Maybe We've Gotten Gratitude All Wrong | Sojourners

Maybe We've Gotten Gratitude All Wrong

An Interview with 'Grateful' Author Diana Butler Bass

According to Americans, 80 percent of us have felt deeply grateful in the past week.

If that statistic seems … off to you, you’re not alone. Religion scholar and historian Diana Butler Bass came across these numbers in a 2015 Pew Research survey, considered the state of our public dialogue, and had one question: How could that possibly be true?

And she went to work. In her new book, Grateful — her ninth, and an intellectual cousin to her 2015 journey-map of American spirituality, Grounded — Bass explores the personal and the social contours of American thankfulness.

What Bass found, and shares here, is a long tradition of gratitude in America: in our economy, our democracy, our theologies, and our founding myths.

2017 may seem a strange year to examine gratitude as civic practice — it certainly was for Bass, who was contracted to write on the subject but found herself at a loss after a historically ugly presidential election.

“I kept saying to myself, ‘Well maybe, you know, maybe I should just call my editors and write a different book,’” Bass admits.

“But I got up and I said, ‘OK, I wonder what I can be grateful for today.’ And I went to my office and I spent the next five or six hours working on the book. And that became the next hundred days of my life. Gratitude saved me.”

In weaving together sociology, psychology, art, religion, and data, Bass has produced an intimate, spiritual case for reconsidering gratitude — one that suggests others’ practices of thankfulness may save us, too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Catherine Woodiwiss, Sojourners: In Grateful, you explore what you call a “gratitude gap,” between our sense of personally experiencing gratitude and the toxic levels of public discussions right now. What accounts for this gap?

Diana Butler Bass, author, Grateful: The simplest answer is that we have privatized gratitude, so that it's become something only for us. Which is very strange, because gratitude is inherently social — gratitude always connects us. Yet somehow American individualism has managed to sever the ties that gratitude naturally brings to us.

Woodiwiss: This idea of social gratitude is so interesting. In Grateful, you write about when then-President Obama conferred the Presidential Medal of Freedom to then-Vice President Joe Biden, and how that act triggered this outpouring of, “We’re so happy to witness this thankful moment between these two men.” How important is it for a society to witness public acts of gratitude?

Bass: Well, one of the things that I found delightful as I did research was how good emotions are imitative. If you're around a happy person, it’s contagious. If you're around a person who does good deeds, you'll want to imitate those good deeds. Gratitude is in that category. If you're around people who are grateful, you're going to feel grateful yourself, and you're going to want to initiate acts that cause others to feel grateful.

It's a fascinating thing, and that's why I tell that story of Obama and Biden — it was a private moment for them, but they're also public people and it was a public act. So it wound up being everywhere. And what it did was create the capacity for thousands and thousands, if not millions, of other people to also feel grateful.

That to me is very provocative, in terms of thinking about how we do things like social justice, how those acts inspire others to do the same thing.

Woodiwiss: So last weekend we witnessed the March For Our Lives. What does public thankfulness look like in a moment of fear and trauma? At the march, did you see evidence of gratitude?

Bass: One of the things I thought was very stunning was, while marchers themselves and the speakers did not necessarily use the word “thankful,” so many of the commentators who reported on the march did. People like Chris Matthews and Joy Reid, who said, “I’m so thankful that you are using this moment in order to address these issues.” Or they would say how grateful they were for the courage of the students. And you could tell people were grateful to be there, and they were proud and able to employ that. Around them, the level of support that was coming from their parents and teachers and the media … those people all said that they were thankful. Watching the television, I went, “Oh my gosh, I am so grateful to them for not giving into fear, but finally being able to do something that so many of us have longed to do, but haven't done.” 

In that sense, gratitude was a very strong public emotion that day. I certainly felt it.

Woodiwiss: There’s talk at Sojourners and elsewhere right now about whether we’re living in “a Bonhoeffer moment.” I think that’s often understood to mean, are we willing to resist the evils of state power, especially when it co-opts the church? In Grateful, you talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a slightly different context — this divorce in 1930s Christian Germany, between a personal, spiritual gratitude on the personal level, and a festering resentment of the social order on the civic level.

What can Bonhoeffer and that moment in Germany teach us today?

Bass: Bonhoeffer talked about that in terms of “cheap grace.” What had happened in Germany is they lost the capacity to experience grace — to understand that God really has gifted and continues to gift the whole of creation with absolutely everything that is needed for creation to thrive and to evolve. Because human cultures don't often grasp the radicalness of that, human culture winds up structuring their social contexts on scarcity. And then stuff happens — there’s a war, or there's a drought, or like Germany in the 1930s, there was war and punitive economic sanctions. This profound experience of scarcity and limits leads to anger and cynicism and hatred and scapegoating.

When you're in that moment, there are choices to be made. And people sometimes make remarkable and even miraculous choices, and others make a more logical choice, which is to fight back. That's what scarcity does to human beings. But the bigger question is, What if you didn't live in scarcity? What if we really did live in grace? And I think that is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trying to get at it.

Woodiwiss: You’ve talked about a lack of communal gratitude in white churches, specifically. How does gratitude relate to racial identity? And how does this play out in American churches?

Bass: There's a study, about 10 or 12 years old, of who in the world most easily is attuned to gratefulness. As it came out, white American men were the least grateful people in the world.

When you start talking about privilege, of course, that's the pinnacle of privilege. Even though so many white men feel like they’re not privileged, the truth of it is that race and gender combined in the United States have created an unique place in the social pyramid for white men. They’re at the top. In white communities, gratitude is often structured in hierarchical ways, around the ideas of obligation and indebtedness. It's an economic exchange. So if you're an American man, you have a very difficult time being grateful — the last thing you want to do is to become indebted to some benefactor who is going to hold you responsible to pay that off.

