Too often, we conflate gratitude with positivity. This is a dangerous idea because believing that all we need to do to prosper is “practice gratitude” or “be thankful” can foster a culture of passivity toward the suffering of our neighbors.
But gratitude is far more radical than slapping a #blessed hashtag on a social media post. When we give thanks, we are invited to build a beloved community that aligns with our enduring moral values of justice, peace, and love for our neighbors. As Joe Kay writes, giving thanks “opens our hearts and our clasped hands to receive and to give more freely. It erases all those lines we draw between ourselves and others.”
In other words, true gratitude fosters a sense of our collective responsibility and shared humanity, spurring us to act boldly for justice. This is especially true on shared days of remembrance, like Thanksgiving, a holiday that often conjures up friendly images of settler pilgrims and Indigenous people sharing a meal — and ignores the centuries of “staggering mistreatment” that followed, writes Randy Woodley. A wider understanding of gratitude makes room for the power and possibility of change.
The quotes below — from activists, faith leaders, poets, and prophets — speak to the sacred practice of radical gratitude.
Continue / To let gratitude be the pillow / Upon which you kneel to / Say your nightly prayer / And let faith be the bridge / You build to overcome evil / And welcome good
- Maya Angelou, “Continue” (2016)
In my case, delayed gratitude, like delayed justice, is indeed a puny thing, all but contemptible. The tardiness galls the memory and cries for pardon. Gratitude delayed for years and years — what sort of gratitude is that?
- Daniel Berrigan, To Dwell in Peace: An Autobiography (1987)
Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.
- Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go: Daily Meditations for Codependents (1990)
To me, this is the point of Thanksgiving. The holiday is a time to share stories both of joy and pain and still be thankful for all life. Thanksgiving is a time for us all to share our mutual humanity. Without ignoring the historical truth of the big picture and the fate of the Native Americans, we can use the Thanksgiving holiday as continuous narrative for peace and friendship.
- Randy Woodley, “How You Can Honor Both Sides of the Thanksgiving Table,” sojo.net (2015)
Gratitude gives birth to justice. We praise God’s faithfulness and thank God for the gift of life. A grateful heart holds no resentment, anger or fear of being cast aside. When we can let go of selfishness, God’s justice will reign. The oppressed will be free and the poor will be fed. We can become instruments of peace and justice in the world.
- Deborah Meister, Living Faith (2018)
[W]e can be thankful that we are in a relationship with a God who calls all of us out — out of our comfort zones and into the reality that we are in a relationship with everyone, all of God’s children. And the demands of that relationship cannot be privatized.
- Father Neil Pezzulo, Thanksgiving homily (2015)
Our attitude toward God becomes thanksgiving. Our understanding of ourselves becomes humility. Our response to our brothers and sisters is from the posture of servanthood: we incarnate and convey to them God’s mercy.
- Clarence Jordan, Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation (1976)
To be thankful for the water that quenched my thirst is to remember the moment in which I felt parched. And when I remember, I cannot help but express gratitude to the one who thought it not robbery to attend to my needs, however large or small. In that moment of thankfulness, I remember the sensation of thirst and am grateful for the one who has poured water into my cup.
- Rev. Yolanda Pierce, In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit (2021)
Gratitude is, however, more than just an emotion. It is also a disposition that can be chosen and cultivated, an outlook toward life that manifests itself in actions — it is an ethic.
- Diana Butler Bass, The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks (2018)
I am grateful to see the mustard seed of conscience taking root and reaching across the land as people near and far hear the cries for justice and life. I am grateful for prophets, truth-tellers, and whistle-blowers. I am grateful for the wisdom of indigenous tribes, who knew long before most of the rest of us that to honor the Creator is to live in harmony with, not domination over, all creation.
- Lindsey Paris-Lopez, “Gratitude in Darkness: Seeing Christ at Standing Rock,” sojo.net (2016)
We create our lives out of our past and out of the present … We are our ancestors when we heal ourselves. When we heal ourselves, we also heal Mother Earth and we heal all future generations.
- Rita Pitka-Blumenstein, Grandmothers Counsel the World: Women Elders Offer Their Vision for Our Planet edited by Carol Schaefer (2006)
Thankfulness opens our hearts and our clasped hands to receive and to give more freely. It erases all those lines we draw between ourselves and others.
- Joe Kay, “Reclaiming Thankfulness,” sojo.net (2017)
If “lack” is the root of injustice, then gratitude is at the root of justice.
- John Pattison, “Gratitude and Justice,” Patheos (2014)
The concept of setting aside one day for giving thanks doesn’t fit. We think of every day as Thanksgiving.
- Anne Thundercloud, quoted in “A Real Chance ‘to Share the Native Spirit’” on Madison.com (2008)
we are each other’s / harvest: / we are each other’s / business: / we are each other’s / magnitude and bond.
- Gwendolyn Brooks, “PAUL ROBESON” (1984)
For our human community, our common past and future hope, our oneness transcending all separation, our capacity to work for peace and justice in the midst of hostility and oppression: We give thanks this day.
- Rev. O. Eugene Pickett, “Giving Thanks”
I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness — it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.
- Brené Brown, quoted in “I Don't Have to Chase Extraordinary Moments to Find Happiness — It’s Right in Front of Me,” Forbes (2011)
To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything.
- Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (1956)
Thanksgiving can be a time of reconciliation and healing, but reconciliation and healing are incompatible with violence.
- Avery Davis Lamb, “Happy Thanksgiving? End the Violence at Standing Rock,” sojo.net (2016)
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don't hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left … Joy is not made to be a crumb.
- Mary Oliver, “Don’t Hesitate” (2012)
O my God, let me, with thanksgiving, remember, and confess unto Thee Thy mercies on me.
- St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions (c. 397-400)
You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.
- Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (1923)
The truth of Thanksgiving, indeed, the truth of human history, is found when we listen to the voice of our victims.
- Adam Ericksen, “The Truth about Thanksgiving: Why You Should Celebrate,” sojo.net (2012)
Once I traveled far above the earth. This beloved planet we call home was covered with an elastic web of light. I watched in awe as it shimmered, stretched, dimmed, and shined, shaped by the collective effort of all life within it. Dissonance attracted more dissonance. Harmony attracted harmony. I saw revolutions, droughts, famines, and the births of new nations. The most humble kindnesses made the brightest lights. Nothing was wasted.
- Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave (2013)