In connection with Canadian Thanksgiving Day, I have been spurred on to write a piece on ‘gratitude’. To be quite frank, I’ve never (prior to writing this piece) given the idea of ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘gratitude’ much thought. I’ve always found the exercise of listing the material things we are ‘thankful’ for, somewhat incomprehensible. (Perhaps this simply shows my ingratitude!) In the capitalistic west, thanksgiving of this sort can sometimes feel like a celebration of materialism: “Thank you God for giving me all this stuff, please make sure I continue to have more than I need.” There is often a lot of hand-ringing about how Black Friday follows immediately after Thanksgiving in the United States, but I wonder if the connection is actually more intimate than we often think. On Thanksgiving day, the god of prosperity is praised, on Black Friday, his worship is liturgically enacted. As someone who has always been tormented by Christ’s sayings about mammonism and riches, I wonder what gratitude means when you have much more than enough.
Paul speaks in one of his epistles of being “joyful” or being “grateful”, always. What could it mean to be always grateful? To put a much finer point on it: how could we be grateful if we were disabled? If we were poor? If we were native American? If we were ‘unrighteous’? Note that the question contains and ‘us’ and a ‘them’. What if I were made part of that group called ‘the poor’ or ‘the disabled’, or one of those others.
What these questions force us to think about is what our gratitude is rooted in. Is it rooted in what we have? Our sense of privilege and status over and against those others? Is it rooted in our own sense of what we have accomplished out of our own sweat and labour? Is it rooted in our stuff? In our status? In our prideful self-sufficiency? Is it rooted in how intelligent or well educated we are?
All this is a prideful, delusional way of thinking. We are never self-made gods who fell from heaven: “…grace precedes us. We were thought of before we learned how to think; we were loved before we learned how to love; we were desired before our hearts conceived a desire.”
What our sense of ‘gratitude’ reveals is the depth of our false allegiance to the god of this age. That our gratitude is built on the shifting sand of merely human standards of perfection, normalcy and goodness, leaves us in the never ending rat-race of trying to climb to the top of our human dung heaps. Our ‘gratitude’ is a secret anxiety: Thank God I am not like them. Those ‘others’ who are not like us need to be kept in their place in order to ensure our own sense of self-worth. I need to have more than the Johnses or my sense of worth collapses. What will happen to my sense of having ‘the perfect family’ if my child turns out to be disabled? Our sense of ‘rightness’, ‘normalcy’ and ‘goodness’ which we possess over and against those others, becomes a standard by which to judge. Our judgemental gaze turned upon those others becomes a way of sucking life from them, in order to boost our own rightness. Thank God I am not disabled. Thank God I am not black. Thank God I am not poor. Thank God I am not gay. Thank God I am not a Republican. Thank God I am not that ignorant. Flannery O’ Connor tells a story of Mrs. Turpin, a “self righteous woman, proud of her good disposition, good deeds and sense of decency. She has low regard for blacks and white trash. She hates freaks and the mentally ill. At night she would lie in bed and wonder who she would be if she couldn’t have been herself.” One day, after a visit to the dentist has her surrounded with all the wrong kinds of people, she has a vision of all the wrong people on a bridge to heaven:
“A vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n*ggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs” and finally a whole tribe of people just like herself “marching behind others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behaviour. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
Mrs. Turpin is having ‘even her virtues’ burned away because even these are rooted in anxious self-righteousness. They are rooted in her anxious and feverish attempts to climb to the top of the human dung heap and to push down others on her way up. As Martin Luther tells us: “God is not interested in works, even in those which He himself has commanded… He is even less interested in the works which have been invented by men… he is interested in faith alone, that is, the reliance of his mercy through Christ. Through it people begin to please God, and after that their works also please him.” Its only when we stop trying to climb human dung heaps, stop grounding our gratitude in our own self-sufficiency, and instead find our home in the mercy that proceeds us, that we can be truly human. True action, true virtue, can rightly flow from reaching the end of ourselves to find our humanity in Christ. Only then can we really gaze at those ‘others’—not to suck the life from them to feed our own self-rightness—but with the “realization that neither they, nor we, are who we once thought.”
Jesus tells a parable about exactly this kind of false gratitude. Two people, a tax collector and a pharisee go to the temple to pray:
Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
Here we see the contrast. The pharisee is indeed ‘grateful’ and he offers up his prayer of thanks to his god: “thank you that I’m not like everyone else.” But the god he worships in the end is nothing more than his own construction, the sum total of what gives him status and prestige in his community. The tax collector on the other hand, is much closer to the kingdom of God because he realizes the futility of everything that the Pharisee worships. The Pharisee lives a life of functional atheism. He lives in a self-constructed world, a kind of religious darwinism in which the righteous and strong willed rise to the top, while the poor and sinful are pushed to the margins. What he does not realize is that this whole matrix of value and status is ultimately grounded on nothing: it arises from fallen human action. The nihilism of this system can only be grasped by those pushed outside of it, those for whom this whole human house of cards has collapsed. Thus, those who “are poor”, those who “are hungry now”, those who “weep now”, for these is the kingdom of God. These are the blessed ones.
The tax collector discovers the true gratitude of the kingdom of God because he realizes that all is a gift. The cosmos does not stand on its own two feet and neither do we: we only are in Christ. It is sheer, undeserved, gratuity that allows us to stand. Just as a false ‘Thanksgiving’ will end in the nihilism of Black Friday; just so, a life lived chasing its own tail, ultimately terminates in nothing. Kierkegaard was right: only by renouncing all, can we recieve it all back. Only by reconizing the Grace that grounds and establishes all of reality, does the nothing once again become creation. Only when we reconize that we in ourselves are nothing, can we find ourselves in the mercy of God: “It is the discovery of love as the force that governs the world. Dante would say: the Love that “moves the sun and other stars”. We are no longer vagabonds wandering aimlessly here and there, no: we have a home, we dwell in Christ, and from that “dwelling” we contemplate the rest of the world which appears infinitely more beautiful to us. We are children of love, we are brothers and sisters of love. We are men and women of grace.” What is true gratitude then? Simply this: thank you God, for you are my life.