And certainly that social structure comes to play in churches. I have been in any number of churches — my experience primarily is with white churches — where people literally will give something in order to get the church to move ahead and … if that expectation is not met, they withdraw the money as a punishment. This happens all the time. It is not uncommon in wealthy churches at all for people to give money to the church in order to control the liturgy the minister. That gift is not free. That happens, every single day of the week, in white churches all across the United States.

That mentality, I think, really inhibits a much fuller experience of gratitude, because it's structured as a mechanism of control.

In every religious tradition in the world, gratitude is not a weapon against other people. It's not about debt and economic exchange. It's always about free gifts and grace. In the communities and ways in which we're not privileged, in a sense, we're in a better position to read those traditions out of sacred text, and then to practice them.

Woodiwiss: In your last book, Grounded, you focused on the directions of power in our spiritual traditions — how historically our theological understandings of power have been vertical, and how new spiritual movements are thinking of power instead like a table: horizontal, communal.

In Grateful, you hit on this idea of horizontal gratitude, and you again touch on the metaphor of the table. So I want to ask you the same question that I asked you about horizontal power then: What do we have to be prepared for, socially, to do horizontal gratitude well?

Bass: The most ancient image — the sort of the primal image — that white Americans have about gratitude is the Thanksgiving table. This idea of natives and colonists sitting around a table, sharing food to keep one another alive to survive and thrive, and to breach the boundaries between them.

Now we know, of course, that it didn't work that way. It was a completely romanticized myth. But myths are really important because they tell us who we want to be. Even while colonists are committing genocide, and removing native people from their lands, and all that hideous stuff — the myth sticks. You know is who they really wish they were. So that, to me, is very powerful — the recognition that a table of thanksgiving is central to the European longing of who we wish we were.

When you have a myth like that, there’s a couple things you can do. You can chastise people for violating that. Or you can try to hold people accountable to it, in a way that motivates them to do better. I've been thinking about how can we do that better — how we can hold people accountable. That's the sort of the cultural side of the story.

But then of course there's the biblical side of this story. The way that we tend to interpret the Bible in Western Christianity has been that of a pyramid: There's God on top, and then we have a pyramid of power, with humanity, and then creation. And race comes to play in this.

But if you actually read Scripture, it’s amazing — every time a pyramid shows up in the Bible, it’s always a bad thing. It is never good! God is angry about pyramids. God does not like Pharaoh. God does not like the Tower of Babel. God does not want Israel to have a king. You name it. But God really likes tables — in Scripture, God likes horizontal geometries, not vertical ones. Even when you have visions of God on a throne in the book of Revelation, what you have is a throne that has come into the center of the world. It is surrounded by trees, located within the heart of creation itself. All hierarchy collapses in the book of Revelation, and everything emerges as being on the same spiritual plane. It's really a restoration of Genesis, for God and Adam and Eve and nature are all in complete harmony. I think we have to ask ourselves why have we been on this constant quest to structure even spiritual practices like gratitude into our vertical power style when the whole point was always a table practice.

Woodiwiss: So can we get theological?

Bass: Sure, absolutely.

Woodiwiss: In Grateful, you mention Christmas as an example of an indiscriminate gift — God gave us a child, as an open gift to the world. I think many people, Christian or non-Christian, can maybe sense the awe and wonder of that story.

We're coming up on Good Friday and Easter, which is a very different Christian holiday. And a lot of strains of Christianity teach the story of Good Friday as, “God also gave us this gift of Jesus’ death. It was horrible, but Jesus did it to pay for our sins, so we have to worship him.” There's this implied debt. “Now we must be grateful—”

Bass: That’s exactly right.

Woodiwiss: Where do you think churches are getting this idea of gratitude? How do we understand that?

Bass: Well, you know, this piece actually makes me mad. What kind of a god says, “OK, I'm going to give you the gift of my dead son—”

Woodiwiss: “Now love me for the rest of your life.”

Bass: Right. Yes. And, “Because I'm giving you the gift of a dead child — your job is to be grateful.” It makes absolutely no theological moral or biblical sense at all. So where do we get that? It's very complicated, but Protestantism was built on this idea of faith: On one hand, they said that salvation was a free gift, that it was the act of grace. On the other hand, they complicated that free gift with this idea of economic exchange — that God gave a gift, and now we have to wear it in death.

What that teaches me is how difficult it is to actually embrace free gifts. Because even the Reformers turned a free gift into work.

Woodiwiss: So how do you understand what happened on Good Friday and Easter Sunday?

Bass: I think the better way of understanding it is that God gave this amazing gift — this abundant world to live in, where, as Wendell Berry says, “Everything we need is here.” Ancient Rome was one of the strongest pyramid societies that ever functioned. And Jesus says, “No. It's not about that. I say to you, when you give a feast, invite the poor or the lame or the cripple and you will be blessed, because there is no expectation of any repayment in return. And I tell you, you will be blessed at the resurrection of the righteous — so don’t worry about it.”

Jesus is not killed because God wants to give us a gift of his dead son. Jesus is killed because the Roman Empire can't take the idea that there is a prophet who wants to take down their system.

And the best part of that is that God doesn't put up with that. God says, “You think the this system — you think the pyramid — is going to have the last word? I did not let Pharaoh have the last word. Rome is not going to have the last word.”

It's about the turning over of quid pro quo, and God's dream of replacing all of that with the table. God gives us a beautiful gift of a live child. I just for the life of me don’t understand why people don't get that. It's so clear, and it's so beautiful.