Manifest Destiny: Thanksgiving and American Missionizing
As much of the nation readied itself for Thanksgiving Day feasts, American missionary John Chau made one last, fatal attempt to evangelize a few dozen people living on the island of North Sentinel. “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” he wrote in his diary. Despite the knowledge that his trip was illegal and extremely dangerous (his waterproof Bible was pierced by a tribal youth’s arrow in a previous attempt to visit the island), Chau was convinced of three things: he had special knowledge that would save the souls of these “lost” individuals; they had no access to this knowledge except through a missionary such as himself; and without this knowledge, the island tribe was hopelessly hell-bound.
Perhaps Chau saw himself in Jesus’ parable of the landowner. It begins as a familiar tale. There’s an absentee landowner who plants a vineyard then returns to his country, as often happened in the far-flung territories of the Roman Empire. He hires tenants to harvest the grapes, then sends his servants to collect the produce. The tenants seize the servants, beating and killing them. The landowner sends a larger group of servants. They too are dealt with violently. Finally, the land-owner sends his son. Surely, they will respect my son, he thinks. But the tenants imagine that by killing the heir to the land, they can take it for themselves, and so they do. Jesus ends the parable by asking, “What do you think the landowner will do to those tenants when he returns?” Everyone listening was of one mind—he’ll kill them and lease his land to tenants who give him the harvest. Parables, however, are known for a shocking twist at the end, and this one was no different. Jesus finished the parable saying, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who produce its fruits.”
The religious authorities didn’t like the moral of the story. At the beginning of the parable, they placed themselves in the role of the landowner—the powerful character in the story. But Jesus’ interpretation turned that idea on its head. God, in fact, is the landowner and the religious leaders are the tenants who refuse to distribute the harvest because they really just want to hijack the whole operation. Jesus’ statement—that the kingdom could be taken from them and given to another people—was incredibly controversial in a religious tradition that believed they were God’s chosen people.
This is not so different from what Christian orthodoxy has proclaimed down through the ages. We are the chosen ones. We are the heirs of the kingdom, and no one can take that from us. We are the saved and it’s our job to tell others that they are condemned to the fiery depths of hell unless they take on our beliefs, our practices, our way of worshiping.
Theologian Sharon Ringe says the argument that Jesus had with the religious leaders was not so much about religious practice, but about their “collusion with exploitative economic and social policies” of the Roman Empire. In other words, the church and the empire were hand in glove. If the religious leadership touted the status quo, made light of oppressive policies, and preached an anemic theology, they too could share in the empire’s power and wealth. But Jesus told them—in the coded language of parable—that God won’t stand for their power-grabbing. God will give the kingdom to another people, who will give the fruits of the harvest back to God.
American Christianity uniquely co-opted the notion of being chosen by God to bring a special mission to the world by hitching the idea to Manifest Destiny. According to Kelly Brown Douglas, the phrase “Manifest Destiny” itself was first used “in an 1845 editorial written by John O’Sullivan,” who coined the term as he argued for the annexation of Texas (which then belonged to Mexico) to the United States. Historian Reginald Horsman defines Manifest Destiny this way: “the American Anglo-Saxons as a separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and to the world. This was a superior race, and inferior races were doomed to subordinate status or extinction.” In other words, American missionizing hitched to Manifest Destiny has never been an act of hospitality, but instead of force. If the recipient being evangelized refused to accept the good news and special saving knowledge of American Christianity, the result was death—either in this life (in the case of many Native Americans who lived in right relationship with the land to which Americans now lay claim) or the next (in the spiritualized version of Manifest Destiny).
In the days since Chau’s death, many have pointed out that the tribe living on North Sentinel Island has no immunity to the many diseases outsiders might carry onto their island. Their policy of refusing admittance to all outsiders functions, in reality, as a vital public health practice that maintains the survival of the tribe. American evangelical zeal--strongly rooted in narrative of Manifest Destiny—presumes, however, that saved souls are more important than the survival of human lives in this world. Scholar Kelly Brown Douglas notes, “It does not matter that the narrative of Manifest Destiny is no longer explicitly articulated. This narrative, like that of America’s Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, is deeply embedded within the collective psyche and consciousness of America. Both narratives,” she continues, “are a palpable part of American culture.”
The happy story of the first Thanksgiving exemplifies how the Manifest Destiny narrative is perpetuated today. In a history littered with the attempted genocide of Native Americans, forced removals (such as the Trail of Tears, on which four thousand Cherokees died), forced family separation, boarding schools (at which Native children were forced to cut their hair and relinquish their native language), and promises systematically made and broken by the American government, the tale we choose to tell every year at Thanksgiving is one of breaking bread together. It makes us feel good, but absent the wider lens of the truth about colonization, it is ultimately a lie.
In theological school, I had the privilege of studying under a Ghanian professor Mercy Amba Oduyoye. In class she spoke candidly about the missionary zeal that invaded her nation like the plague. She said missionaries did have holy truths to share. But they didn’t understand that hospitality is giving and receiving. The missionaries were unwilling to receive any of the holy truths that Ghanaians wanted to share with them. And when one group insists that others must think as they do but are unwilling to accept any new knowledge from others, it’s a recipe for abuse.
Jesus seizes on such abuse in the parable of the landowner. The church that carries Christ’s name has too often bowed to the gods of power, wealth, and paternalism rather than the God who liberated the enslaved. They call Chau a martyr, but it wasn’t by forcing his message on others that Jesus died. At the heart of the Bible, instead, is the liberating story of a blue-collar carpenter, born out of wedlock in a stable, who grew up to heal the sick, restore the exiled to community, and challenge the religious and political authorities with his radical call to love. Because of his prophetic witness, he was executed. The powers of this world don’t tolerate that kind of liberation and, too often, neither does the church that bears Christ’s name. Thanksgiving is a good time to remember that the earth and all that is in it belongs to God alone, and so-called chosen-ness exempts no one from returning the harvest back to God’s economy in which the first are last and the last are first.