Gratitude is a subversive step, Walter Brueggemann says. It challenges the parsimonious ideologies of our time. Those ideologies turn into public policy and practice, and parsimony turned into structures and systems turns neighbor against neighbor. One antidote: the kind of gratitude that recognizes our place as creatures of a creator who intends good for every creature.
Thanksgiving Day, for all its entanglement with white violence against Native Americans, is a reminder to us that even in such a difficult time as this, gratitude is the hallmark of the Christian life. It is an acknowledgement that we are on the receiving end of life, and it is the generous creator God who is on the giving end of our life. We may well linger over Paul’s rhetorical question:
What do you have that you did not receive? And if you have received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift (I Corinthians 4:7)?
The answer is “nothing!” We have nothing that we have not received as a gift. We have nothing durable that we treasure that we have devised, invented, produced, or achieved; gratitude is responding back to God’s limitless generosity, the one who gives good gifts to all of God’s creatures.
We may especially notice that while gratitude is an attitude that marks all of our life in faith, gratitude also consists in regular, specific disciplines.
Psalm 107, a great model of thanksgiving, cites four cases of rescue for which the Psalmist is grateful:
Desert hunger (vv. 4-9),
Release from prison (vv. 12-16),
Sickness (vv. 17-22), and
Danger at sea (vv. 23-32).
In each instance, the speaker voices thanks back to God:
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind (vv. 8, 15, 21, 31).
In the third case, the matter of thanks is further exposited:
And led them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
and tell of his deeds with songs of joy (v. 22).
We learn that gratitude consists in a) a material offer of goods (thanksgiving sacrifices!), and b) an out loud narrative that recites the blessings for which we give thanks, with an accent on specificity. That is, in the assembly of the faithful we “count our blessings.” Regular generous acts of materiality and narrative specificity are gestures that keep us mindful that we are on the receiving end of limitless generosity.
If we fail in these disciplines, we can easily fall into the trap of imagining that we are on the initiating end of blessing the world. We can imagine that our worldly success is our achievement, and therefore our possession and at our disposal for our own uses. In the transactional world all around us that lives by a calculus of quid pro quo, this leads some to imagine self-sufficiency that leads in turn to greed and eventually to predatory violence toward those who threaten our guarded surplus.
That is the seduction of pride in our self-sufficiency and autonomy, eventually requiring awareness that we cannot finally sustain such an allusion. When we arrive at that awareness, our pride readily turns to despair; we come to recognize that we cannot make our world safe and happy for ourselves. Thus, the world of quid pro quo wavers from pride to despair, perhaps back to pride and again to despair.
Gratitude is the antidote to pride, that life is not our achievement but a gift.
This is not our world! Gratitude is the antidote to despair because in every circumstance we still live by gifts faithfully given.
Thus, gratitude is a form of vigorous resistance against the seductions of the transactional world, empowering us to live apart from both pride and despair, apart from the toxic ideologies that beset our economy. Gratitude is the disciplined affirmation that the temptations of pride and despair are null and void and have no power over us.
I suggest that the hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God,” the anthem of my tradition of German pietism, a welcome model for a life of disciplined gratitude.
Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices,
who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us!
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us in his grace and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,
the Son and him who reigns with them in highest heaven,
eternal, Triune God, whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
(Prayer Book and Hymnal (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1982) 396.
This warm, intimate, trusting poetry was written by Pastor Martin Rinkart as a table grace during the Thirty Years War that devastated all of Europe. His wife had died of the pestilence and he wrote this for his children. The hymn affirms that we, along with Pastor Rinkart and his children, are on the receiving end of God’s goodness even in the most dire of circumstances.
This alternative way of being in the world, alternative to the common fear, greed, and violence that marks our public life, has immense practical implications for public life and public policy.
It proposes, against both our pride and our despair, that public practice and public policy may be generous in the sharing of common resources with all of our neighbors and that we give up the posture of parsimony that defines so much of our common life. That “normal” parsimony is based on our tacit assumption of self-sufficiency that we have made it all and are entitled to it all and on our “normal” despair that there is not enough to go around.
Gratitude refuses both assumptions and declares such parsimony to be abnormal and out of sync with the reality of the creator who gives good gifts in abundance. Gratitude is an act of subversion that sees our neighbors as common recipients of the gifts given to us and through us to the neighbors. In missional and liturgical ways, the church in its gratitude witnesses to “a more excellent way,” a way that corresponds to God’s good intention for God’s world.