Gratitude as a Subversive Activity by Leann Williams

My thoughts this morning are reflections arising from a Way of the Spirit alumni retreat I attended at the end of October focused on Diana Butler Bass’s recently published book Grateful.

We have just celebrated a holiday focused on gratitude, or gluttony, Thanksgiving. We were immediately ushered by our material culture into the next season of holiday shopping, gifting and giving celebrating – what? Greed, perhaps? Gratitude and gifts can so easily be contaminated by our culture. Why is this? Part of the answer comes from history.

Western civilization is based largely on Greek and Roman notions and social constructs. In those societies gifts and gratitude were part of a system of obligation. The emperor or king gave “gifts” of protection and provision as a benefactor.  The subjects were the beneficiaries who then owed gratitude in the forms of loyalty, service, tithes, and taxes. If you failed to return the “favor” of the king or emperor, you were branded an “ingrate”. Ingratitude was considered disloyalty and sometimes treason.

These systems of quid pro quo, Latin meaning “something for something”, continued through time because they worked, even if imperfectly. Most of the wealth flowed from the lowest subjects of the realm to those at the top of the social political structures. In return limited benefits flowed down from the privileged benefactors to the common folk at the bottom. The Enlightenment brought new philosophies arguing that public life and politics should operate from rules and laws rather than gifts and favors, with the consent and participation of the governed. However, when constitutional governments replaced the social/political systems of gratitude and obligation many vestiges of the system remained in our attitudes.

This quid pro quo way of relating to one another is seen clearly in business models, social interactions, and behind closed doors in our current political structures. What is it that makes it so? It’s the stability of the triangle. Triangles and pyramids are strong and stable. We feel safe and life feels predictable in such structures where we know the rules. But these structures, though stable, are inherently unjust. They depend on power and wealth being concentrated at the top at the expense of those at the bottom.

At the Way of the Spirit retreat we were asked to think about the triangular systems we have experienced in our lives. My mind went to church structures. In my experience the structure from top to bottom was: pastor, elders (always men), men, women, children, seekers not yet believers, other/lesser Christians Catholics, Mormons and other religions, non-religious. Quakers have dismantled this structure and worked to create a more circular structure where all are welcome to join the circle in equality where every voice counts.

Right in the middle of the Roman triangular system of obligatory reciprocity Jesus came. He showed us a kingdom based on the grace and generosity of God. Jesus modeled and taught about a community where all are equal and welcome motivated by gratitude, not as an obligation but as a flow of love from our connectedness to God and one another. Jesus images of vine and branches, weddings, mustard seeds, and yeast all evoke connectedness and abundance.

So, how do we bring the kingdom of God into our spheres of life here and now? How do we work to dismantle the triangular systems of privilege and injustice in our time and place? The weakest point in a triangle is right in the center. Most of us here today live somewhere in the privileged center of our social and economic structures. We have the power to break through the layers that keep the system stable and restructure the systems working toward equity and inclusion for all.

One of the most powerful tools at our disposal is gratitude. Diana Butler Bass tells us the word “gratitude” comes from gratia, meaning “favor, regard, pleasing quality, goodwill” a Latin translation of the Greek word kharis. Kharis was the name of one of the three goddesses, collectively known as the Three Graces who bestowed the gifts of charity, beauty, joy, festivity, and song. The Three graces were indiscriminate givers and embodied gratitude and benevolence in the ancient world. In the New Testament this word, kharis, is translated “grace”. By the indiscriminate benevolence of God you have been saved.

How do we develop the kind of gratitude that breaks down unjust social structures? Primarily by seeing our deep connectedness to one another. An activity that helped me internalize this was simple. In preparation for the retreat we were asked to take an object from our every day lives that we were grateful for. We were to reflect on all the people who brought that thing to us. For me it was morning coffee. I found myself reflecting on growers, harvesters, transportation providers, distributors, retailers, etc. My mind then went to the technology and creativity involved in the development of coffee. And on it went until I felt connected to a wide range of people past and present that connected me to what I held in my hand. It seems simple and a little silly. But it created a shift in me. There is also a connectedness in receiving the gifts of the earth. We share its resources and the responsibility to care for all of creation. Our choices connect us to the inhabitants of the planet past, present and future.

