The Problem with Being Thankful

I enjoyed celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. I’m thankful for the lives of my three daughters, for my husband; I’m thankful for my parents, my siblings, and my extended family through marriage.  This season, I was especially thankful that my husband and I are able to provide for our family, to meet our children’s needs, and be able to see them thrive. Yet even as I am grateful for these things, I feel a sense of unease in thanking God for these things as good gifts.

Part of this stems from the fact that I hurt alongside with the poor when I celebrate Thanksgiving.  Bryant Myers, in his book, Walking with the Poor (1999), writes:

Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not     harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.

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Social scientists often distinguish between absolute and relative poverty, because poverty is not just about material need.  One of the curses of poverty is the broken relationships that it entails.

Since becoming a mother, I often think more about what poverty means for parents, and the pain of not being able to provide for one’s children.  Sometimes when eating dinner with my pasta-loving children, I imagine what it would be like to have to tell them that I do not have food to feed them.  I watch them play, and celebrate the fact that they can live a life of childhood free from real scarcity or worry.  I rejoice in the fact that I have a job that gives me the time (and energy) to spend time just being and loving my children in person.  But I do not take these realities for granted.

While prosperity gospel is not the prevalent paradigm within Christian churches in the United States, many of us (Christians) still see our material resources as a gift from God.  And this is the belief I wrestled with this Thanksgiving.  While I fully believe in the sovereignty of God to give to some and not to others, that’s not my dominant explanation of why I have and others do not. Many of the blessings I celebrate are linked to my social location. Recently, The Economist ran an article on inequality in the United States, noting that inequality is on the rise.  But what they highlight as one of the central problems is that social mobility is declining, declaring that “Although the United States is seen as a world of opportunity, the reality may be different.”  This argument ran under the subtitle,

A long ladder is fine, but it must have rungs

Unfortunately, there are many people who want to climb the ladder; those who want to support their families. While I will continue to be thankful for the ability to give to my children, I believe simply being thankful is not only not enough.  It’s not the full story. It fails to see the way that our gifts are often not things that are ‘given by God,’ but rather are the result of a broken and unequal system. For me, that means needing to acknowledge that I benefit from a global economic system in a way that many do not, and to ask God what it means to be faithful with those resources that I have. As I think about what that means for my own life, I keep coming back to three things:

  • To make a conscious choice not to exploit others, either indirectly or directly.  This requires me to more actively ask questions and investigate how I am able to achieve the lifestyle (and the “blessings” I have). For some, this entails questions about ethical and sustainable consumerism.
  • To be committed to helping families thrive, and to help parents be able to support their own children.  I recognize that most parents want the best for the children, and being a good parent is largely (although not solely) about having certain resources.
  • To remember why I became a sociologist. One of my central research interests deals with the way relationships are structured by changes in the international political economy.  While I often investigate macro-level concerns, it is because of the pupusa vendor in El Salvador trying to feed her children that I became a sociologist.

I am thankful to God, the giver of life.  I am thankful that He loves all His children. And I am thankful for the opportunity to try and be a part of pursuing His heart for the world.  Of course, I will not deny that I am still thankful for my family and our resources, but even more thankful that God desires for all families to thrive.

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  • Jenny McGee

    Beautiful concepts and theology. I really loved reading this Amy. Thank you for posting.

    • Amy Reynolds

      Thanks, Jenny! Hope you appreciated the reference to the pupusas!

  • mike88

    As per Job, I think the test of people’s gratitude is when they fall on hard times. (Almost) anyone can be grateful when times are good.

    Confucius eloquently made the same point: “The Master said, “What a worthy man was Yan Hui! Living in a narrow alley, subsisting upon meager bits of rice and water—other people could not have borne such hardship, and yet it never spoiled Hui’s joy. What a worthy man was Hui!” (Analects 6.11)

    • Amy Reynolds

      Thanks for the comment, Mike. Job and Yan Hui are good examples of what it means to be thankful despite one’s situation. I would also add that our circumstances, however, are not just products of what God wants for us (which is sometimes the point people take away from Job). Social systems and structures, human decisions — they matter. It’s worth examining whether the things we consider gifts from God are really that; the tension I deal with is that sometimes what other see as ‘gifts from God’ in their life, I see as the result of sin and exploitation.

