“Justice is what Love looks like in public.”–Dr. Cornel West
“O give thanks to the Lord, for God’s steadfast love endures forever…
who alone does great wonders, for God’s steadfast love endures forever…
who struck Egypt through their firstborn, for God’s steadfast love endures forever…
O give thanks to the God of heaven, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” –Psalm 136
It’s Thanksgiving morning and I am listening to the waves roll into the shore of Marblehead, MA. With a slight turn of my head I see a panoramic view of the Atlantic ocean, vast, mysterious, powerful…with a field of silver clouds hanging above it, the whole scene is like something out of a painting. And you can really hear those waves, it sounds as though they are crashing right into the room…because the ocean is probably less than 20 yards from the bedroom where I slept last night. I am blessed to share this day with warm and loving people, who share their home and their food with me. I am blessed to have family across this entire country…there won’t be enough time in my day to call everyone who loves me, and everyone I would like to talk to on such a special day. I give thanks for my job, my call, my place in this world; thanks given again that I have no financial worries. I’m not where I would like to be (so few of us are), but I have no worries when it comes to money. For all this and so much more I give thanks.
But HOW do I give that thanks? “Give” is a verb, it means “to present,” or “to hand to someone” or “to place in someone’s care; to grant; to impart or communicate; to set forth or show; to pay or transfer possession to another in exchange for something.” In order to GIVE thanks, one must DO something.
When the Psalmist composed songs of praise to the LORD God, among the list of deeds that made God great was the ways in which God brought the People Israel out of slavery in Egypt; which included violence of an extreme order, plagues, the killing of Egypt’s first born. In the 21st Century we find it difficult to affirm that God is loving and accepting of all people AND God killed a bunch of babies in ancient Egypt. It’s very problematic…but it’s in there. It’s part of the story we tell. God made the heavens and the earth, God created humankind and a universe that largely makes sense…and God has been attributed with–God has, according to the story, taken responsibility for–the deaths of many innocents. And people have praised God for it.
We have to name that we have good things in this world, things that are worth GIVING, truly GIVING THANKS for. The blessings most of us enjoy would be seen as miracles to those who go without them, and there are too many things for any one person to name, so I won’t even try. But all those things for which we GIVE thanks, they didn’t come from nowhere. And every year on this day of Thanks, we have no problem GIVING our thanks–whether in gifts, or invitations, or in food, or donations, or prayers or speeches and toasts–for the things we’re proud of. We give thanks for those who put their lives on the line so that the rest of us can be free in a world of peace. We give thanks for those who have made hard decisions and lived lives of struggle so that we don’t have to. We give thanks for wars won, battles fought, sacrifices made. So we give thanks for those things. Too often, though, we give thanks for the things we like, and we fail to recognize the problematic things…we fail to identify and name the awful events, the shameful things that have been done to others in the name of peace and prosperity…the injustices, the terrible and gruesome things that have happened over and over again throughout history to ensure that people who look like me live lives of relative security and ease. It’s as if we believe these are exclusive, binary options: Either we can be proud and thankful for what has come to pass, or we should be ashamed and silent.
A week ago I lead a retreat with my youth group, and we tackled the concept of Privilege and its relation to Social Justice. It was a hard conversation to have, and I was proud of them for having it, especially because there were many in the room who had been made to feel ashamed of their privilege. They’ve been taught about the difference between white and non-white lives in a way that makes them feel guilty for the accident of their birth. Not only is that not an effective method of teaching, it misses the point. To go through the world feeling guilty for being among the privileged only reinforces the need to rationalize the subjugation of the other. “I’m being blamed for this, but it’s not my fault, therefore something else is going on here.” That’s how we have a racist society without any “actual” racists in it…because we’ve framed the conversation as a binary narrative, which is the same type of narrative that gave birth to racism in the first place. Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
And that’s where we find ourselves: attempting to deconstruct the construct of racism through logic and empiricle evidence, which is what people used to build it in the first place. What I wish I had the presence of mind to share with my youth group last Friday is, in an echo of Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting: It’s not your fault. It’s just not. Anyone living a life of privilege in 2014, it is not your fault that the world is like this. It just isn’t. I want to stand with you and hold you and weep with you while we all let that sink in. It’s not your fault, People of Privilege. It’s not your fault. However…just because you didn’t cause something, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
The problems we face as a nation are binary in nature–the lie that some people just deserve a better life than some others because of skin color, ability, economic status, etc.–so we cannot be binary in our thinking if we hope to overcome those problems. It’s not that some people are privileged and some aren’t. It’s not that you are either compassionate OR racist. It’s that the world we know and love has been created by way of atrocities. We are all wounded by the terrible things that have been done to bring us to where we are. The legacy of racism and the tradition of suffering experienced by minorities in America is REAL and pervasive, AND ALSO people of privilege can no longer be allowed to hold on to their guilt like it’s a badge of honor and continue living their lives as they’ve always done by claiming yet new forms of victimhood.
So how do we give our thanks for all that we have in a way that is meaningful, without discarding all the terrible things that are also part of our story, that need to be spoken aloud, so we understand the full weight of our blessings? Let me suggest this: We confess and then we actually GIVE thanks.
We Confess that terrible things have happened to bring you to where you are. Just as the ancient Israelites did not shy away from the atrocities and injustices that lead directly to their salvation, likewise, we no longer have the privilege of pretending terrible things haven’t happened, we can’t pretend that we live in a truly free and equal society. How do you teach your children to not take something for granted, so they can truly treasure and respect all they’ve been given? By giving thanks. If the ancient Israelites could thank their God for the crimes that were committed to win their freedom, why should we be unwilling to do the same? When we hear of a tragic death, often our first thought is, “Thank God it wasn’t me, or someone I love.” When it suits us and makes us feel comfortable, we are able to hold the complexity of the universe in tension: terrible things happen all the time, so I will give thanks to God for the good things I have. The same needs to be true for people of privilege on this Thanksgiving: Give name to some of the terrible things that have been done to bring us to where we are–the genocide of native peoples; the enslavement of people of color, women, children; the destruction of the environment–and find a way to give thanks for that.
Let your way of GIVING: present a new opportunity to someone less privileged than yourself. Let your way of GIVING hand to someone a kind of comfort that they did not previously possess. Place your well being in someone else’s care, rather than depending entirely on yourself. Grant another person permission to challenge you, to let their life and story inform yours. Impart or communicate to others the reality of your life, that it has benefited from the sweat, the blood and oppression of other people. GIVE thanks by showing others that you are not defined by unearned status or guilt, but by love and generosity. Give thanks by welcoming others into your circle, allowing people who are not currently at the table to have a seat next to you, to share in conversation, to be part of your world in exchange for nothing at all. Thanks must be given, and it must be given extravagantly. It’s the only way we can ensure the crimes that helped to bring us to where we are never need happen again.
Truly, I wish you Happy Thanksgiving.