Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Look to the Rock From Which You Were Hewn
One of the artifacts CTS will leave behind in its old building is a stone with the inscription, “an authentic piece of Plymouth Rock.” Embedded in the wall of the cloister walk along with stones from various other places of ecclesiastical and historical import, this shard evokes amusement and reflection, not to mention wonderment at what the University of Chicago economists will make of it when they move in. Anyone who has been to Plymouth, Massachusetts knows how un-authentic Plymouth Rock itself is – a late addition to the landscape that would never have felt the touch of the shoes of William Brewster and company as they stepped off the Mayflower. So what does an authentic piece of an inauthentic rock really mean?
When our current building was constructed CTS was decidedly Congregationalist in its ethos and relationships, sharing with the church an origin myth deeply embedded in the story of the Pilgrim mothers and fathers. Growing up in New England, baptized in a Congregational Church before the union that formed the United Church of Christ, I was steeped in that legend and lore. Refugees from religious tyranny in England, the Pilgrims of my childhood risked all for the right to organize congregations gathered not by bishop or king, but by the people themselves under the Word. Their early months in Plymouth were marked by struggle, tragedy, and death, and they were rescued not only by their own perseverance, but by the hospitality of friendly native peoples who taught them how to plant corn and fertilize it with fish, and who welcomed them in a proto-Thanksgiving feast of turkey and squash. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving we were given five grains corn to take home to our table, a reminder of the privations faced by our spiritual forebears. One of my favorite children’s books was the story of a friendship between a Pilgrim boy named John Billington and an Indian child named Squanto. Each Thanksgiving my mother brought out wax candles shaped like a Pilgrim mother and father. Never burned, they decorated several decades of our family’s thanksgiving table.
Historians have revised much, though certainly not all, of this story. The alleged friendship of the native tribes was marked by far more suspicion and competition than we’d like to recall, and within a few years the grim history of the native genocide would begin nearby at the hands of European colonizers unwilling to share place and space with the original inhabitants. In college I would learn that the Pilgrims were a kind of side show compared to the Puritans when it came to the cultural and religious shaping of New England. The democratic impulses that shaped Plymouth weren’t able to withstand a more authoritarian and hierarchical style in nearby Massachusetts Bay, let alone the mercantile interests that ultimately triumphed. Even the “first thanksgiving” menu has been debunked in favor of more likely game, fish, fowl, and vegetables. Perhaps leaving behind our authentic piece of Plymouth Rock is simply a positive sign of growing up and giving up our childish ways.
I wouldn’t say I’m grief stricken at leaving Plymouth Rock behind for the economists to ponder or chisel away. But I will miss this odd and unlikely artifact. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of childhood celebrations of Thanksgiving at home and at church. Maybe it’s because it evokes cherished memories from trips our youth group – the Pilgrim Fellowship – took to the historic sites at Plymouth Bay or First Encounter Beach on Cape Cod. Or maybe it’s because I’m among the last generation of religious folk for whom the Pilgrim’s story will probably have much meaning in a culture that only sees a pilgrim hat on the giant Garfield the Cat balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
I’m not, willing, however, to pass it all off completely as an acute attack of nostalgia. For in a political culture today marked by growing class divides, the corrupting influence of wealth, election campaigns resembling blood combat, growing indifference to the poor and increasing hostility to modern day refugees stumbling onto our shores, the Pilgrims, for all their flaws (and history will note ours as well!) do offer us a prophetic voice. It came in the form of a covenant, a Compact – the Mayflower Compact – and it named the kind of civil society that sadly seems so hopelessly elusive today. They “solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another,” did
“covenant, and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and form such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.” Anno Domino 1620
This week our current civil body politic failed miserably in its efforts to deal with deficits that burden future generations and budgets that privilege the wealthy few over the poor and near poor. So much for just and equal laws meet and convenient for the common good! This Thanksgiving I’ll rub my hand across our authentic piece of an inauthentic Rock, like that rock Isaiah called us to remember, giving thanks for a vision of community that can still inspire, and for an origin myth that can still teach us, like the ancient myths of Scripture, something of the truth about the best and the worst of who we were, who we are, and who we yet might become.
John H. Thomas