It reminds us of the continual need to fight oppression; it reminds us to be thankful for life even amongst hardships; it reminds us of the power in being hospitable to the other. And probably more besides.
This week America is preparing for arguably the biggest celebration of the year (maybe a shade behind July 4th and on a par with Christmas) – Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving shares a close cultural history with the United Kingdom and, of course, also with the dissenting tradition in Christian history! I’ve always thought that Thanksgiving is a great holiday and have wondered whether, given the shared history, it’s a celebration we could adopt (if you need persuaded just think of turkey and cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and sweet potatoes mixed with marshmallows – okay maybe not that last one!)
Thanksgiving, at least according to the traditional telling, is based on the celebrations of the Plymouth Plantation where indigenous natives helped the new settlers when they found their food supplies were insufficient to see them through their first winter. A celebration was held after the settlers’ first successful harvest the following year and the feasting was shared between a blend of natives and settlers. So why do I think it’s a worthy celebration? I think it engenders a lot of notable themes: It reminds us of the continual need to fight oppression (especially when it’s perpetuated by religion); it reminds us to be thankful for life even amongst hardships – half the numbers of settlers didn’t survive that first year; it reminds us of the power in being hospitable to the other / the stranger / the foreigner. And probably more besides.
But it is perhaps this last point that makes me approach Thanksgiving this year with something of a bitter taste in my mouth (it’s definitely not the marshmallow sweet potatoes!) There have been numerous stories in the past week about the environmental damage of oil leaks in pipelines running through the Dakota states; and earlier this year, the news widely reported on the protest against the building of more pipelines because they crossed sacred land of the indigenous Native Americans. I’m not suggesting that there is a continuous historical link between the indigenous people that helped the early settlers and these protestors, nor between the original settlers and those presently ordering the pipeline to be built, but the contrast in this week of Thanksgiving is stirring.
These two stories highlight two ways that we interact with people. On the one hand, we have relationships that are built on the economics of financial value; and on the other hand, we have relationships built on the exchange of gifts. Economic exchanges are always balanced – you pay your money, you get your product/s, and that’s the end of it. In contrast gift exchanges are more complex but ultimately generate relationships. When you give a present you do not usually expect anything back (at least not immediately), if you provide hospitality you don’t expect a return. In fact, if we give a present and someone asks how much they owe, or provide a meal and the recipient then asks for the bill, we think of them as ungrateful and even rude. The expected response is one of thanksgiving not repayment. Significantly, to leave the exchange imbalanced is at the heart of gift exchange. But it’s more complicated than that – whereas we don’t repay the gift, we do think it appropriate to reciprocate at a later date, possibly in a different way, but always to the pursuance of a relationship. Jean Baudrillard, a French social theorist of the 20th Century, contrasts gift exchange (which he calls symbolic exchange) with the economic exchange recognising that in gift exchange the object of exchange (a meal, a present etc.) abolishes itself in pursuit of a relationship but, diametrically opposite, economic exchange ‘begins to signify the abolition of the relationship.’ In one exchange the relationship is furthered by the imbalance of exchange; in the other, the relationship is destroyed by the balance of exchange. In some senses we can contrast the settlers’ interaction with the indigenous people with that of the current oil companies’ interactions: in the former, the exchanges are of gift and hospitality lead to feasting and thanksgiving; in latter, the exchange is based on an economic rationale that destroys the symbolic lands and abolishes the relationship.
a season laden with the imagery of gift-giving, it calls us to be thankful that Christ was the ultimate gift.
Do I write this (imperfect) analogy, just to take the joy out of Thanksgiving? Not at all, as stated, I think Thanksgiving calls us back to depth relationships and reminds us of so many important lessons. But I think even more than that, as we enter the Christmas season, a season itself laden with the imagery of gift-giving, it calls us to be thankful that Christ was the ultimate gift.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The gift-giving season is not the commercialised, frenzied present exchange that leads so many into debt and regret, but something more simple, and yet, far more profound. A son is given – a gift that reveals God’s love so lavished upon us that we could not even begin to repay – the imbalance being far too great. Instead, we respond in thanksgiving and reciprocate as best we can, loving God and, from the overflow of His love, loving our neighbours. And doesn’t this ring true in all that we know of Christ? Christ, as the ultimate gift, abolishes himself (experiences death / empties himself) in the pursuit of a relationship. As we think about Thanksgiving, and as we enter the Christmas season, I hope that love and thanksgiving will be the overflow of God’s gift of Himself to the world.
 Baudrillard, For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, 65.