Thursday, November 25, 2010

My Bah-Humbug Thanksgiving

I don't know what the Thanksgiving equivalent of Scrooge is, but I find myself sliding in that direction. I've got nothing against gratitude, or a holiday in which an agrarian culture gives thanks for a bountiful harvest. But more and more of the standard Thanksgiving sentiments are leaving me with that bah-humbug feeling.

Thanksgiving is the holiday when we are supposed to count our blessings and be grateful for what we have. But there are good and bad ways to do that. In Luke 18, for example, Jesus describes this character:

The Pharisee with head unbowed prayed in this fashion: "I give thanks, O God, that I am not like the rest of men -- grasping, crooked, adulterous. … I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on all I possess."

In other words: "What a great God you are, for making a great guy like me. Thanks for creating a world where I get to better than everybody else."

Bertrand Russell satirized another kind of self-centered thankfulness in An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish:

Sometimes, if pious men are to be believed, God's mercies are curiously selective. Toplady, the author of "Rock of Ages," moved from one vicarage to another; a week after the move, the vicarage he had formerly occupied burnt down, with great loss to the new vicar. Thereupon Toplady thanked God; but what the new vicar did is not known.

If you listen closely, a lot of Thanksgiving prayers -- particularly the patriotic ones -- sound like these bad examples. Let me translate what's written between the lines:

Thanks, God, for putting me in a country where I get to use up all the world's oil. Thanks for making us so powerful that ordinary rules don't apply to us: We can attack other countries with impunity, assassinate people we don't like, and kidnap and torture anybody we think might pose a threat.

Thanks for a global economic system based on dollars -- which we create at will, so our country can consume more than it produces year after year. Thanks for undocumented immigrants who will do our dirty jobs for less than minimum wage. Thanks for letting us ship so much of our dangerous or poisonous production to the other side of the world.

We're grateful to You, O God, for creating a world in which it's so great to be us.

I'm becoming suspicious of the whole count-your-blessings framing of the holiday. Because most of what we count are not "blessings" exactly. They're privileges. They arrive on our doorstep not because we are God's special loved ones, but because we are the beneficiaries of an unjust global system.

Suppose, for example, that you had been born in Guatemala. Your land has been blessed with a climate and soil perfect for growing bananas. But your portion of this blessing is that you get to compete with your fellow peasants for the opportunity to make subsistence wages working on plantations owned by foreign corporations. Somewhere back in the mists of history those corporations may have bought that land from your ancestors (or not), but whatever benefit your people received was long gone by the time your life started. Your grandfather may have participated in a political movement to take some of those lands back, but that movement was put down by military force organized by the CIA. So your lands' blessings belong largely to Americans now.

Or suppose you were born in Bolivia, a land blessed with rainfall that (depending on where you are) varies from adequate to abundant. But (until a near-revolution in 2002) none of it belonged you. All the water in Bolivia, even rain that fell decades ago and was sitting in underground aquifers, belonged to an international consortium led by Bechtel. Somewhere between God and you, the blessing of rainfall got intercepted and reassigned.

So yes, we Americans enjoy a large share of the world's blessings. But it's not at all clear that God intended us to have them. We took them. And I suppose we could thank God for making us strong enough to take what we want. But that's a blessing on a different level than turkeys and pumpkin pies.

I know, most of us never consciously applied to be beneficiaries of an unjust system, or intentionally conspired to keep the booty coming. If we're forced to think about it, we may not even approve. So how should we handle Thanksgiving?

I don't have a complete answer, but I will make a few suggestions. First, after-the-fact guilt helps no one. The turkey's in the oven, and you might as well enjoy it. If you don't, nobody else will.

If you do remember the Bolivians, Guatemalans, and other dispossessed peoples in your Thanksgiving prayers, don't think of them as "unfortunate". That leads you back towards imagining yourself as "fortunate"-- as God's special friend. But God didn't distribute the world's wealth. People did -- through force and guile and manipulation, often in perfectly legal and transparent ways. Many of these transactions have resembled another Bible story: Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a meal. Some temporary need coupled with one generation's lack of foresight -- and something God presumably created for everyone now belongs to someone else.

Charity is fine, but that's not the answer either. The world's poor do need the jug of water you could buy them, but what they really need is access to the river. As far back as John Locke, the defenders of "liberty" have told just-so stories about the "state of Nature" that existed prior to government. But there's one aspect of the state of Nature they always leave out: The state of Nature offered full employment. The means of production were the lakes and plains and jungles where anyone could go hunt and gather. But a system in which even the groundwater is private property, whose owners have the "liberty" to do what they want with it -- not only free from government interference, but with government controlling anybody else who tries to interfere -- that's not a state of Nature. That's a very unnatural state indeed.

