The Duty to Give Thanks

November 26, 1992

Giving thanks is a sacred obligation in most religions. St. Paul, for example, exhorted the Thessalonian Greeks to "rejoice always," regardless of circumstance. Yet Thanksgiving also is a secular obligation. George Washington proclaimed the first formal Thanksgiving of the new American nation in 1789.

The deist Thomas Jefferson, squeamish about religious overtones (giving thanks to Whom?), refused to proclaim a day of thanksgiving, and the holiday was observed sporadically, mostly by individual states, until Abraham Lincoln established in 1863 the tradition of annual Thanksgiving celebrations continued in George Bush's proclamation for today (excerpted on the page opposite.)

It is sometimes asked: Have we the right in a troubled world to give thanks? After all, could a Somali give thanks today? Could a Bosnian? Or an American who for reasons of economic misfortune or social circumstance is jobless, sick, angry, oppressed or outcast?

Precisely in a broken and secular world the duty to give thanks is most profound. Lincoln's 1863 proclamation came, after all, in the midst of a terrible Civil War. Lincoln did not ask Americans to gloat over battlefield successes or to rejoice at the amount of food on their tables, but rather to pause in the midst of dreadful strife to render due gratitude for the gifts we are given without earning or deserving them.

Hatred and injustice thrive in all years, yet we must "rejoice always" for the blessings of life -- for the sun that ripens wheat, for the beauty of an autumn day, for the smile of a loved one. And for the ability to rejoice, and thereby to be spurred to action.

For it is when we give thanks that we acknowledge that our blessings are a gift of grace, not merely a reward for merit.

In giving thanks we understand with humility that our own humanity is not so different from that of the tormented and the dispossessed, whether in Somalia or in a downtown Baltimore alley. Only our circumstances, fortunate or desperate, are different. And circumstances can be changed, if we will change them.

In giving thanks we affirm life's abundance and recognize our obligation to be the agents of grace and abundance in the lives of others -- we renew our obligation to change cruel circumstances so that next year, all mankind, with full hearts, may give thanks.

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