The past few years, and 2016 in particular, have seen a wealth of Thanksgiving-connected memes, tweets, and other things pointing out ironies between current events or attitudes, and what exactly Americans are celebrating on Thanksgiving. I’ve included a couple examples here, but my goal in this post is not simply to echo their “look how hypocritical we are” message; I’d like to plumb the impulse behind them, the reasons their authors and re-posters find them compelling, the intuition that to “give thanks,” in this context, is more than to sit in satisfaction.
For many people, the ideas of “being thankful” and “giving thanks” can be essentially interchangeable. However, that equivalency points to the root problem that many political-Thanksgiving posts have at least implicitly in their sights: Being thankful can be an emotion, an individual experience, something one does to express satisfaction with the way things are. However, to give thanks is not passive, it is not an isolated event, and it is integrally connected to action in love and for justice.
This might sound like a lazy pivot to activism, but perhaps a parallel would make this more clear. There is another (usually more frequent) action of thanksgiving that Christians participate in, which also calls them to action outside the event itself: the Eucharist. The word Eucharist itself can in a literal sense be translated to “giving thanks,” and in practice it can be subject to some of the same kinds of hypocrisy that the Thanksgiving holiday can. In the celebration of the Eucharist, Christians give thanks, yes, and they also receive God’s gifts, yes, but it takes place in a particular context that moves beyond those two actions.
For example, the celebration of the Eucharist in most Christian liturgies comes after some form of confession and forgiveness, a public acknowledgement of our participation in injustice. Then, after hearing the word of God in the readings and sermon/homily, the assembly moves to concerns of the community and world in prayer. Only after these things—acknowledgement of injustice, and naming particular petitions to God (which usually include alleviating deep suffering for particular persons or groups)—only then does the assembly “give thanks.”
Giving thanks in a Eucharistic sense can only really liturgically occur after the assembly ritually comes to grips with the reality of our broken world, and our participation in it. Then, starting in the very action of giving thanks, Christians are implicated in the story of the Gospel, called to live out the mission that the bread and wine embody by becoming the body and blood of Christ. Christians give thanks, but they do not sit in satisfaction; they are called into the world to bring the embodied good news to those who need it. The Eucharist calls them to work to end suffering, construct the common good, and to love, most especially “the least of these” (Mt. 25).
Perhaps the holiday of Thanksgiving is not liturgical or religious in the same sense, but it is civic, and as such it is a piece of who we are as a nation. Our celebration of thanksgiving, with all its excess and merriment (which are not evil things in themselves— there are certain times and places for excess; see Jn. 12:1-7), nevertheless takes place in a context where we who celebrate it are not blameless in the face of injustice and oppression. This does not mean we ought to languish in guilt; it means that our thanksgiving must also be a call to action, so that others also may have ample reason to give thanks.
Thanksgiving takes place in a web of relationships (family, friends, acquaintances), and one part of that web is those who have been excluded. To pretend that our celebration has nothing to do with those on the receiving end of injustice is exactly that: pretense. Rather, let us see with clarity the world as it is, give thanks, and get to work. It is right and just.