Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is an American holiday. And every year it comes around, I can't help but sense the irony of that fact. The concept of "thanksgiving" or "giving thanks" is fundamentally a responsive act. At it's core, it recognizes the grace which precedes it. It is a response to something that has been effected by someone else's action. Thanksgiving, or gratitude, is the recognition that what has been received has not been earned but gifted. And as such, gratitude accepts and embraces powerlessness as its basis, even if only in degrees. The American ethos, however, is less about gratitude of this sort and more about power. Our concepts of "liberty and justice for all," our claim upon "inalienable rights," and our faith in "freedom" are inextricably and historically in association with our nationalistic pride which emphasizes our own agency and individualism. We believe, deep down, that we earned this... or our grandparents earned this and we are being rewarded for our complicity. Our brand of gratitude pits us against those whose grandparents did't "earn" what we have and therefore our gratitude tends to its own destruction. For gratitude which seeks to take credit for its object isn't truly gratitude... it's pride. Gratitude which takes pride in its position, isn't gratitude. We are like the pharisee praying, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people..."(Luke 18:9-14).

So perhaps this is why American Thanksgiving doesn't quite know what to do with itself. Our best expression of gratitude is, apparently, eating Turkey, watching football, and binging on Pumpkin Pie. We count our blessings and then we consume more blessings, we take even more for ourselves, we take a second helping. We're not sure what else to do. That's Thanksgiving, right?

But if you can embrace powerlessness, if you can see the grace in your giftedness, then your gratitude simply can't stop at "counting your blessings" and passing the potatoes. If grace is the object of your gratitude, then giving thanks has to become about giving. When you see yourself as the recipient of a gift, generosity is the only appropriate corresponding action. Is this not one of the lessons of the story of the "unmerciful servant" (Matthew 18:21-35)? When we see our own powerlessness in receiving grace, we are free to extend grace to the powerless... to the ones who can't or haven't "earned" it. Gratitude demands generosity, forgiveness... love! It demands that we leave our tables of abundance and declare grace to those who are empty.

I'm not suggesting that we do away with the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it. I'm not even saying there's nothing good about it (in fact, there are few things more worthwhile than enjoying time with family... and indeed, resting with and celebrating family can be a profoundly appropriate response to grace, by virtue of its theological rootedness in the Sabbath rest into which God invites us). But if Thanksgiving is going to be worthy of its name, it mustn't stop at the abundance of the table... it must travel into to the darkness of the tomb and pronounce liberation for the captives—we as its fellow recipients.