Gratitude and Justice

Gratitude and Justice November 27, 2014


Note: Researchers have found that the happiest people also tend to be the most grateful. What’s interesting is that these folks aren’t grateful for being happy; they’re happy because they have been intentional about cultivating a life of gratitude. This is the first post in a three-part series (adapted from Slow Church) on how the practice of gratitude can similarly transform our families, churches, and neighborhoods. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how gratitude can open our eyes to the abundance all around us. And on Saturday, we’ll talk about a few ways churches in particular can foster a gifts perspective in their communities. But today, just in time for Black Friday, we have to take a clear-eyed look at the links between gratitude and justice, ingratitude and injustice.

The culture of consumerism encourages forgetfulness. Dissatisfaction is at the very root of our modern economy. We’re so immersed in the consumer culture that it’s easy to assume things have always just been this way. But that isn’t precisely the case. Back in 2002, the BBC produced a four-part documentary called The Century of Self, which detailed how, over the last 90 years, the principles of Freudian psychology have been used by corporations and politicians to subtly control a restive population. After World War I, corporations that had grown rich and powerful churning out war materiel and other mass-produced goods grew concerned about overproduction, concerned that the American people would be satisfied with what they already had. If people stopped buying things, the factories would go quiet and the boom years would be over. Paul Mazur, a prominent banker who joined Lehman Brothers in 1927, articulated the corporate response this way: “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

For help, corporations turned to Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays had been a member of the Committee on Public Information, a government agency created by Woodrow Wilson to help convince Americans that the United States should join the war in Europe. When Bernays realized at the conclusion of the war how successful he had been in selling the image of Wilson as a liberator making the world safe for democracy, he wondered if he could use the same tactics in peacetime. He set up an office in the heart of Manhattan and began offering his services to big business and Republican politicians. Because the word “propaganda” developed negative connotations, he called his work “public relations.”

Sigmund Freud believed that human behavior is driven more by irrational forces and instinct than it is by rational intellect. Bernays used this as his starting point to tap into and manipulate the unconscious desires of the crowd. He manufactured discontent to sell people things they didn’t really need, and he connected the consumption of certain products to a search for the Self. For example, Bernays convinced car companies they could sell their cars as symbols of male sexuality. On behalf of the American Tobacco Board, Bernays helped break the taboo against women smoking cigarettes. To do this, he staged a rally of wealthy debutantes who smoked cigarettes while marching in New York’s annual Easter parade. He called the cigarettes “torches of freedom” and they became icons of independent thinking.

Bernays also used the techniques of public relations to advance his politics. (He coined the phrase “engineered consent.”) During the Eisenhower administration, he exploited American fear of Soviet expansion to sell a U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala. A quarter century earlier, he had vigorously promoted Hebert Hoover’s vision of American progress. Hoover reciprocated, telling a group of advertisers and public relations men after his 1928 election, “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines, machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

Bernays, whom Life magazine later named one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century, was an important part—though only a part, of course—in shaping the culture of the “all-consuming self.” It is a culture driven by a perpetual dissatisfaction machine that inundates us with the message that our lives won’t be complete until we have the shiniest toy, the latest gadget, the most exclusive memberships, a younger wife, smoother skin, bouncier hair, the right brands, a nicer car, and a bigger house. We’re surrounded by advertising and other media that tells us from an early age that it is possible to buy happiness…at least until the next must-have item comes around.

This dissatisfaction is at the root of a staggering amount of injustice. The idea that somehow we don’t have access to everything we need or deserve can lead to distrust, broken relationships, ruthless competition, war, hunger, poverty, gross economic inequality, and the wanton destruction of the natural world. Dissatisfaction is also connected to some of the subtler forces, like hypermobility, that undermine our neighborhoods, communities, and churches. On the other hand, says Mary Jo Leddy, a Canadian theologian and social activist, the “choice to affirm that there is enough for all is the beginning of social community, peace, and justice. The option to assume that there is enough frees the imagination to think of new political and economic possibilities.”

Gratitude is perhaps the most important way we practice recognizing the “enough” all around us. If “lack” is the root of injustice, then gratitude is at root of justice. How can we hoard what isn’t ours? How can Americans claim special privilege when God gives so indiscriminately? And if everything we have is a gift from God, how can we not share those gifts, even with our enemies (see Matthew 5:43-45, 48)?

Gratitude can help us move from dissatisfaction, fear, and narcissism to satisfaction, trust, and a deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness of all things. It frees us up to live in the present and to accept each moment and every circumstance as a gift. “In gratitude,” write Leddy, “the vicious cycle of dissatisfaction with life is broken and we begin anew in the recognition of what we have rather than in the awareness of who we aren’t.”

This series continues tomorrow. It was cross-posted from

Here’s where to buy Slow Church (preferably not on Buy Nothing Day):

Your local bookstore

Hearts and Minds

Image Credit: Curtis Palmer

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