Giving thanks humbly or smugly

When I was a girl, at the beginning of Thanksgiving dinner, my family would sing a beautiful old hymn, We Gather Together, the most traditional Thanksgiving song, written in 1597. I loved the melody and the tradition and didn’t think much about the words. But in my 20s, with my newly critical eye, I scrutinized the lyrics and was horrified by the self-righteous meaning I found.

“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing /He hastens and chastens His will to make known / The wicked oppressing… Sing praises to His name / He forgets not His own.” In other words, we have so much food on this table because God has seen our righteousness and rewarded it with abundance. Those other people, the poor ones with less on their table? God is punishing them (“chastening” them) for their bad behavior. A smug, Calvinist approach to giving thanks!

So when I was 23, I wrote new words to the song:

We gather together to ask for God’s blessing
On the harvest we’ve reaped from the work that we’ve done
The fruits of the earth and the fruits of our loving
All good things come from God, and with God we are one.

The seasons have taken us round one more cycle
Through winter and springtime and summer and fall
Give thanks for the earth and give thanks for its turning
Give thanks for all the gifts this year brought to us all.

For the past 30 years my family has sung this de-Calvinized version before digging into our turkey.

It strikes me now, though, that there could be an even humbler approach to Thanksgiving. My song lyrics attribute our blessings to the earth and to love – but also to “the work that we’ve done” and “our work.” This double mention of work seems to carry a faint whiff of the old Calvinist self-satisfaction.

Is work the main source of our abundance? Thankfully, my sisters and I are all employed homeowners, no-one in foreclosure, all easily able to afford to pile our Thanksgiving table with festive food – which sets us apart from at least a quarter of our fellow Americans and from billions globally. Yes, we’ve worked hard to become prosperous. But so many factors in our comfort have been unrelated to our own efforts. We’re white, heirs to decades and centuries of policies favoring our racial category, as I learned while researching The Color of Wealth [link xxx]. Our parents went to college, and not only did they pay for our college education, but they also passed on those intangible forms of cultural capital (accent, tastes and manners) that makes us seem competent to potential employers, responsible to mortgage lenders, and innocent to law enforcement. Our blessings come in great part from these advantages that many others, just as smart and hard-working, don’t have.

In the TED Talk Class Action board member Chuck Collins just gave, he contrasts today’s “don’t tax me, I worked hard to build my wealth” attitudes with his rich great-grandfather’s value of giving back to society. What made the difference? An attitude that “I didn’t do it alone” (the title of a United for a Fair Economy report, basis of a forthcoming book): all wealth accumulation comes through pooling many people’s labor, through public investment in infrastructure and education, and through regulations about how the fruits of labor are distributed, such as legally requiring that stockholders’ interests come first. What if as we gave thanks today, we turned our attention to the vast natural, economic and political systems in which we are embedded, and from which both our blessings and our shortages flow? How would such a humbler Thanksgiving be celebrated?

In one humble tradition, hundreds of thousands volunteer are bringing or serving food to hungry people on this holiday, doing on one day a year what our society should do every day: make sure everyone has enough to eat. The combination of feasting and volunteering to share food seems like a more balanced way to give thanks.

And hundreds of white people are joining in the Native American “National Day of Mourning” observances at Plymouth Rock and elsewhere, sharing the grief that this nation grew strong on land brutally stolen from indigenous people. That’s an example of a very humble attitude towards our blessings, recognizing that to some extent our abundance comes at the expense of others’ deprivation; our ancestors had the chance to get ahead because others were enslaved, underpaid and conquered.

I can imagine writing a verse to my family’s Thanksgiving song with even more humility in it, one that sings about the unfair roots of some of our prosperity, acknowledges the social as well as natural sources of our blessings, and commits us to working for a fairer future.

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