The best kept secret in the media over the past few years has been the 150th anniversary of the most significant event in American history. The Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, yet there has been a strange, deafening silence and the absence of any fanfare commemorating that bitter conflict fought to end racial slavery. One would assume, with the first ever black president in office, that the costly struggle which initiated the long journey toward full civil rights for every American would merit a little official attention. Alas, nobody in today’s smug political establishment seems overly concerned that a few million white guys and several hundred thousand black ones fought and made heroic sacrifices to remove the canker of slavery from our land, while also preserving a tottering Union mortally threatened by sectional strife. In short, this was a war that cemented what the American Revolution had only begun, thus insuring the continuation of the greatest human experiment in self-government that history has ever seen.
But instead of acknowledging any debt of gratitude to our forebears, today’s political class seems to be more intent on exploiting any racial or class distinction in order to capitalize on the ensuing tensions and strife. Would it not be far better to remind all Americans of the real progress we have made in 150 years rather than to continually foster divisions and petty resentments based on perceived slights? Instead of complaining we ought to be demonstrating humble thanks to those courageous men who willingly sacrificed their lives in order that their countrymen could enjoy some full measure of freedom.
Consider the Thanksgiving holiday, an opportunity for every American to ponder just what it means to be living in “one nation under God and conceived in liberty.” How tellingly American is that we set aside one day every year to give thanks to the beneficent Creator who not only gives us life but sustains it abundantly. But God’s greatest gifts extend far beyond the fruits of the earth or material prosperity to His gift of freedom, the blessing that we all too often take for granted, I fear. Freedom is not a natural entitlement but a blessing which can only be sustained through sacrifice. And that is what Thanksgiving is all (or should be) about, namely sacrifice. In fact the very word sacrifice means “to give thanks,” the two ideas are intimately bound up in one another.
Take our American holiday of that same name. You may be fascinated to know that the Thanksgiving holiday was rooted, not in the midst of prosperity, but in a time of war. The Civil War was at its bloody climax when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the last Thursday of each November. The year was 1863 and the president had just dedicated a battlefield site in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19 where, over a three day period, more men had perished than would die in any other military engagement during that protracted, bloody conflict. In his dedication remarks Lincoln spoke somberly of the countless sacrifices made on that field of battle.
“…in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate − we cannot consecrate − we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our power to add or detract.”
President Lincoln, no doubt, was very mindful of those very sacrifices in proclaiming that first national day of Thanksgiving. He well understood that freedom is not free, it is always purchased dearly. Just seventeen months later Abraham Lincoln himself paid the ultimate price to guarantee every citizen the precious gift of freedom, joining the ranks of those same honored dead he had so eloquently eulogized.
It should be incumbent on each American to remember that the freedoms and prosperity that we enjoy today are not of our own making. They are a bequest from others, the result of countless sacrifices made by those who came before us. People like Lincoln were not alone in giving that last full measure of devotion for the freedom of their people. They were simply following in the footsteps of God’s own Son who had set an example of perfect sacrifice some 1,900 years earlier − a sacrifice that extended the true gift of freedom available to all of mankind, not just one particular nation or ethnic group. Therein lay the president’s ultimate reason for setting aside a day of national Thanksgiving, to remind all Americans that the authentic source of their cherished freedoms is the perfect sacrifice of God’s own Son. Thanksgiving is a poignant reminder that all human sacrifices are somehow united to and made perfect by the sacrifice of our divine Savior.
It is only right to thank God for his many material gifts. But just as important is the gratitude we owe him for inspiring the countless individuals before us who made such stupendous sacrifices to insure the liberties and prosperity which we still enjoy. We owe our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and millions of unnamed heroes the deepest gratitude for making our comfortable lives possible. But the sincerest form of gratitude is emulation. Are Americans today still willing to embrace that same spirit of sacrifice for our children and posterity? Perhaps we have become too indifferent and self indulgent to care much about their future liberties and human dignity? To date, this nation has already insured that 60 million future citizens would never make it out of the womb alive. That represents more than 100 times the number of fatal casualties suffered during the entire Civil War! Could it be that a long, fruitful tradition of personal sacrifice has been doomed to obsolescence by the present generation?
This is a disturbing, and yet vitally pressing, question that every American should be pondering in his or her heart. The problem today is that too many Americans have confused prosperity with greatness. True greatness is only achieved through much sacrifice. We may have invented the telephone and the internet, but we have yet to invent a way to insure that every child is given a fair chance to be born and experience the manifest joys of life. This is not a cause for greatness but for shame. A willingness to callously sacrifice the innocent lives of others for one’s own pleasures is a hallmark of paganism. Recall how ancient Rome also perversely paraded her brutalities as “greatness.” Until recently, America had always set a much higher standard. Her people showed a willingness to sacrifice self interests for the sake of another. President Lincoln well understood that sacrifice is the one quality which truly makes for greatness, both in people and in nations.
Americans in 2015 truly have countless reasons to be thankful to God, and also to those before us who built the stately edifice we now occupy. But do not imagine that they will absolve us of the barbarous cruelties that are daily occurring in our land, and which bring us real shame and dishonor. Every generation must face its own challenges. 150 years ago a great tumultuous war was fought to decide whether the fruits of liberty should extend to all men. Fortunately for us today, truth prevailed both on and off the field of battle. We owe those Americans who fought and died for our freedoms a fathomless debt of gratitude. But we in turn are obligated to take up the same standard if we are truly as thankful as we profess to be. Our challenge today is to restore genuine moral freedom and to insure that even the smallest and most defenseless persons have the right to exist and to cherish freedom in their turn.
Life itself is the first prerequisite of freedom, yet life is increasingly disregarded in every corner of the globe today. The struggle is far from over, which means that we too must be willing to make sacrifices in order to preserve life and human dignity. Sacrifice is thanksgiving in action. It is how we show thanks for what we have already received. President Lincoln well understood this relationship, sublimely expressed in his address at Gettysburg:
“It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us − that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion − that we here resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain − that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
We need to be thankful for more than material goods, straight teeth, and good health. Good as these may be, such benefits may not even be that important in the larger scheme of things. To be truly thankful means to be willing to carry on the tremendous legacy of truth and freedom we received from our forebears, and ultimately from God. It reminds us of that solemn obligation to pass those same God-inspired virtues and values on to others, despite any cost to ourselves. Thanksgiving (with its accompanying sacrifice) is a debt that each generation owes to its successors. It is a promissory note continually passed down through the human family tree until it is eventually returned to the One from whom it was borrowed. But it need not be onerous or burdensome for it is the debt that insures our continued liberty. In reality it is our bond of freedom − because only the one who is truly free is able to give thanks.
A happy and blessed Thanksgiving to you all!
Francis J. Pierson