In Everything Give Thanks: On Gratitude, Respect, Reciprocity, and Generosity

Here in Canada, today is Thanksgiving Sunday. It’s a commemoration that, depending on how one chooses to interpret it, can be either a tremendous ally or barrier to decolonizing Christian theology here. In the churches in which I grew up, it was unmistakably a harvest celebration, thanking God for the land as the source of life-giving food. To my mind, this land-based, earthy, sense of gratitude in the face of our contingent existence does much to promote the humility and sense of interconnectedness and interdependence that Reconciliation will involve. But, there is also another stream of Christian celebration of thanksgiving that is abstracted from these things, thanking God for our being Canadian, for our political institutions and traditions, and national wealth. This approach replaces the land-as-life-giver with the land-as-territory-of-the-state, as the primary focus of our gratitude. And in so doing, it ceases to be a place of common ground. This should give us pause.

Today I’d like to look at what Indigenous cultures have to say about gratitude, and how this might relate to our own Christian traditions.

Gratitude in Indigenous Perspective

Among the Indigenous perspectives I’ve encountered, gratitude is first and foremost grounded in an understanding that the world is a gift. As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017) puts it, “Our nationhood is based on the idea that the earth gives and sustains all life, that ‘natural resources’ are not ‘natural resources’ at all, but gifts from … the land.“* But, as one would expect from what we saw in the last post on the interrelatedness of all things, these gifts are not just for humans, but for all creation to enjoy together. Thus, we thank not only God for the gifts of the earth, but the earth itself for its gifts. According to the Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, whenever the representatives of the various nations gather together:

they shall make an address and offer thanks to the earth where men dwell, to the streams of water, the pools, the springs and the lakes, to the maize and the fruits, to the medicinal herbs and trees, to the forest trees for their usefulness, to the animals that serve as food and give their pelts for clothing, to the great winds and the lesser winds, to the Thunderers, to the Sun, the mighty warrior, to the moon, to the messengers of the Creator who reveal his wishes and to the Great Creator who dwells in the heavens above, who gives all the things useful to men, and who is the source and the ruler of health and life. (§7).

The point is clear. Just as when a friend gives you a gift, you don’t just thank God for it, but the friend as well, so too are humans to thank not just God, but the creatures of the earth, for their gifts.

This form of gratitude is about showing respect for all living things and their gifts. Respect is a common theme in Indigenous wisdom traditions and is understood to be one of the vital ways humans can live into our responsibilities in our relationships within creation, and thereby maintain harmony. But we are prone to forgetfulness in this, so we must be intentional and mindful about it. Therein lies the importance of ceremony and protocol in Indigenous traditions. For example, among the Anishinaabe people, an offering of sacred tobacco is placed before an animal that has been hunted, in respect and honour of the life it has given for the group’s survival. Simpson (2017) refers to this respect as a “mirroring” of the other’s worth and value; it involves such characteristics as “noninterference, self-determination, and freedom.” In Lakota traditions, respect is described as being about compassion, empathy, and reverence (Good Feather). Respect for other living things and the protocols that govern it, can act as a primer for maintaining proper relationships with other humans; as Luther Standing Bear (Lakota), put it presciently in 1933, “lack of respect for growing, living things soon [leads] to lack of respect for humans too” (quoted in Kelly-Gangi).

Closely connected to respect is the idea of reciprocity. As Kidwell, Noley, and Tinker describe it, “Knowing that every action has its unique effect has always meant that there had to be some sort of built-in compensation for human actions, some act of reciprocity.” Simpson (2017) writes:

Reciprocal recognition is a core Nishnaabeg practice. We greet and speak to medicinal plants before we pick medicines. We recognize animals’ spirits before we engage in hunting them. Reciprocal recognition within our lives as Nishnaabeg people is ubiquitous, embedded, and inherent.

Robin Wall Kimmerer likewise notes:

Reciprocity – returning the gift – is not just good manners; it is how the biophysical world works. Balance in ecological systems arises from negative feedback loops, from cycles of giving and taking. Reciprocity among parts of the living earth produces [dynamic] equilibrium, in which life as we know it can flourish. (“Returning the Gift,” Minding Nature 7 no 2 (2014): 4; quoted in Tully)

Reciprocity works both ways; if we take the earth’s gifts without gratitude and respect, those gifts will be taken away; in the words of Haudenosaunee wisdom-keeper Oren Lyons, “The law says if you poison your water, you’ll die. The law says that if you poison the air, you’ll suffer. The law says if you degrade where you live, you’ll suffer” (quoted in Kelly-Gangi). There is therefore a common ethos of desiring not to just to match what has been received but go beyond — not just to leave things as we found them, but to leave them better than we found them. A sign on a wood pile at the Standing Rock protests a few years ago succinctly summarized this sensibility: “Chop three, take two” (Good Feather).

This leads to the final component of Indigenous gratitude I’d like to touch on today: generosity. In a world of reciprocal relationships, receiving gifts, whether from fellow humans or the rest of creation, and ultimately from the Creator, means giving gifts, as generously as possible. “In Native American culture, generosity is a way of life” (Good Feather); “To share wealth, as opposed to privately hoarding wealth… is truly abundant living” (Woodley 2012). Nowhere was this sensibility more apparent than in the potlatch traditions of the Northwest Coast, in which gift-giving became the basis of the international economy. This “gift economy” (Hilton), operated through ceremony and established and confirmed relationships, and ensured the region’s peoples had enough. The potlatch ideal was similarly used at the local level to redistribute wealth (Davidson & Davidson). A similar ideal can be seen in the Great Lakes region, where harvests and hunts were distributed to the most vulnerable members of the community first, and “gift giving is part of [Anishinaabe] diplomacy and designed to reinforce and nurture relationships” (Simpson 2017).