This connectedness in gratitude allows us to see the artificial nature of the strata of our social, political, and economic structures. Reaching across these artificial barriers, as Jesus did, challenges the systems that constrain us. It invites us to find a new way of being together. Jesus said, “If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all.” 1 Thessalonians tells us, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Having a gratitude mindset is challenging because we are so oriented to our culture of complaint and lack. We are constantly told we “need” newer, bigger, better, more. We are quick to point out the bad, ugly, inconvenient, or difficult. Gratitude is a counter cultural activity.

We considered at the retreat what “prophetic gratitude” might look like. Some of our ideas were:

  • We can proclaim the truth that is bigger than our complaint, a truth about a larger reality.

Our current president gives me ample opportunities to complain. Picture this: what looks like a protest group surrounding the white house shouting, “Donald Trump, you are created in the image of God for good works. You are not an island. We are all connected!”

  • We can loudly proclaim through action and demonstration the truth that connects us.

Imagine a protest at a water project of some kind. Instead of “Stop the dam”! Signs, what if signs pointed us to connections. “This water belongs to all of us. We share the oceans with all creatures and humanity.”

  • We can call the system into gratitude alignment.

The food on our tables was likely harvested and processed with immigrant hands. We can call for appropriate gratitude for the hands that feed us.

In our discussion one man commented that gratitude is holy oil – penetrating, lubricating, invasive.

All these thoughts have motivated me to do something concrete to break down the false divisions among us. Here are the three actions I feel led to pursue primarily with Friends in Common. First, we have had several discussions about who we hold as “other” that we would not welcome to our circle. I felt that from my past, those of other faith traditions, particularly those labeled “cults” such as Mormons were considered “other”. I feel called to create a venue where we can sit down with a wide spectrum of folks from different faith traditions for meaningful dialogue. Our first topic will be the basis of our ethics. What core beliefs inform our ethical standards? Others in Friends in Common identified self-righteous people who consider themselves the insiders (like most of us used to) are our “others”. To address that we are offering our services to a local evalgelical church that runs quite a few programs serving the needy. We will do whatever they ask of us to support their work in our community. We understand we may be asked to serve them in programs that we aren’t comfortable in. We hold our hands open to what God wants to do through and in us, even with our sweaty palms. At Sierra Cascades quarterly meeting where we were encouraged to learn the history of our local indigenous people. I am crafting a letter to the Coeur d’Alene tribe asking them if they would be willing to teach us their history and share with us the core values that hold them together as a people.

These are not huge tasks. But they are acts of gratitude that subvert the structures of dominance and power in our culture. Our gratitude for people of diverse faith traditions, gratitude for the conservative evangelical people of our faith communities of origin, and gratitude for the indigenous people on whose land we live and worship calls us to take concrete acts to demonstrate that gratitude. Our hope is that people will notice, and we will bring light to our local culture of divisiveness, judgement, and disdain. In reaching up and down, out and within to form bonds beyond the artificial separations in our social structures we hold the hope that we will be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation as we are instructed in the New Testament. We wish to break the triangular systems of inequality and replace them with new structures of generosity and abundance. But, for me, a circle still holds the image of some inside and some outside. Chris Hall suggested that perhaps not a circle itself, but a round table where all are welcome. One that expands as new people join is a better image. I wonder if there is yet a better image to describe the kind of kingdom Jesus brought.

I will close with a poem I wrote at the end of our retreat.

Being Grateful Together

Being grateful together

is a holy YES

to love

to abundance

to seeing the world in right order

to knowing a bigger truth

the possibility of a new story


Gratefulness is an invitation

to connectedness

to recognizing our place among all God’s children


Gratefulness is the holy oil

that moves us toward love

for our earth

for the “other”

for my life

for every one


Gratefulness transforms

darkness to light

triangles to circles

my own hardness to softness

pain to peace


Gratefulness creates

a place at the banqueting table for all

a place in the circle dance of earth’s inhabitants for all


Gratefulness calls me

Gratefulness calls us


This message was given by Leann Williams at Spokane Friends Church on Sunday, November 25, 2018.
There is a season
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep.

May God bless our coming and going in all the circles and cycles of our lives.  Amen.

This message was given by Leann Williams at Spokane Friends Church on Sunday, November 25, 2018.

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