Gratitude and Empire

by Brian Walsh

I love thank you notes. And I know that I don’t write enough of them. But I love getting them and on those occasions when I write one, or when I send an email to someone to say thanks for something, I love that too. Now I know, some of those Hallmark thank you cards are pure sap, pure sentimentality. But even those cards mean something to me. Sometimes it really is “the thought that counts.”

In the last few months I’ve got more than my fair share of thank you cards and notes. Sometimes it is a card in our box at church from someone who simply wants to say thanks to Sylvia and I for picking up on a lot of the preaching while our church is without a pastor.

Sometimes it is an email out of the blue from someone who has appreciated something that I have written (sometimes on this website!). But most often these thank-you notes come from folks in the incredible community of people that I get to hang out with as a campus pastor at the University of Toronto.
Now I know, you might be thinking, “well this is all nice and sweet, but nice and sweet is not what we have come to expect from Empire Remixed.” And you’re right. Nice and sweet hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in hell in the face of empire.

But gratitude … that’s something different.

You see, one of the things that characterizes our imperial reality is a sense of deep dissatisfaction and incessant craving. And paradoxically, with such dissatisfaction comes a sense of entitlement. It’s either, “I can’t get no satisfaction” or “the satisfaction I get is my right!”

In her wonderful book, Radical Gratitude, Mary Jo Leddy says that we live in a culture of ingratitude. It’s a culture in which we are held captive by a consumer induced longing that can never be fulfilled. And radical gratitude, Leddy argues, is what can liberate us from such a captivity.

Radical gratitude engenders a spirituality of gift in the face of self-made accomplishment. Gratitude is born of an economy of enough in the face of the hyperactivity of “more.” Gratitude is rooted in grace, while a spirituality of entitlement is decidedly a “works” theology. Gratitude abandons the sullen adolescence of our culture and embraces a humility and gregarious openness born of a mature spirituality.

Will gratitude dismantle the political, military and economic imperial realities of our day? Perhaps not. Or at least not immediately.

But without gratitude, without a sense of the profound gift-character of all of life, without a deep sense of grace and the thankfulness that such grace engenders, then all of our struggles against the empire won’t matter.

When gratitude is gone, when our hearts have been captivated, any attempt to ‘remix’ will be little more than empty posturing.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

8 Responses to “Gratitude and Empire”

  1. Jeff Goins

    Good stuff. I think that in stooping “low” enough to write a few thank-you notes is an excellent discipline of humility we all ought to practice more. I wrote a few random thank-you notes to supporters of my ministry that are going out in a completely untimely manner: no agenda, no upcoming fund-raising campaigns, no high-budget trips coming up… I just really appreciate them. It felt good to express that kind of gratitude. It feels good to connect with people on more than just a have-to basis. That kind of gratitude and love (not that I’ve done a great job of exemplifying it; I’ve just seen the power of a well-intentioned “thank you” at work) will shock more people into the kingdom of God than maybe 100 sermons, in my opinion.

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  3. Jason Coker

    Nicely put. You touch on a very important subject in a culture of consumer aquire-ment (if I might be so bold as to invent a word!). Gratitude makes no sense on a world defined by scarcity and accumulation, because in such a scheme some form of individual isolation is necessary.

    But a world of abundance and giving (or grace, as it were) is another matter entirely, and in such a world the gift becomes the means of sincere ingratiation which binds us together in communities of love and acceptance.

    Or, so I tend to believe. In my small opinion, the reason gifts and gratitude actually do stand a snowball’s chance in hell of remaking our culture is precicely because they are deeply relational social constructs when practiced in a meaningful way…and becasue they are exactly the counter-cultural salve we’re all so hungry for in the west.

  4. andrew

    Jason – It’s so true, this is the stuff that we really need to hold communities, to hold people together. And yet, if that’s so, why do we spend so little time expressing our gratitude? What is it about our culture that leads to our own sense of entitlement?

    At times, I find myself showing resentment when gratitude is in order. Maybe it’s the brokenness of humanity amplified by manufactured desires, or maybe a fear of what it might mean to be truly known, as the walls of ingratitude fall down. I wish I could deconstruct what this all means, but I fear it would take too much time…

    And we all know that time is money ;0)

  5. jason

    Hmm. Good questions. Couple of thoughts…

    First, our definition of self in the west is individualized, and ideally autonomous. In historical cultures where the self is more communally defined gratitude becomes a survival skill.

    Second, gifts improperly given can be effective means of exerting dominance. Sometimes we resent gifts because we rightly understand we’re being dominated or manipulated by the gift.

    Third, gifts properly given are means of offering liberation and empowerment. Normally this would produce gratitude…except when it confronts our pride because we can’t accept the idea that we aren’t already free and powerful. Which brings us back to point #1…there’s something about this in the beatitudes methinks.

    Speaking of money, that’s my three cents. : )

  6. markpetersen

    I give a lot. It’s my job and I like it. And so the grateful responses to my giving are expected, and I must admit, I can tend to be jaded by them. (I blogged about that recently here: )

    But what I love is to be thanked when I least expect it. When gratitude buds and bursts into bloom like the spring around us. Gratitude then leads to generosity, which ends up in a beautiful (not vicious) circle of praise.

    And so today, I decided to write my own thank you card to a person who unexpectedly honoured me. He didn’t need to do it. In fact, he bowled me over with his generosity.

    Genuine gratitude melts hardened hearts held captive by the Empire. Thanks Brian for this post.

    (PS. I wish I could come to the event this week, but am not able.)

  7. More gratitude « Open hands

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  8. andrew

    Mark – It is funny, isn’t it, how any repetitive action – even repeated thanksgiving – can get lost on us. I can only imagine how in your line of work you must encounter any number of empty “acts of gratitude” that feel more like the compulsory actions of a group who’s received your support.

    But how beautiful, how breathtaking the blossoms of unexpected gratitude or praise. Thanks for swinging by and sharing your thoughts. I’m excited to learn from your blog of some potential work with Word Made Flesh, very excited indeed.


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