So then, gratitude is expressed within Indigenous cultures through such attitudes as respect, reciprocation, and generosity.

Gratitude is similarly an important value in the Christian tradition. The question before us today is how it is expressed and the degree to which it is valued within our theology and community life.

Christian Approaches to Gratitude

I think it’s fair to say that most Christians, including those of us in the global West, would not hesitate to say that Christianity places a strong emphasis on gratitude. The words of the Apostle Paul put it best: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5.18). The Psalms are filled with thanksgiving, and many of the sacrifices enjoined by the Law were about showing gratitude to God. This ritual aspect has been carried over in Christianity in Holy Communion, whose traditional name, the Eucharist, means ‘thanksgiving’. Beyond this, Christians have been quick to latch on to the research of positive psychologists who have identified gratitude as a key marker of psychological well-being. So we know gratitude is important. I don’t think this is a place where our theology is off, and it’s one of the few areas where we have important rituals that should reinforce the value. And yet, are we — especially in the West — truly a thankful people?

It seems to me that, as much as we genuinely value gratitude, teach it to our children, and preach it from our pulpits, the Church in the West has for the most part bought in to our culture’s prevailing scarcity complex. How else would people who have so much — by contemporary and local standards, to say nothing of global and historical standards — be so fearful and suspicious, and so reluctant to share? Even in cases where we are generous financially, we tend to do so in ways that still hoard power over the situation. To put it bluntly, would a grateful people push other peoples off their lands? Would a thankful people push back against reconciliation efforts because it’s ‘too expensive’? It’s worth considering.

But to start, let’s explore a bit how our biblical traditions talk about the three components of Indigenous gratitude discussed above: respect, reciprocity, and generosity.

The idea of respect is certainly found in our Scriptures, though it occupies a less central role than it seems to in Indigenous cultures. In the Old Testament, we are enjoined to show respect to those in authority and to elders. In the New Testament, we are called to “outdo one another in showing honour” (Romans 12.10), “regard others as better than [our]selves” (Philippians 2.3), and “Honour everyone” (1 Peter 2.17). In terms of our relationship with God, respect shows up in awe and wonder, what the Bible calls “the fear of the LORD.” Like the Indigenous traditions explored above, this is grounded in an understanding that life is relational — and you cannot truly be in relationship without respect. In order to show honour to another person, I have to see them, look them in the eye, and see them as a fellow bearer of God’s image. While we may lack a sense that non-human creatures are ‘persons’, if we follow the Biblical logic that all things are created according to God’s Word and Wisdom, we can easily extend this respect beyond our fellow humans, recognizing all creatures as carrying something of divine wisdom within them and therefore as something from which we can learn. And perhaps this is why the Law calls for Sabbath laws to extend to animals and the land — it is a fundamental recognition of and respect for their contributions to the community.

Reciprocity, for its part, is not a major theme in the Bible. In fact, the only times I can find it being discussed in the New Testament are when Paul asks churches for financial support. There the principle he invokes is that if you have received something from someone, it is only natural and good to give something back: e.g., “If the Gentiles have come to share in [the Jewish Christians’] spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things” (Romans 15.27). But if we think in more general terms, reciprocity is at the heart of any healthy relationship. The understanding of faith in the Bible reflects this, being about being faithful in one’s own responsibilities in a relationship and trusting the other party to be faithful in theirs.

Far more common, and closer to the heart of things for Christians, is generosity. One of our main theological concepts is ‘grace’, which is essentially God’s generous, open-hearted posture towards creation, and which we are subsequently called to extend to others. Even before the language and ideas of Indigenous thought were on my radar, I referred to this as paying forward of God’s generosity as “God’s economy.” We can see positive examples of generosity in the King of Sodom’s gifts to Abraham (Genesis 14.21), or the Queen of Sheba’s gifts to King Solomon (1 Kings 10.10), the gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2.11), or Mary’s lavish gift of perfume (John 12.3). In the teaching of Jesus, we have the costly generosity of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.33-35) and the “widow’s mite” (Luke 21.2-4). And, in its earliest days the Church practiced a radical, communitarian redistribution of wealth (Acts 2.44). Generosity should, then, be one of our central values, as Christians.

Gratitude and Reconciliation

The problem is that gratitude — including respect, reciprocity (or what we might call ‘faithfulness’), and generosity — is the antithesis of the spirit of capitalism, not in terms of entrepreneurship and production, but in the ways it promotes and even requires a feeling of scarcity, lack, and insufficiency to drive people, understood as ‘consumers’ rather than persons, to buy more and more things. An economy so governed by scarcity will not promote the generosity of spirit that true reconciliation requires. And this is true not only of settler-Indigenous reconciliation, but any kind of reconciliation. This will remain a great challenge for us in the West. But at least for us as Christians, it should be clear that gratitude to God, respect for our fellow creatures, showing up for one another in reciprocal relationships, and generosity of spirit, are important values that must drive our attitudes and actions in the world.

I’ll end today’s post by giving Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) the final word: “If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.”


* Please see the bibliography for this series for more information on this and all other works cited.

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