Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Thanksgiving and Privilege

So, let's be honest, Thanksgiving is a holiday for the privileged.

We (and yes, I'm certainly speaking as a member of the privileged class) take a day to thank God for our blessing and that we're not one of those others. OK, maybe we don't actually say that last part, but come on, we're all thinking it. From our privileged position of relative plenty, it's easy to say things like "Be grateful for what you have" and as Christians, "Thank God for the blessings that He's given us," but I can't help but wonder if we would be so thankful if things were reversed and we were stripped of our privilege.

Would we still be so gracious in our giving of thanks? Would we still be so certain that the way in which God had chosen to distribute His blessing to the world was "fair" and "just"?

I'm guessing no, but I've been wrong before. A lot. The interesting thing though, is that I might get to see the answer to this question in my lifetime, as demographic realities in the West begin to dismantle and rebuild our societies. 

But back to the topic at hand, a very wise and beautiful and wonderful woman (who happens to be the mother of two awesome little boys I'm particularly fond of) once told me (only half-jokingly) that in the Evangelical Christian worldview, there are three kinds of people:

1.     We the blessed.
2.     People on welfare.
3.     The mission field.
And sadly, it rings true. We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that what we have is a sign of the blessing of God on our lives. We’ve rationalized our plenty as divine providence. What’s more, we seem to have decided that because God has decided to bless us with these nice things, we have somehow got it into our minds that we deserve them. We take them for granted. There happens to be a term for that. It’s called the prosperity gospel™.  It’s flashy, and it feels good, and it gives us the tools to rationalize our own privilege and excuse the ethical consequences of the choices we make because hey, it’s God.
But it’s a false gospel.
And it’s the lie that perpetuates the inequalities that unfeelingly maintain our standard of living (our “blessings”) at all costs.
The real problems though, and this is where we hear and see it around Thanksgiving time, arise when we start to view the rest of the world through the prosperity lens.
We other-ize.
People on welfare? They’re probably lazy or selfish or just have made bad choices. They’re takers. (It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with structural inequalities that keep the poor poor, the rich rich, and the middle class anesthetized, could it?)
The mission field (the developing world)? It’s unfortunate that they weren’t born into the privilege we were in the US, but I give $10 in the missions offering every year at my church, so someone else somewhere else can share the Gospel™ with them, and then those people in those “third world” countries will be redeemed. (They’ll still be subject to the global consequences of insatiable American consumerism, but at least they’ll have Jesus™.)
So there are those others, and then here we the privileged are and we are safe and warm and full and “blessed.” We take one day in November to “give thanks” for our privilege, and encourage those who aren’t as privileged as we are to just be happy with and grateful for what they have (and maybe work a little harder next year).
And the next day, we partake in the Eucharist of consumerism, and make our sacrifices at her altar. 
So what’s the point here?
I doubt (highly) that perpetuating a cycle of inequality in the name of “living in the blessings of God” is what Christ had in mind when he prayed, “Your Kingdom come, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” God’s Kingdom is not one of haves and have-nots. It’s one of sons and daughters. For that much, we can all surely give thanks, but if our gratitude doesn’t move us to first recognize then dismantle the structural injustices that enable our privilege at great cost to our local and global neighbors, then I think we’re forced to question its sincerity.
Our job is to partner with God in bringing the Kingdom. We can’t do that if we’re not willing to set aside our allegiances to our earthly masters, whether those masters be religious, political, economic or otherwise. So this Thanksgiving, let’s not take the Lord’s name in vain by calling systemic inequality “God’s blessing.” Let’s not pretend like it’s OK for us to rest comfortably on our high hill of privilege while the rest of the world drowns in injustice.
So what do we do? Well, to coin a cheesy phrase, I’d say it starts with hearts. We have to be willing to look at the world differently and acknowledge our own privilege. That’s the first step. And from there, it’s baby steps. When you see the person in front of you at the grocery store taking things off of the conveyor belt so they don’t go over the limit on their EBT card, instead of judging them, maybe just buy their groceries. Stop walking/driving past and ignoring homeless people. Support kids through World Vision or some similar organization. Serve a holiday meal at a shelter. Give your time. Give your money. Turn your gratitude into a drive to give to others out of your privilege and to remake the world in the Imageo Dei.
Bring the Kingdom.
Start small.
Give thanks, yes.
And then just give.

1 comment:

  1. This post is so, so good. I especially like, "We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that what we have is a sign of the blessing of God on our lives. We’ve rationalized our plenty as divine providence. What’s more, we seem to have decided that because God has decided to bless us with these nice things, we have somehow got it into our minds that we deserve them."
    This is so true and we often do the same thing with "answered prayer" or "miracles," claiming them to be a reward from God without thinking of how that feels to people whose prayers seem to go unanswered or whose hopes for a miracle were not granted. Anyway, thank you for this reminder to be more considerate and to give instead of basking in our blessings.


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