[This post is part of a conversation on Os Guinness’ new book A Free People’s Suicide: Sustaining Freedom and the American Future, now featured at the Patheos Book Club.]
Os Guinness clearly recognizes that the USA is at an impasse. Consumerism, self-interest, incivility, greed, and relativism – not to mention a loss of the meaning and responsibilities of citizenship – have placed the republic in jeopardy. Guinness is even-handed in his critique of both the left and right as sources of the current internal threat. Among the many faults Guinness notes is lack of gratitude. Along with Guinness, I believe that restoration of the virtue of gratitude for the gifts of our nation is one step toward responsible citizenship, civility, and sustainability. In my response to Guinness, I want to reflect on thanksgiving as an essential virtue for a free and civil society.
I believe that gratitude is the virtue of interdependence that stretches our imagination, sense of connection, and understanding of well-being far beyond individual success and achievement to embrace the gifts of our “parents” and the lives of our “children.” Thanksgiving is a “habit of the heart” that enables us to experience life as a dynamic tapestry of relationships in which our lives have emerged from the efforts of others and the resources of the Good Earth and our efforts contribute to the well-being of our contemporaries as well as future generations. Thanksgiving is the gift a larger perspective in which the isolated self gives way to the creative, yet relational, self.
As I sit in my study writing this piece, at this very moment I am overhearing a political ad on television, criticizing President Obama for saying “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” Sadly, and both sides do this, the President’s comment was taken out of context. But, worse yet, it revealed the one of the dangers of a free society – a sense of hubris and belief that we can truly be self-made people and succeed without the support and efforts of others. Taken in the context they were given, President Obama’s comments were an affirmation of life’s interdependence and the need for us to give thanks for those whose sacrifices made it possible for us to succeed. Our recognition of the interdependence of life reminds us that we are accountable for what we do with our gifts in terms of the environment, future generations, and the current national situation. To those who been given much, much is required, whether in paying fair taxes or giving back in benevolent support of the community. Regardless of how hard we work and how creative we are, we never achieve our goals on our own; we need a village – schools, employees, patients, consumers, students, parents, etc. to ground our creativity and initiative.
Here are the President’s actual words, grounded in a clear sense of citizenship, interdependence, and gratitude:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.
Now, this essay is not an advertisement for President Obama, although I must say that such rhetoric is missing from today’s Republican Party – the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford, George Romney, and George H.W. Bush. While deeds – walking the talk – are all-important, visions transform and heal. Without a vision, a nation perishes, so says scripture. Moreover, in the biblical tradition, the person most pitied is the isolated individual, the self-made man or woman: he or she is always on the alert, fearing others, and hording what they have to the detriment of the community. If our best national vision is: leave me alone, lower my taxes, protect my guns, and “it’s my money,” our country is surely lost. Sadly, some of those shout loudest about patriotism are not willing to sacrifice – either in the military or by paying their fair share in taxes – to preserve the country they claim to love. Patriotism is not about consumerism, the right to bear arms, or fewer taxes, but sacrificing so that our nation may truly become a light on the hill – a free people, innovative and compassionate, creative and civil, responsibility and supportive.
While the wealthy receive the greatest benefits from a civil society, all of us are called to thanksgiving. Persons on various forms of government support also need to cultivate gratitude. Entitlements provide an opportunity to give thanks and then find ways to give back to the society. There is no reason that persons on government support – which may be a necessity – cannot be encouraged to give thanks in tangible ways by participating in programs to improve the lives of others (volunteering at soup kitchens, child care centers, public libraries, beautification programs, etc., that supplement rather than compete with the current workforce). This will encourage greater initiative, stature, and overall well-being, among individuals and communities.
Our future as a nation requires many things, but at the heart of our future are the cultivation of gratitude and a sense of interdependence. We are many, yet one. Diverse, yet unified. Motivated, yet caring. The future of the USA depends on going beyond individual self-interest to embrace a larger self, a civic self, that recognizes that the health of the republic depends on shared goals, appreciation of diversity (even political diversity), and accountability to share the gifts we have received as our commitment to this great land.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.