Thanksgiving 2001

Week of Monday, November 26, 2001

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. I think that's because it appears singularly difficult to commercialize gratitude. So we have a day set aside to glory in gratefulness, and as a friend of mine said in an email not long ago, when we cultivate a sense of gratitude “we learn something profound about God.”

But if Thanksgiving is hard to commercialize, others have politicized it. Beginning in 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) declared Thanksgiving Day a National Day of Mourning, and every year since then they have organized the day as a major protest event. Each Thanksgiving Day, while Plymouth, Massachusetts reenacts its Pilgrim Progress procession with 51 symbolic descendants of the original survivors of the winter of 1620–1621, across town the UAINE “gathers an assembly of those who have felt marginalized and forgotten by the history, the culture, and the celebrations of the winners.” 1

Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning?! What is going on here? The more I thought about this, the more I thought that there was an important reminder here for me about the nature of true gratitude. That reminder became even clearer the day I bought some bananas at Andronicos.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving I needed to buy some groceries and after an errand I found that I was right next to Andronicos, a specialty grocery store for people who do not need to watch their budgets. As I entered the store the salad bar blocked my way, which was fortunate because I love olives. When I looked a little more carefully, I counted nineteen different types of fresh olives I could purchase. Clearly, thank God, I was one of the winners who lived in an upscale zip code and whose kids got a proper education, part of a culture and history that was, well, very rich.

That same afternoon I was reading the news on the internet when I saw that the United Nations had just released its State of the World Population 2001 report. I spent about a hour going through the report and was reminded of some things I had known but had conveniently forgotten. Here are a few factoids from the report which, consequently, made me think a little further about Thanksgiving gratitude.

The richest 20% of the world accounts for 86% of all private consumption, while the world's poorest 20% accounts for 1.3% of all consumption. About half the world, 3 billion people, live in what the UN calls “food deficit countries.” About the same number of people do not have safe, reliable water—half the world. This same group of 3 billion people live on [jumi/essayer.php] a day or less, and a full 1.2 billion people live on only jumi a day (which means that my bill at the vet last month for our dog's ear infection was equal to their per capita annual income). In the United States, a maternal death occurs about every 3,500 pregnancies; in India the figure is one in 37, and in Africa it is one in 16. With the population expected to grow to over 9 billion by the year 2050 (the high estimate is 11 billion, the low estimate is 8 billion), and with the fastest growth occurring in the neediest places, these realities will get worse rather than better unless we make concerted efforts to change them.

The disconnect that day between my own little world at Andronicos and the vast majority of the rest of the world was jarring, to say the least. It occurred to me that among the winners, the powerful and the well off, there is a sort of gratitude that is almost narcissistic, self-congratulatory and self-referential. The publican expressed gratitude to God in Luke 18:11, “God, I thank you that I am not like all the others.” He was thinking in moral categories, but it is easy to extrapolate to socioeconomic categories: “God, I thank you that I am not like half the world—poor, despised and forgotten.” I find it fascinating that Luke's text says that this person was “praying about himself” (18:11). Is my own gratitude merely a psychological subterfuge for self-satisfaction about my good fortune, a prayer about myself?

True gratitude is not centered on the self. I find that far too often I link God's “blessings” with my personal welfare—in which case gratitude risks morphing into narcissism. Paul's gratitude was not linked to his personal fortune, good or bad: “I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:11–13). True gratitude is oriented to the Creator, not toward my self-centered sense of entitlement.

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk gave me a second clue about genuine gratitude. Just as it is not centered in my own self, it is, in fact, directed towards others and mindful of the world in need. As Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, once remarked, “let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.”

Pamuk was sitting in a cafe in Istanbul when he heard the news of the WTC disaster on September 11. Having lived in Manhattan for three years, he writes how shocked he was when his Turkish friends and neighbors expressed anger and resentment at America's political and economic might, saying that the terrorists had “done the right thing.” Pamuk does not think for a minute that the terrorists ”did the right thing” but he raises an important question. What causes such anger and resentment? He suggests that it is not merely poverty or even radical Islam, but instead “the crushing humiliation that has infected the third world countries.” He is worth quoting at length.

Today an ordinary citizen of a poor, undemocratic Muslim country, or a civil servant in a third world country or in a former socialist republic struggling to make ends meet, is aware of how insubstantial is his share of the world's wealth; he knows that he lives under conditions that are much harsher and more devastating than those of a ‘Westerner’ and that he is condemned to a much shorter life. At the same time, however, he senses in a corner of his mind that his poverty is to some considerable degree the fault of his own folly and inadequacy, or those of his father and grandfather. The Western world is scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population; it is a feeling that people have to try to overcome without losing their common sense, and without being seduced by terrorists, extreme nationalists, or fundamentalists. This is the grim, troubled, private sphere that neither magical realistic novels [sic] that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom. And it is while living within this private sphere that most people in the world today are afflicted by spiritual misery. The problem facing the West is not only to discover which terrorist is preparing a bomb in which tent, which cave, or which street of which city, but also to understand the poor and scorned and ‘wrongful’ majority that does not belong to the Western world.2
At no time in history, Pamuk reminds us, has the gulf between the rich and the poor been so great, and the humiliating knowledge of that disparity so powerfully experienced by the poor due to the media and the like. And note his distinction. What incites the angry resentment of a Palestinian youth or an old man sitting at a cafe in Istanbul is not poverty per se, but “the feeling of impotence deriving from degradation, the failure to be understood, and the inability of such people to make their voices heard.” 3

These economic disparities are not a simple matter of a zero sum game. Nor does worried hand-wringing or a sense of false guilt help anything. Today it is easier than ever to do something, however simple, through the numerous Christian organizations that provide opportunities to make an impact. Some of my favorites include World Vision, World Relief, Habitat for Humanity, the International Justice Mission, the Ecumenical Hunger Program in East Palo Alto, the Village Enterprise Fund that provides small loans for micro-enterprise around the two-thirds world, and Bayshore Christian Ministries in East Palo Alto.

When the Apostle Paul traveled to Jerusalem to gain the imprimatur of the Apostles, he writes something telling about his experience. They did not question his theology or doubt his calling to minister to the Gentiles. No, he says, “all they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, may God move us to genuine gratitude, a spirit that moves us beyond our own myopic self-centeredness to embrace all the world, most of which lives in circumstances more degrading than we can even imagine.

  1. Diana Eck, A New Religious America (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), pp. 32–36. If you have never given any thought to the genocide of the native Americans, you owe it to yourself to read The Conquest of America by Tzvetan Todorov.
  2. Orhan Pamuk, “The Anger of the Damned,” New York Review of Books (November 15, 2001), p. 12.
  3. Ibid.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.