanatically committed themselves to battle because, for many of them, there is nothing else to which they can commit. It is a great cause, a national, international, and spiritual cause, a cause bigger than themselves—and therefore a cause worthy of commitment.
There is an entirely different perspective for us Westerners who are fighting wars against what we have dubbed as “terrorism.” Do you think any of the military personnel who are giving their lives to protect the homeland are doing it out of any sense of religious conviction and fervor? Our religious beliefs and practices are separated from our political convictions and our democracy. If you ask an American soldier in the midst of battle, he will tell you that he is ultimately fighting to protect the homeland. It is an accurate answer. He is fighting on behalf of a very secular cause, and that cause is patriotism and love for America.
If we think about thankfulness at all on Thanksgiving Day, it will usually and logically focus first on family and close friends. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21). Our hearts lie first and foremost with family. We thank God for those whom we love and who love us. In addition, and not to be downplayed, I think we see our country as a worthy object of thanks. Family images home; country suggests homeland.
The pilgrims were thankful that they made it through so much hardship and so many trials by the grace of God. Our thanksgiving to God in our time is conditioned by the age in which we live. “Homeland security”—the ability to live our day-to-day lives with a freedom from imminent danger—is a modern object of thanks, but to whom is it rendered? We may simply say, “Thank you, God.” But we may also say thank you to all the men and women who are helping us remain secure. At this moment in our history, I honestly believe that Thanksgiving 2019 has much to do with patriotism.
Gene Ciarlo is an ordained Catholic priest no longer in the active ministry. He lives and works in Vermont. He has been writing for Today’s American Catholic since the early days of its publication.