Giving thanks is part of Christian life. It lies at the heart of the Eucharist, which literally means “to give thanks.” It is a central act in scripture’s psalms and epistles. It infuses daily prayers. Church worship and formation teach us to embody gratitude as we navigate life in this world.
When I see a world marked by social injustice and climate crisis, a world where people live without access to basic necessities and where ecosystems are endangered, I wrestle with gratitude. Questions surface for me around what to give thanks for, if promoting gratitude puts striving for justice on hold, and where God is in the landscape of Christians’ thanksgivings. What does gratitude mean for Christians in an unjust world?
I want to offer a few starting points for how we might think about and practice gratitude as people called to seek justice and peace. With examination, care, imagination, and God’s help, gratitude can become a vital tool for bearing witness in word and deed to God’s justice, peace, and love in our world today.
Gratitude Is Different than Positive Thinking
American society sometimes treats gratitude as having a positive attitude or an abundance mindset toward the good and bad in life. When gratitude is all about optimism, we can get caught up in unhelpful messages about giving thanks in difficult situations. Feeling like we have to find something to be grateful for in a painful experience can prevent us from dealing with the pain. It can stifle questioning of unjust systems that may contribute to our pain and discourage us from naming real needs that we don’t have adequate resources to meet. Additionally, according to one research study, “the positive, other-oriented, and reciprocal nature of gratitude expressions can encourage disadvantaged group members to censor their objection or criticism of the injustice they experience” (see Inna Ksenofontov, “Expressing Thanks Can Deter Socially Disadvantaged People from Fighting Injustice,” Society for Personality and Social Psychology website, Aug. 5, 2020).
Christian faith provides paths into gratitude that are different than positive thinking. If we allow these paths to guide our practices, we can embody the kind of gratitude that an unjust world needs most.
Theological Roots for Gratitude
Our faith begins with the conviction that we human beings are not architects and rulers of our own lives. God is our Creator. As theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer underscores in Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, we depend on God for our very being, and our lives are tied to one another as well as to the rest of creation. We are creatures with needs like breathable air that we cannot supply by ourselves. Interdependent relationships define our humanity and sustain our lives. “God, the brother and sister, and the earth,” Bonhoeffer says, “belong together.”
Christian faith also envisions a new creation, a world redeemed and transformed by the love, justice, and peace of God. We hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, in which relationships between people and the rest of creation are healed for all “to flourish together,” as theologian Sallie McFague says in her book Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril.
When gratitude grows from these theological roots, it becomes a way of acknowledging the dependent and interdependent shape of our lives. It brings to expression both the vulnerability and gifts of relationships that make us who we are. It exhibits respect for the humanity and creation that we share. It says, “I wouldn’t be who I am without who you are.”
Gratitude also becomes a way of acknowledging our need for and invitation into God’s new creation. It becomes attuned to unjust and destructive relationships in the present world and proclaims hope in a future of mutual flourishing for all people and non-human creatures with God.
Practical Starting Points for Gratitude
So what does this approach to gratitude look like for us when it comes to reckoning with injustices in our contexts? I see several ways that we can shape our gratitude practices to embody our faith and strive for social and ecological justice.
Gratitude at its best moves us toward solidarity. Rather than giving thanks for what we have and calling it a day, gratitude that has new creation in view calls us to notice injustice and suffering in our world and stand with people who are hurting and oppressed. I appreciate theologian Shawn Copeland’s discussion of solidarity in her book Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being for exploring what gratitude might look like here. She says, “Through a praxis of solidarity, we not only apprehend and are moved by the suffering of the other, we confront and address its oppressive cause and shoulder the other’s suffering.” When our lives are knit together and some of us are enduring unjust situations, practicing gratitude involves fierce compassion for those who are being devalued and advocating with them for justice. It can take shape as words and actions that hold on to one another, especially those most disempowered, so that no one is left out or forgotten.
Lament and Truth-telling
Our faith does not require us to use the language of gratitude exclusively or to talk positively about every experience. As biblical scholars point out, we have psalms that juxtapose gratitude with lament, and we have prayers that speak truth and give thanks. Gratitude can go hand in hand with lament and truth-telling. When we make space for these practices to be partners, gratitude can become more authentic and more discerning. We can affirm the work of God’s love in our lives while also protesting wounds that oppressive systems have caused and grieving destructive relationships.
For examples of lament in scripture, see Psalms 31 and 42. For more on truth-telling, see Bradley Hauff’s article “Thanksgiving Day: An Alternative View” (Oct. 20, 2021) here at Building Faith as well as the Episcopal Church’s Becoming Beloved Community and Racial Reconciliation resources on “Telling the Truth about Our Churches and Race.”
“Stewardship of Privilege”
One of the places where gratitude becomes challenging to navigate is around privilege in an inequitable society. Thanking God for what we have can seem good and right. Yet when things that we have stem from privileges that society systematically denies other people, gratitude for them—especially gratitude to God—feels misplaced to me. A harmful implicit message that can arise from it is that God supports inequity.
A helpful way to address these issues surrounding gratitude and privilege is the practice of “stewardship of privilege,” an idea that Episcopal priest and canon to the Presiding Bishop for evangelism, reconciliation, and creation care Stephanie Spellers discusses in her book The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community. Spellers describes stewardship of privilege as a process of redirecting power and advantages toward social justice and transformation. You can view a PDF chart with examples that she offers in her book at this link (please note the publisher’s permission restrictions at the bottom of the page). It includes practices like “trust the perspective and wisdom of people who are least respected” and “dismantle systems that reinforce domination, distribute privilege unequally, and diminish human life.” When stewardship of privilege frames our gratitude practices, we can recognize inequities that give rise to privilege and work for change. Gratitude can take shape as offering up those privileges to God to do something new in this world through them.
Celebrating Justice and Peace
In the middle of unrelenting injustices, it can be difficult not to get discouraged. Their sheer presence can make unjust systems seem too powerful to end. In the face of injustice’s gravity, gratitude can be one of the most powerful forms of resistance when it taps into the truth that injustice has not won. Gratitude can help us remember that injustice is not supreme and that God’s justice, love, and peace have already been, and will continue to be, at work in this world. It can take shape as a practice of celebration for how love and justice have endured, how new creation is coming, and how God is with us here and now in every struggle against injustice.
For more ideas and reflections on gratitude amid an unjust world, check out “24 Quotes on Giving Thanks, Justice, and Radical Gratitude” by Olivia Bardo at Sojourners (Nov. 8, 2021).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Vol. 3. Trans. Douglas Stephen Bax. Ed. John W. de Gruchy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997 (quote from p. 67; see also pp. 64-67).
Copeland, M. Shawn. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010 (quote from p. 94; see also pp. 92-101).
McFague, Sallie. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001 (quote from p. 23).
Spellers, Stephanie. The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community. New York: Church Publishing, 2021 (see especially pp. 114-115 along with pp. 105-116).