So here's what I recommend for Thanksgiving: Sure, count your blessings, but also count your privileges -- and don't confuse the two. And sure, resolve to give more to charity, but resolve even harder to use your privileges and powers and out-sized access to work for changing the system.


kimc said...

Have you read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula LeGuin? It's a short story, but a classic. It appears in a collection called The Wind's Twelve Quarters.
It's on this subject.
I read it in high school and it haunted me. I just found it again when I bought the collection at a rummage sale.

Melora said...

Thanks for expressing the discomfort of living a privileged life in an era of global injustice--it's a message I wish we'd hear more.

In fact, it's a message I wish I still heard in my UU Church. I just finished reading your article in UU World, which ends with a call for us to celebrate our orthodox Christian roots while simultaneously embracing the humanism of the 20th Century.

My experience of this UU trend toward Christianity is different, as is my interpretation. I was attracted to UU-ism because I longed for community but felt hypocritical and uncomfortable in Christian churches. This was true for me even as a child: the daughter of agnostic parents, I nevertheless asked to go to church school, and found myself needing to abandon the project mid-Jesus-coloring-book-activity because I simply had to acknowledge that I don't believe in the veracity of any mythology, Christian or otherwise.

My delight in discovering and joining a Unitarian Society as a young adult was, however, eventually eclipsed by what I consider to be UU's devolution into superstition and away from realities like social justice.

I believe that the reasons for this are manifold. One is this: whereas I was drawn *toward* humanism, I believe that increasing numbers of new UUs have been coming *away* from religious traditions that they experienced as rejecting. This reverse of the magnet results in a new generation of UUs who long for the belief systems they came from (sans the prejudice).

While I cannot but applaud the openness that has drawn people to UU-ism, I mourn the necessary loss of humanism as a central tenet.

Simply put, whereas my old Unitarian Society minister would have preached your social justice message on Sunday, my new UU minister will have us sing about our faith, devotion, and the love of God.

Not being among those who happen to believe (and feel comfortable) singing such things, I am reluctantly detaching myself from this institution. The new UU-ism removes us entirely from the company of the old freethinkers, who asserted that putting all of our eggs into the bucket of God could distract us from our responsibilities to humankind and the planet.

Try as I might, I sadly cannot sit in a room and sing about a wonderful Faith and God.

So long, Unitarian Universalism, and thanks for giving me a brief respite from the new Middle Ages.

Doug Muder said...


Thank you for writing such a heartfelt comment. I hope you keep reading this blog, because sometime next week I'm going to post the text of a talk I'm giving Monday evening to a Humanist group in Concord, MA. It's called "Humanism's positive message" and it is precisely about one of the points you raise: a humanistic message that draws people to Humanism rather than just denouncing whatever religion they may have come from.

I've been hearing a lot both from long-time UUs who feel that their church has grown away from them and from younger UUs who feel like an older generation's rigidity is keeping them from expressing what is most important to them.

Not being in their particular churches myself, I have no way to judge just how bridgeable a gap this is in any particular case. But from the discussions I have participated in over the years, I've seen how easy it is for differences either to resolve or to spiral out of control.

Which way things go, I think, has a lot to do with whether each group puts forward a positive message or a negative one: When I talk about what I need and want and hope for out of my church, people tend to cut me a lot of slack -- often they want similar things, even if they wouldn't have expressed it quite that way.

But if the conversation gets into a cycle of what's-wrong-with-you and why-your-way-doesn't-work, nothing ever gets resolved.

I recently read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and found the same idea expressed there:

"Levin had often noticed in arguments between the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, an enormous number of logical subtleties and words, the arguers would finally come to the awareness that what they had spent so long struggling to prove to each other had been known to them long, long before, from the beginning of the argument, but that they loved different things and therefore did not want to name what they loved, so as not to be challenged. He had often felt that sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superfluous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what you yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing."

Doug Muder said...

kimc: I have not read the LeGuin story. I'll have to look for it.

Anonymous said...

What you say about UUism really resonates with me. I am a third-generation atheist, who came to a UU congregation about a decade ago, in my 40s, when a personal crisis necessitated my looking for new friends. I found them at what has become my congregation, but if I had congregation shopped more, I would have been more comfortable (a)theologically at the UU congregation a few towns away. Having learned that “too late”, I remain with my original congregation, making sure us humanists are heard, working with the Social Action Team and new state legislative ministry. Now that our new settled minister is more religion-oriented than our interim minister, I suspect that my attendance on Sundays will be fairly sporadic, but I will continue to keep active with the more secular/humanist activist work. You may want to try the Internet UU congregation or another nearby congregation, if there is a second in your area. (I even joined the Worship Committee about the time that our last settled minister left when I thought services were getting too religious for me. [Our congregation seems to have a about a 50/50 split along the secular/sacred divide.])
Sally Jane Gellert
Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey