Once upon a time, the annual celebration of Thanksgiving was also an occasion for sober reflection. I'd like to try that again, though I know I'll be going against the grain.

The grain used to run in another direction. In the fall of 1789, just as the nation was getting its balance, George Washington issued the first presidential proclamation. He assigned November 26 of that year "to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be," to render to God "our sincere and humble thanks." He mentioned God's "favorable interpositions" in "the late war," and in the new Constitution, "now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed."

Then he said Americans should also beseech "the great Lord and Ruler of Nations" that he might "pardon our national and other transgressions."

He assumed that we had sinned as a people, and that one duty of citizenship was a searching moral inventory.

Apparently Abraham Lincoln felt the same way. His 1863 proclamation, which set the annual precedent for Thanksgiving, also came at a precarious moment—"In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity," as he noted. And the reasons for thankfulness, again, were many: "the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies," that peace with other nations has been preserved, that the nation's laws had been respected and obeyed, that "harmony has prevailed" ("everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict"!), and that "the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom."

But then he said these "are the gracious gifts of the Most High God," who, though remembering his mercy, seemed also to be "dealing with us in anger for our sins."

And he asked the nation to pray for "all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers," doing so "with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience."

Now we come to another perilous moment in our history. "As we recover from the terrible tragedies of September 11," said President Bush in his last Thanksgiving proclamation, "Americans of every belief and heritage give thanks to God for the many blessings we enjoy as a free, faithful, and fair-minded land." He mentioned the sacrifices, leadership, and faith of many during "this unprecedented national crisis." He reminded us of "our dependence on One greater than ourselves," and he said our prayers should be made in both "thanksgiving and humility."

But there was no Lincolnesque sense that our national crisis was part of God's inscrutable judgment, no talk of repentance, no plea for contrition for national sins.

This is not to blame President Bush. He is a man bound by the constraints of the age, and no modern President has exhorted the nation to repent. Too bad.

Our nation, and its pursuit of liberty and justice for all, has always had enemies, more today than ever. But in earlier times, our nation's leaders recognized that the most dangerous enemy came from within—not traitors, anarchists, or terrorists, but the very people and government committed to preserving freedom. They knew that the ultimate source of injustice and tyranny was not bad law, but bad people, people like you and me, who have an insatiable thirst for power, privilege, and ease, and who tend to pursue self-interest at the expense of others' fortunes and even lives, if necessary. Thus the need for constant spiritual vigilance and the calls for national repentance. Former leaders recognized that one way to ensure a "large increase of freedom" was to admit periodically that we, as a nation, are sometimes our own worst enemy.

Without a national call to repentance, one can only do what one can do. So this Thanksgiving I will indeed thank God for our nation's efforts to root out violent enemies without and within. I will remember "orphans, widows, mourners and sufferers" who have suffered at the hands of terrorists. I will pray that evildoers who murder the innocent will be brought to temporal and divine justice.

But I will also remember that I too, in my own way, am an evildoer, guilty of "perverseness and disobedience" on many levels. And I'll ask God for the grace and courage to be a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and, as part of that discipleship, a better citizen of this glorious and sinful nation.

Related Elsewhere

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamations are available online.

See Christianity Today'sThanksgiving channel for more related articles.

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