FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 12/03/2013

Thanksgiving from an African Perspective

Nov. 22, 2014      Volume 6, Issue 16

Faith +Ideas= an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College

By Dan Darko

I have always enjoyed Thanksgiving Day since my first experience in 1999. As a native of the Akan tribe in Ghana, West Africa, my culture (like many African cultures) values interdependence and communal generosity. Generosity is a cardinal virtue in my homeland and being ungrateful is deemed a despicable vice. Recipients of generous acts often appeal to a person of nobility to convey their gratitude, sometimes waking the ‘giver’ at dawn in order to express their gratitude. To be ungrateful is to be associated with a false sense of self-sufficiency.

The Akan identity even lends itself to a framework in which giver and receiver alike find satisfaction in interdependence. It is not uncommon, for instance, for neighbors to ask for salt or pepper in preparation for a meal, before they are able to go to the market. Giving, receiving and thanksgiving is simply how Akan communities work.

So giving thanks is part of who I am. But I had never lived in a nation where gratitude was accorded a national holiday, where God was identified as its benefactor and otherness as a cause for celebration, until I came here. This notion of ‘legislated’ Thanksgiving sparked a new sense of appreciation in me for America, one I still hold now as a citizen of a country that pauses from the busyness of life to acknowledge his gifts in thanksgiving with others.

I spent my first holiday with my family and in-laws at Schenectady, New York. The meal was big and delicious, the turkey tasted great, and the family interactions were uplifting.
One conversation over dinner eventually helped me understand that the occasion was not a one-day event but an entire weekend celebration with food, fellowship, shopping and more shopping. Curious, I inquired about the roots and reasons for the holiday. Someone responded that it was a time for families to get together. But my mother in-law later explained that it began as a commemoration of God’s provision for the European pilgrims who celebrated their early harvest in thanksgiving with some Native Americans.

I soon learned that from Lincoln to Roosevelt to the joint resolution Congress passed in 1941 that turned Thanksgiving into a national holiday, everyone, it seemed, in this great country embraced the virtue of gratitude and celebrated it annually.

Something, though, didn’t quite connect the history lesson with the present reality. If God was acknowledged as the benefactor, how did he go missing from some public affairs? Did the ‘separation of church and state’ dismiss him as the giver of such gifts?

Other questions emerged for me as well. Why would a nation birthed in gratitude and multi-ethnic solidarity in years ahead prefer rugged individualism over community? Or foster a culture of self-reliance—as if we do not need others when building a decent quality of life?

Maybe it’s time to reflect anew on the object of thanksgiving, as our history defines it. Where we came from, what we have become and the people in our lives (though not perfect)—each is reason to say ‘thank you’—to God. Even the image of European immigrants celebrating with Native Americans prompts a desire for unity in our divided nation—especially when the progeny of European immigrants who once shared in thanksgiving with native Indians are, ironically, still debating if immigrants have a place in our society.

Of course, long before that first American exchange, ancient Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures acknowledged the significance of gratitude. Christ himself acknowledged its importance when he encountered ten lepers (one Samaritan and nine Jews) outside a village on the borders of Samaria and Galilee. Though Jews refused to mix with Samaritans, here the lepers’ illness and social rejection had drawn them together.

Presuming their act of faith, Jesus sent them to verify with the local priest that they’d been healed. The Samaritan was the only one who returned to say thank you.

Jesus was disappointed that the nine Jews failed to return with the Samaritan. He said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:17-19).

And so the giver received the beneficiary’s thanksgiving with gratitude. Consequently, the Samaritan’s appreciation accrued value when Jesus uttered that his ‘faith has saved’ him (literally) or ‘made him well.’

In other words, regardless of our cultural heritages, a genuine life of gratitude is cultivated when we realize, first, that we’ve only earned all we have become because of other people’s involvement. We are not entitled to their kindness, and consequently, we are indebted to our Maker and those who have shared in our lives. Gratitude best manifests itself in communion and cooperation, not in competition. Or as the Apostle Paul put it, what do we have that we did not receive?

Dan Darko is associate professor of Biblical studies at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his family live in Hamilton, MA.


Dan Darko