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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Giving Thanks in an Affluent Land
distributed 11/26/04 - ©2004

Yesterday, I preached at an ecumenical Thanksgiving service. As I was searching for a text that would ground my sermon, I kept being pulled back to a passage that portrays a person in prayer lifting up heartfelt thanksgiving. "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." (Luke 18:11)

That's not a typical Thanksgiving Day passage -- but it may be quite revealing about how we often deal with thanks.

We give thanks for what we are not. I'm thankful that I'm not like some other people: poor and hungry, sick or suffering, homeless, or living in a war zone.

We figure out thankfulness by looking at others who are worse off than we are, and being grateful that we're not inflicted with their problems. Our thanks are comparative, and depend on our relative advantage over others.

Implicitly or explicitly, did our Thanksgiving Day prayers sound like the Pharisee of Jesus' story? "I thank you, God, that I'm not like those other folk who have the audacity to be poor."

As citizens of the richest nation on Earth, as members of a society that uses a wildly disproportionate and unsustainable share of the world's resources, do our prayers of thanksgiving really say, "I thank you, God, that I have wealth, advantages and privileges that most people in this world can never hope to have?"

When we catalogue our wealth, are we saying, "I thank you, God, that I have had the opportunity to benefit from the unconscionable plunder and destruction of your creation?"

At the heart of our thanksgiving prayers, are we really rejoicing in our violation of the eco-justice ethical norms of sustainability and sufficiency? (Sustainability calls on us to live in ways that can be maintained indefinitely. Sufficiency says that all should have enough for the basic requirements of life, and -- in our limited world -- it demands that none of us should have too much.)

Just a few verses after the story of the proud Pharisee -- and continuing a moral argument that we miss when we segment the narrative into shorter story pieces -- we find Jesus telling a rich ruler to "sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor."

Jesus tells us that righteousness can involve taking our wealth -- the wealth for which we're so thankful, the wealth that makes us proud, that makes us secure, that gives us our identity -- and giving it to the poor. The rich transferring wealth to the poor. That's what gets us to sufficiency.

A competitive spirit of gratitude leads us away from sufficiency. We rejoice all the more when we have lots more than those "other people."

When our notions of thankfulness are grounded in a possessive and materialistic culture, when gratitude springs from a listing of what is "mine," when the depth of our thanksgiving relates to the advantages that we have over others -- then we've got a pretty messed up idea of giving thanks.

I have been intrigued to discover that, in the Bible, a lot of the language about thanks does not dwell on what we have. Many scripture texts express a thankfulness, simply, that God is -- that God is god-like in creating and maintaining the world, and that we are in relationship with God. That spirit of gratitude moves us away from a fixation on what we have or possess, and gives thanks that the world is good.

If we focus on God with that sort of genuine spirit of gratitude, then we won't be so attached to our wealth and our stuff. Then we can find joy in doing the good work of living justly, sustainably, and sufficiently.

A deeper spirit of gratitude calls us toward sufficiency. We are able to give thanks that we have resources to share with those who have the most need.

Thanksgiving -- genuine thanksgiving in an affluent world -- can transform us and free us. Thanksgiving that sees wealth as something to be shared rather than hoarded is healing for the world.

In this affluent land, a genuine spirit of thanksgiving is subversive. And for those of us who live in this affluent land, that sort of genuine thanksgiving can feel very threatening.

But real thanksgiving is also genuine Good News. Thanksgiving opens a path for us to find joyous and fulfilling ways of living that are also just and sustainable. Thanksgiving allows us to live more gently on the earth, and more fully in community.

In these days after the US festival of "Turkey Day," may we continue to find the richness of genuine thanksgiving. May our gratitude about the goodness of God's creation call us to live more gently, more sustainably, and with deeper sense of sharing with those in need.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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