Come, ye thankful people, come Wheat and tares: Pilgrims still come, seeking opportunity on American shores.

November 28, 1996

FOR MANY AMERICANS, Thanksgiving ladles on guilt with the gravy and giblets. Is it right that we should celebrate our material abundance in a world where 850 million people are underfed? That we should honor home when so many are homeless, and family when so many are estranged?

Well, of course it is right to give thanks. There is no Garden of Eden: In our world, people are a mixed lot and lives have texture, rough and smooth. The Thanksgiving hymn recognizes as much: "Wheat and tares together sown, unto joy or sorrow grown." Joy easily moves us to thanksgiving, but sorrows and trials, too, should evoke gratitude -- not for hardship or tragedy, but for the opportunity to recognize and confront our shortcomings.

The pilgrims we invoke at this holiday came to America with dreams of moral perfection. On these shores they would create a City on a Hill, a Light to the Nations. Nearly four centuries later, we may wince. The pilgrims, and those who followed them, seem sometimes to have sowed more tares than wheat: slavery, the genocide of the Indians, economic exploitation.

Yet still pilgrims come. Without excusing our past or ignoring the challenges of the present, we should understand why America remains a place the world's nations want to come to. Imperfect as American freedom and opportunity may be, many peoples seem to think them more achievable here than in their homelands.

The presidential election just past is roundly derided for its uninspiring rhetoric. But for more than 200 years we have settled our political differences at the ballot box. It is a record the rest of the world envies and increasingly emulates. Only a generation ago, two-thirds of the world's people lived in unfree societies; now only about one-third do.

We cannot be thankful that 850 million people are malnourished, but we take hope from the recent World Food Summit in Rome, which found that food production has been keeping up with rising population and is able to keep on doing so as population stabilizes in the next century. Be thankful: World hunger is not an insoluble Malthusian catastrophe. If we muster the will, we can feed everybody.

Americans are a peculiar race, bountifully blessed, yet self-critical. Be thankful for self-criticism; the self-satisfied fail to progress. So let's take one Thanksgiving Day to count our blessings. And get back to work tomorrow.

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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