During America's darkest days as a nation in 1863, President Lincoln sought a way to lift public thought above war and political strife: He cemented the tradition of Thanksgiving Day. Now, 142 years later, that tradition is as needed as ever as the national debate over the Iraq war turns acidic and nasty.
Last week, uncivil comments were made by many elected leaders in Washington about the origins and the future of the Iraq conflict. Such comments hardly portend a new American civil war - Iraq is the one on the cliff of civil war, not the United States. But with personal attacks whizzing like bullets along Pennsylvania Avenue, the US is fortunate to be heading into a holiday that allows an introspective moment.
Thanksgiving Day is a time to reflect on gratitude and giving during a time of sharp political splintering over Iraq. It isn't just a moment to reconnect with family and friends over a good meal. It's also a public event. And for those who rely on God for guidance in thinking about national affairs, the day serves as a reminder to be thankful for that guidance. Such gratitude creates a humility which suppresses pride and opens up expectations of further divine guidance.
In his Thanksgiving proclamation, the Calvinist Lincoln warned Americans that they had forgotten God: "We have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own." He asked that God's "gracious gifts" be "acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People."
Lincoln probably knew, from his study of George Washington, that in times of war, gratitude is a necessary act of peace. During the Revolutionary War, Washington issued a Thanksgiving proclamation recommending that Americans offer thanksgiving, "especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."
Iraq, like many nations, is in need of a peaceful transition to a type of government that serves the people. If American politicians can't express their differences over Iraq with peaceful and respectful tones, how can the Iraqis take heart in their difficult task? Better political atmospherics in Washington will go far in helping Iraq to find peace.
As Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation declared: "No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things [blessings and bounties]."
Thanksgiving goes back to America's earliest settlers. Since it became an official holiday in 1941, the day has served as a compelling reminder for Americans to use the power of gratitude in shaping public life to a will higher than their own.
Amid the sound-bite conflicts over Iraq, everyone has an opportunity this Thanksgiving to appreciate those with differing positions in this debate. Gratitude opens up a listening that is essential for a democracy.
Democracy is really a contest of ideas, not of wills. And the best ideas come when good ideas already present are acknowledged.
This Thanksgiving, Washington needs a second helping of that gratitude to find the guidance it needs.•