Much has been made among Christians in 2020 about systemic sin—the collective fault of institutions, societies, and their norms and laws to engender injustice and cause harm. Most evident in heated debates over race, politics, policing, education, and the economy, systemic sin implies a capacity for wrong on the part of structures that individuals could not accomplish on their own.
But racism still requires racists; unjust institutions and arrogant corporations require people who are corrupt and arrogant. Systemic sin implicates individual sinners whether we realize it or not. In a previous era, inhabited by those Pilgrims whose gratitude we emulate every Thanksgiving, sin was understood as chronic, spiritual corruption solved by salvation alone. Once saved, redemption pressed the saved sinner into obedience, a good tree bearing good fruit (Matt. 12:33).
Jesus taught his disciples how a wise man built his house on a rock before the rains fell and the flood came, the rock being obedience to Christ in every aspect of life (Matt. 7:24–25). As the Pilgrims courageously crossed the Atlantic for the sake of religious liberty, their courage derived from their conviction that not even a sparrow “will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matt. 10:29). Shaped by what they long held in their hearts, they viewed their journey’s ultimate end as a heavenly country, a city God had prepared for them (Rev. 21:2). When stalked by exposure and starvation in the New World, they recalled the words of Jesus: If “God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28).
They would have been taught by long-winded preachers how God brought hardship into their lives as a mercy, “to wean us from the love of the world” and “to make the glory which shall be showed, and whereof our afflictions are not worthy, the more glorious.” This was hard teaching, no doubt, but it was proven by suffering, and no explanation of Pilgrim character works apart from it.
Yet Pilgrims, as well as their Puritan cousins, for all of their courage and conviction, suffer the caricature of a tightly buckled bunch, repressed and judgmental—puritanical to coin the stern adjective, especially regarding sex or anything fun. Not that our current, anxious age can’t be puritanical too. Gathered in small numbers amid the restrictive pandemic, we’ll still thankfully gobble down turkey without sanctimonious scarlet letters, as long as the turkey was free-range and humanely processed. Immoral are the red-meat eaters, the gluttonous, the glutenous and gravy-laden. Blessed instead are the cranberry eaters, each bite roundly loaded with ten essential vitamins and packed with antioxidants at only 86 calories per serving of sauce. Cranberries fight cardiovascular disease and slow cancer, stave off urinary tract infections and keep bacteria from binding to teeth: This is true salvation, praise Ocean Spray.
No one is sure how cranberries became associated with holiday feasts, though it may have been via the Massachusetts Wampanoags whose gestures of concord toward the Pilgrims later invited war and centuries of violent conflict. The Wampanoags used cranberries for everything from dye to tea. Eschewed by the Pilgrims and too sour (even by Puritan standards), cranberries became popular only once somebody stirred in some honey. Soon after that, bogs became a boon to the colonial economy.
In 1767, at the Second Church of Wrentham, Massachusetts, a pastor was fired on account of cranberries. Two congregants got into a dispute over the price of a cranberry crop and whether one owed money to the other. The pastor, a young Reverend Caleb Barnum, decided to play peacemaker. Thinking that money was the issue and could make everyone happy, Rev. Barnum offered to pay the difference in the disputed cranberry price out of his own pocket. Unfortunately, the congregation interpreted his generosity as implicating one side over the other. If the pastor was taking sides, he was no longer fit to minister.
In Luke’s gospel, a man wanted his brother to split the family inheritance evenly rather than have the older brother receive a double portion as law allowed. In Jewish tradition, rabbis had long been called upon to settle such matters. But Jesus did not care. “Who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” he asked (12:14), in a way that would have made Puritan congregationalists proud. “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (12:15).
Jesus went on to tell of the rich fool who built surplus barns of grain to feed only himself, followed then by a command not to worry about life because God will take care of everything, “you of little faith!” (12:16–34). These are welcome words in our anxious, pandemic days.
Worry and faith are similar in that both relate to the future, the unseen, and the unknown. Worry feeds off our insides, causing heartburn and panic, a sort of spiritual eating disorder that presumes a human capacity for control so long as we exercise and eat right. But no matter how healthy and harsh our diets, how particular our tastes and local our sources, no amount of worry can add a single hour to our lives (Luke 12:25).
“Man shall not live on bread alone,” Jesus said, “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Unlike worry, faith feeds off the Word of God incarnate, the Bread of Life broken, Christ Jesus himself. He is the first and lasting fruit of new creation where love never fails and all will be well and no room will be left on any plate for worry or fear.
John Calvin wrote that to be anxious for food or drink “belongs to those who tremble for fear of poverty or hunger” yet neglect the state of the soul. The Pilgrims knew famine and feast intimately and received both as grace from the Lord.
I understand they weren’t so crazy about corn. Pilgrims mostly regarded corn like we do cat food—more suitable as animal feed. They also thought tomatoes unhealthy, considered swan a delicacy, and believed sweet potatoes to be an aphrodisiac. (So much for being puritanical.) They positively loved beer, but they never celebrated holidays. Not Thanksgiving because who’s ever heard of setting aside just a day to be grateful? Not Christmas because nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of Jesus being born in December. And not Easter because as far as they were concerned, every moment was about resurrection.
Only half of the hundred or so who boarded the Mayflower survived to eat that first harvest feast. The Pilgrims’ bountiful harvest cost them a bounty of human misery, but they construed their loss as the will of God. Survival of hardship elicits thankfulness in ways that ease and prosperity can’t. Adversity clarifies what matters in ways that abundance only obscures. Church history testifies that a persecuted and endangered church always finds itself more reliant on Jesus than does an acculturated and privileged one.
The freedom for which the Pilgrims embarked for the New World was not about personal liberty. They prioritized obedience and fidelity to God, love of the brethren, and justice for all at the sacrifice of self. Their covenant bonds of faith freed them from worry. They were safe in the Lord, and they had each other forever, come what may. In Christ, God had supplied all they needed.
Daniel Harrell is editor in chief at Christianity Today.