Last season, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, before she would agree to
evade answer their question, compelled each member of the press corps to cite one reason they were grateful this Thanksgiving holiday. As Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker commented, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ demand for expressions of gratitude left her feeling not thankful but resentful. She writes:
“My first impulse when someone asks me to share is to not-share. This isn’t because I’m not a sharing person — you can have my cake and eat it, too — but because sharing, like charity, should be voluntary.”
What Kathleen Parker illumines and what Sarah Huckabee Sanders “preached” in the White House briefing room is what the Apostle Paul calls the Law. For St. Paul, the Law names not only the biblical laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the Law, which Paul says is inscribed upon every heart and is thus extra-biblical and universal to human experience, is shorthand for an exacting moral standard of human performance.
The Law, as Martin Luther paraphrased Paul from Romans 3, always and only accuses.
Lex semper accusat. That is, the Law can only ever convey to us God’s expectation of perfection (“Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect”) and our privation in fulfilling such righteousness. The Law always and only accuses for the Law has no power in itself to create that which it commands; in fact, as Paul unpacks in Romans 7 (“I do what I do not want to do”), the Law very often elicits in us the opposite of its intent. As my new favorite theologian, Gerhard Forde, puts it in On Being a Theologian of the Cross:
“The Law says, “Thou shalt love!” It is right; it is holy, true, and good.’ Yet, it can’t bring about what it demands. It might impel toward the works of law, the motions of love, but in the end they will become irksome and will too often lead to hate. If we go up to someone on the street, grab them by the lapels, and say, “Look here, you’re supposed to love me!” the person may drudgingly admit that we are right, but it won’t work. The results will likely be jus the opposite from what ‘our’ Law demands. Law is indeed right, but it simply cannot realize what it points to. So it works wrath. It can curse, but it can’t bless. In commanding love, Law can only point helplessly to that which it cannot produce.”
Thus, the wisdom of St. Paul and the Protestant Reformers is that Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ imperative to the press corps (“Be more grateful!”) likely provoked the very opposite of anything resembling gratitude.
Christianity teaches what your heart knows to be true: Command- what Christians call Law- cannot create gratitude.
Thankfulness cannot be willed from wishing or exerted based on another’s expectation.
If the Law only and always accuses, then gratitude can only ever be by grace. Gratitude can only ever be a free response not to an imperative but to an indicative.
Gratitude can only be an effect of the Gospel not Law. In Christian terms, gratitude is the response created within us by the no-strings-attached promise that all our sins have been forgiven because of another. I wonder, though, is it possible that gratitude is only intelligible in Christian terms such as these? We don’t call our sacrament the Eucharist, which means gratitude, for nothing. i wonder if gratitude is only intelligible in the Christian terms we call Gospel? John Tierney says Thanksgiving is the most psychologically correct holiday, but I wonder if its the most Christian holiday; specifically, I wonder if Thanksgiving can only be a Christian holiday.
I mean, if Christians only possess a religious flavor of that which is true already for everyone everywhere (gratitude) then we should sleep in on Sundays and fix brunch and bloody marys.
Apart from the story Christians rehearse every week, in Word and Sacrament, of God’s goodness in spite of human failure, what other story contextualizes Thanksgiving such that gratitude is created not compelled? Does the (false) story of happy natives and pilgrims put enough flesh on Thanksgiving to elicit true gratitude?
Is a Thanksgiving table that is not in some sense an extension of the altar table just a hollow holiday?
Gratitude, don’t forget, requires a corollary awareness of our own fault and finitude such that we’re appreciative of others. Can the story of the pilgrims do the heavy lifting or our sentimentality about family and football? Or does the Gospel alone better tell us about what has been done for us that we could not do for ourselves? Does the Gospel do better at teaching us not to trust in our own ability or merit such that appreciation for another arises freely within us?
Apart from the promise of the Gospel, Americans at Thanksgiving are just like the White House Press Corps, being told (by the Law) to be grateful but, as a consequence, feeling the opposite of gratitude.
So, before you carve the turkey, remember that at a holiday table Jesus took bread, broke it, and gave thanks…