      • mike88

        Hi Amy

        I agree our circumstances are not just what God wants for us – to presume to know the mind of God is, of course, fraught with presumption.

        Clearly social structures matter – I don’t think there are too many “self-made millionaires” giving thanks to God in, say, North Korea. Most benighted souls there have neither the opportunity to git rich, nor the opportunity to hear of God

  • Michael Mills

    From May 2006 thru May 2007 I lived and worked in Kabul, Afghanistan. During that year I wrote extensively about my experience and observations. Roughly 75 percent of the World’s population lives in poverty. As I considered that fact and my own situation of being one of the few…one of the 25 percent who is not poor, I wondered, “why me.” As those thoughts and questions crossed my mind and soul, I wrote the following:

    “Poverty is so rampant that one hardly knows where to begin with efforts to effect change.
    It is truly daunting! How does a person who wants to help make a difference? Moreover,
    it is easy to become so discouraged with the enormity of the situation that one can lose
    heart, or even worse, become indifferent…
    “…How does one make a difference? One makes a difference by touching one life at a time.”

    Regarding thankfulness, a friend sent me this youtube link. It’s well done and worth watching:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?feature=player_embedded&v=nj2ofrX7jAk

    Blessings,

    Michael

    • Amy Reynolds

      Michael, thanks for your thoughts, and for sharing these words. I think personal experiences and relationships are really central to us understanding the plight of poverty and inequality in this world. I agree that we must remember that poverty affects individuals, and it individuals who are hurting. As a sociologist, I tend to focus more on how I can be a part of challenging the structures that affect many individuals, but even in such actions, I think it’s important to remember we care about structures and politics and economics because it impacts individuals.

  • http://www.dennisredwards.com Dennis

    Amy,
    this is wonderful. thanks so much. i shared on FB and several people in my network have picked this up and have been sharing it themselves! I feel honored to know you and have played a small role in your life!
    God bless you!

    • Amy Reynolds

      Thanks, Dennis! And small role is an understatement :) Thankful for your wisdom and prophetic voice.

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  • http://sociologicallife.blogspot.com D. Matthew Ray

    Amy,
    What a thoughtful post. I really enjoyed it. You articulated several thoughts that I have been ruminating on for a while now. It is disconcerting how many Christians have completely bought into American consumerism and individualism and espouse these ideas as being inherently biblical. I am also amazed at how many of the poor working class have been socialized to follow the American Dream carrot without seriously questioning its current attainability. Thank you for that great link to the economist article. I recently posted about inequality, and I think I will add a mention of that link as well. Great thoughts. Thanks.
    D. Matthew Ray
    sociologicallife.blogspot.com

    • Amy Reynolds

      Thanks for your comments – these are helpful. It’s interesting to me that even the Economist is willing to critique the “American Dream,” and levels of inequality, given their pro-free market focus. I definitely agree with your assessment of consumerism and individualism, and the tragedy that Christians are not more critical of these ideas — including myself.

      • mike88

        Amy

        the Economist is not criticising inequality per se – from the article: ” Any system in which the spoils are distributed so unevenly is morally wrong, they say. This newspaper disagrees. Inequality is not inherently wrong—as long as three conditions are met: first, society as a whole is getting richer; second, there is a safety net for the very poor; and third, everybody, regardless of class, race, creed or sex, has an opportunity to climb up through the system.”

        The article is more a criticism of factors that prevent a true meritocracy operating e.g. reserved uni places for alumni

        The Economist faith in liberal meritocracy as a principle remains undiminished, in my view.

        PS the article is also from 2006, so perhaps their views have shifted since then

        • Amy Reynolds

          The Economist has run several articles in 2012 about inequality (and I should have selected one of those) that also argue inequality in America is problematic, because of the lack of opportunities for social mobility and the inequality in our educational system. I know that the Economist does not critique inequality in general – that’s part of the point I’m making. But they are critiquing free markets, since in an era of globalization, that unfortunately has often come along without proper social welfare systems (safety nets, education) in place.


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