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.