One of the recurring tropes of the sanctimonious urban fable is the teenager who imagines he’s doing good by his family when he starts making money hand over fist in illegal activities — all to the end of securing enough to cover his mom’s operation. But when his mother discovers the source of the funds, she waves the cash in his face saying that she will under no circumstances accept his Dirty Money. The details may differ but you’ve doubtlessly seen this before. It’s a clichéd story. The family that’s hard on its luck and has to choose between a pragmatic-though-unethical blessing and the knowledge that ill-gotten gains, no matter their usefulness, are still a Very Bad Thing. The question may be succinctly summarized as “Is it good to do bad in order to do good?” Generally, as Christians, our answer has been “No”.
Though it may not seem immediately apparent, there is a kind of tension for the believer built into both Thanksgiving and the concept of thankfulness itself. This tension has only increased as technology and globally shared information have made the world a smaller place. As we mature in our understanding of just how greatly our actions influence the world around us, we may become increasingly aware that the blessings gracing our lives are actually a mixture of actions of varying ethical stripes. Many of the things that we find wonderful, warm, and cozy may have been bought through the suffering of others and at the expense of the weak.
Yet we Americans have a holiday where we are to be thankful (and for the believer, thankful to God) for all the good things we experience in our lives. Our freedoms, our nation, our prosperity, our families, our comfort. But each of these things may very well have cost someone else a price they were unwilling or unhappy to pay. Are we then to be thankful for that which brings suffering on others and capitalizes on the weak or defenseless? What’s a Christian to do?
A brief look at American history may help consolidate the picture. While settling in a new place is not necessarily a harmful activity, the Europeans colonizing the Americas quickly asserted their racist and culturally elitist tendencies by cheating tribal Americans out of their lands, collapsing their societies, and sometimes killing them outright. African slaves forged the backbone on which American agribusiness flourished for a century or more. The nation’s industrial advancement required the poorly-waged labour of children, immigrants, and the poor. The nation’s railroads made abusive use of Chinese labour. American lands were procured for the nation through imperialist expansionism. Our nation has often done beastly things in the name of security — biological warfare, suppression of freedom of speech, concentration camps, and the killing of foreign civilians in astonishing numbers. It goes on, but this should suffice.
Today’s American Christians enjoy a great number of blessings. We have a relatively high degree of freedom for our speech. We live in an affluent nation in which we might go to the store to find nearly any food item we wish. The degree to which we don’t experience the kinds of real distresses that confront much of the rest of the world is cynically acknowledged in the recent “First World Problems” meme. We, quite frankly, have a lot for which to be thankful. It’s the dark side of things that gets in the way.
Even as we recognize just how good, easy, and comfortable we have it, it doesn’t take a lot of reflection to remember that much of the fruits we enjoy come at a human cost. The blessings for which we are to be thankful are, in a manner, ill-gotten gains. Materials used in our laptops and iPads are ethically dubious. The diamonds on our engagement rings are ethically dubious. Materials used in tech industries are ethically dubious. The health and welfare of those producing these materials is a cost most of us are blithely willing to pay because a) those costs are paid remotely, b) convenience is one of our foremost idols, and c) everyone else is doing it.
During the Kingdom Era, God typically had two primary complaints about the rebellious, unfaithful people of Israel. The first was their idolatry, i.e., serving their own gods instead of the true God. The second was an indictment against the people for forsaking justice in the social domain (see especially the prophecies of Amos and Micah, also Jeremiah 21 and 22). The prophecies of Micah lay a heavy burden on the wealthy and powerful who would increase their domain at the cost of the less powerful. Those who would use their strength to capitalize on the weak, God describes as cannibals (cf. Micah 2 and 3). And yet, so much of what we have is due the cannibalistic works of those who came before us.
Does this then mean we ought to forsake thankfulness and thanksgiving? Should we see our blessings as woes? Not necessarily. As is often the case with the believer’s interaction with the world, nuance is invaluable.
Certainly, the degree of direct association bears some consideration — money received from a man who robbed a woman at gunpoint is different than money received through the legitimate operation of an institution founded on a system partially built on robbery three hundred years ago. But more interesting is how the acknowledgement of the moral deficiencies behind so many our blessings actually helps condition the quality of our thankfulness.
As we acknowledge that God has sovereignly used historical circumstances to mete out blessings in one way or another, we do not excuse the sin that allowed those blessings to come to us. Take, for example, the crucifixion of Christ. We are readily thankful to God for what that politically motivated murder means for us as believers — our whole universe of meaning stands or falls on that event and the three days that followed. Yet we do not confuse for good the actions of Judas, Pilate, the Roman system, the Pharisees, or the commoners gathered at his trial. These people perpetrated gross evil, yet within the scope of God’s plan, that evil comes down to us as manifold blessing. The blessings we Westerners receive are a similarly tangled mix.
This is not merely to excuse us from remorsefulness and prompt us to take part in Thanksgiving and thankfulness with a clear conscience. There is a further good to be gained in recognizing the moral problems behind so many of our blessings. Thankfulness is not an end in itself. For thanksgiving to be genuine, it must prompt something further. Thankfulness is founded, primarily, in love — love for God and his love for us. But as Christ reminds us, the whole of our moral direction is twofold: a love for God that prompts love for others. In recognizing that our blessings have come at a cost, we come to empathize with those who have suffered so that our blessings might be secured. In empathizing with those who suffer, we come to realize that our own blessings really have just one moral direction. Our thankfulness must prompt us to use our blessings to bless those who are weak, oppressed, or otherwise in need. Thanksgiving that does not end in the action of divesting ourselves of our blessings to bless others is not any kind of real thanksgiving because it isn’t founded on the love that marks true thankfulness.
So as we enjoy this holiday of thankfulness, it can be helpful to remember that the blessings we enjoy were oftentimes paid for by the unfortunate. Further, we might find ourselves blessed to spend ourselves and our blessings so that we might share our thankfulness with others. As we sacrifice ourselves in love for our brothers, our neighbours, and our enemies, the love of Christ will be made evident. And for the believer, if there is anything that Thanksgiving is about, it is that God so loved the world that he gave up his son to be abused so that blessings might rain.