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Of thanks and mercy

AT THANKSGIVING time more than 30 years ago -- when I was Catholic chaplain at Boston University -- I preached yet another sermon on the evils of the American war in Vietnam. I probably took off on US consumerism, too, with a swipe at the Pilgrims of Plimoth Plantation for their eventual betrayal of Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief who taught the Europeans how to catch those turkeys.

After Mass, a professor whom I admired rebuked me. Speaking of the students who made up the bulk of my congregation, she said, "These beleaguered kids don't need another guilt trip from you. They need to be reminded their lives are filled with good things for which they can be grateful."

I think of that professor now, and of those students. Preaching is not the purpose of this column, but I am aware of its obsessive drumbeat on the subject of President Bush's war. More dead GIs over the weekend, more mutilated. More global terror as the blowback spreads. More opposition in the streets abroad. But at Thanksgiving, can't the columnist let up? War, war, war. What about all the things for which we Americans can be grateful?

As Thanksgiving approaches this year, how can we square our proper impulse to celebrate the bounty of life with a citizen's solemn responsibility to measure the course our government has set and to reckon with warnings of even rougher water ahead. On Thanksgiving, yes, we pause to reflect on what we have been given, but we also measure what we are making of our abundance. It is a time, therefore, of moral reckoning.

Can we be thankful for our national plenitude without reinforcing the virulent idea that we Americans are somehow destined to be blessed above others? From the Pilgrims forward, Thanksgiving has all too easily been a celebration of American election, and it is not grim sermonizing to sense the danger in that. Massasoit's people were, in the name of that election, eventually exterminated.

We prize Thanksgiving because, unlike other holidays, this one does not separate us from one another. A spirit of generalized gratefulness unites a diverse people in the mystery of what lies beyond every creed and doctrine, and no one rushes to put an excluding name on the one to whom thanks are offered. Yet exclusivist religious assumptions undergird the holiday, as they undergird the nation, and it behooves us to be aware of what those assumptions imply. When "God" is routinely thanked for "blessing" America -- for making the nation special, for "choosing" us -- can we simultaneously affirm that the greatest bounty lies in what we share with the human family, not in what sets us apart? Is it possible to feel grateful, that is, without feeling triumphal? Or to put it religiously, can we thank God without making a possessive claim on God, as if our good fortune is defined by disasters that befall the unelected?

Perhaps what I meant to say to the BU students all those years ago is that we must do two things instead of one. Yes, we do have so much to be grateful for. Our lives. Our world. Each other. The very day. Thanksgiving is the abundant feast of our rejoicing. And why shouldn't our hearts be full?

And yes, admit it. Our hearts, equally, are sorely pressed with worry. The Bush administration wants us to ignore the human cost of the war. The government barely acknowledges the fallen GIs and carries on as if Iraqi and Afghan dead count for even less. Indeed the Pentagon proudly keeps no count of them.

Yet Americans know that there are empty places at Thanksgiving tables this week, and the end of Ramadan for untold Muslim families in two nations is equally a time of grief. And for what? Last week, George W. Bush and Tony Blair offered justifications for their war -- "democracy" -- that had nothing to do with justifications offered last March -- "prevention." Are we not supposed to notice that? And what of months from now, when the purpose of democracy, too, will have failed and faded? What then? We went to war for the fun of it?

Whether democracy ever comes to Iraq and Afghanistan, it defines what America is most grateful for on Thanksgiving. But democracy means citizens are responsible for the actions of government. Bush's war belongs to all of us. There are guilt trips, in other words, but there are also necessary examinations of conscience. Moral second thoughts force themselves upon us. If we are beloved of God, so is our hated enemy. That we human beings, all in the name of virtue, have fallen to killing each other again shows that prayers of thanks must equally be prayers for mercy. And always -- pace Massasoit, pace today's war dead -- of repentance.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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