Thursday, November 25th, 2021


Today is Thanksgiving in the USA – the 400th celebration. I wrote this script for Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme while in the House of Lords in London. By the time I got back to Leeds late evening, the news had moved on and this script was no longer appropriate. As I said in the last post, here is the original script which I publish simply to illustrate how this slot works and how a new script is sometimes required in the early hours of the morning.

Every time I hear the term “peanut butter and jelly” I want to shout “it’s jam!” – quite a lot in the last few days as they are the names given to the American turkeys whose lives have been spared by the President for Thanksgiving. I gather they are now living in a hotel – but, we’d better leave that thought for another time.

Peanut Butter and Jelly are probably unaware that today is the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving event. The early settlers in America had good reason to be grateful. They had escaped the old world of monarchy and religious control, and had overcome the initial challenges of shaping a life in their new world. And their instinct was to be grateful for their new freedom … which, of course, brought with it new limitations and challenges. It was a beginning, but not an end.

However, there is a clue in the phrase “their new world” that not everyone had reason to be grateful for this new settlement. I guess the 90 indigenous people who sat down with the 53 new settlers 400 years ago could not have imagined what was to follow – violence, dispossession and a legacy of cruelty and tension. It won’t come as a surprise, then, that many indigenous Americans celebrate a National Day of Mourning instead of Thanksgiving.

If anything, this recognition should evoke in anyone a certain humility in the face of a complex history. As we know, the scars of our ancestors’ continue to bleed for generations to come. And it is really complicated to work out what ‘justice’ or healing might look like for people who live now in a different world, but a world shaped by the grievances or victories of the past. But, complexity doesn’t solve the paradox. Closer to home, look at Sathnam Sangera’s ‘Empireland’ or the continuing injustice experienced by the Windrush generation.

I have to apply imagination and empathy to this exercise. The legacy of my own ancestors has not landed me in a bad place, after all. But, I come from a Judeo-Christian tradition that compels us to look through the eyes of the other. The Israelite settlers in the Land of Promise instituted rituals – involving body, mind, spirit and economics – so that they would never forget that once they had been slaves and must not enslave others. They didn’t learn quickly. Mary’s song – the Magnificat – makes clear that good news for the poor will be costly for the rich, and Jesus’s own ‘manifesto’ in Luke’s gospel recognises that liberation for some causes a problem for others.

If Peanut Butter and Jelly understand anything of their happy situation today, they might also see that not all turkeys will be celebrating their joy. Thanksgiving and humility belong together.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. I had already written a different script that became inappropriate as the day’s news developed. I got back from London late, wrote a new one and got it out by 1am. This is what can happen with Thought for the Day. I’ll post the original one shortly, so that this change will make sense.

I was on a train back from London to Leeds last night when I caught up with the news that some people had drowned in the Channel while trying to reach England from France. By the time I got home the number had risen to over twenty and a song of lament was going around inside my head.

Some years ago the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn was in Afghanistan.  He happened to be at Kandahar Airport as the coffins of fallen soldiers were taken on board an airplane for repatriation – that is, the return of the bodies to those who loved them back home. He wrote: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me.” It is a hauntingly simple and beautiful elegy in the face of human mortality. It’s full of empathy for those whose world would now have changed for ever and whose grief would be unbearable.

But, the point he makes is that if we don’t have our basic humanity in common, what is then left? This reflects the famous John Donne assertion that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…”

It seems that both Cockburn and Donne were able to penetrate through the dominant politics and positioning of their day and find the truth at the heart of it all – that whenever people die, a hole is left into which pour the tears of the bereaved. The difference between the fallen westerners in Afghanistan and the drowned easterners at Calais is that we label the latter, question their choices, and forget their identity.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, put it well when, recognising human solidarity, he offered first his sympathy to the families of those who drowned. This isn’t just a time for politics; rather, it is a time for digging deeper emotionally and being touched by tragedy. I don’t know the names or circumstances of those who have died, but their death changes the world.

This goes to the heart of Christian faith when faced with tragedy and loss. The Judeo-Christian tradition begins with people being “made in the image of God” and, therefore, being of infinite value – a value that goes beyond their economic or utilitarian function. Every person matters absolutely – not just those we deem acceptable.

Naive sentiment? Maybe. But, it also happens to go to the heart of what Christian faith refuses to negotiate.

Each one lost in the Channel had a name, a history and people who loved them. God knows their name even if I don’t.