Thanksgiving was a few weeks ago. This holiday, during which we talk a lot about gratitude and being thankful for our blessings, wakes up a question that I struggle with often.
On one hand, practicing gratitude for the good things we have is an important guard against taking things for granted. On Thanksgiving, many US Americans recognize that we are thankful for loving family and abundant food. Good things that it’s good and natural to feel good about having.
On the other hand, it’s hard for me to be excited about having something that other people are hurting for lack of. Especially if their lacking it is connected to my having it. For example, it’s hard to be unequivocally grateful for the arrival and success of European colonists in the Americas because that’s directly connected to the killing and torturing of countless Native Americans, the destruction of their cultures, and the continuing struggles of their descendants.
Similarly, I find myself unable to say prayers of thanks to God for “blessings” I’ve received such as a safe and healthy environment to grow up in, loving family and friends, a good education, and economic privilege. To call these “blessings”— to say that the fact that I grew up not having to worry about money was something that God willed for me— is to say that the many people who struggle financially or live in poverty do so because God decided they should. Because God failed to bless them. I can’t accept that. That’s not my God. And to be grateful for those “blessings” means saying “Thank you for giving me a better deal than you gave them.”
The phrase “There but for the grace of God go I” has always weirded me out for the same reason. It’s meant to express a complete reliance on God as opposed to on one’s own human abilities, but so often the way people use it means “Thank God I’m not as bad off as that person,” inferring that God randomly decided to bless you and skip over them. (Though when I looked it up, I learned that the originator actually meant it to mean “I could be just as sinful and depraved as those people” which is a little better.)
Another way to express all this is to say that I’m struggling with my privilege. I’m noticing that I’ve been given (by society, not by God) a heck of a lot more resources and opportunities than most people can dream of. And I’m noticing that this inequity is not something God wants and it’s not something I can just accept.
The best response I have found to this dilemma is to be a good steward of my privilege. I can express gratitude for the good things I’ve been given by loving them well and doing everything I can to try to make it so that other people are not lacking those good things. Deciding to be a good steward of my privilege motivates me to keep working for justice until the day that I can sit down for a plentiful meal with the whole human family and we can give thanks together. We will be grateful not because “at least we’re better off than those people” (we will no longer think of anyone as “those people”) but simply because we are loved and happy and blessed.