Today marks the rich, hearty, frequently food-coma-inducing American tradition of Thanksgiving. It's an important, wholesome time for family and friends to feast together and celebrate what they're thankful for.
And who couldn't be grateful over a Thanksgiving meal? It traditionally includes a Sweet Potato Casserole with glorious grilled marshmallows atop, a dish proved to bring delight to all who know what's good in life.
But even with such blessings, 2017 can seem like a tough climate for giving thanks. Both in the UK and the US, the past year has seen the intense, protracted polarisation of our politics, whether its Brexit, Trump, or just about any issue – we're more divided than ever. Unkindness and arrogance seems to be the dominant mode of our communication, while online echo-chambers and Twitter-trolls alongside a social epidemic of loneliness unsurprisingly doesn't help our happiness. Tragedy, scandal, wars and rumours of wars persist.
We might tend to rage for what we want to change, or despair at what we can't, but how often simply joy at what is?
Is there any earthly cause for optimism, bar the possibility that Elon Musk saves us all with his rocket technology? Despite the daily dosage of Terrible News that we're fed, there are still reasons for thankfulness and hope at the state of the world. Here are three.
The dream of justice
In the past 30 years, extreme poverty across the world has been cut in half. Metrics on poverty are varied and imperfect and clearly we are not living in a world of newfound equality and human flourishing, but this statistic is still broadly true, and a testament to human efforts to combat poverty which, in a world as rich in resources as ours, shouldn't exist on the extreme scale that it does. That isn't cause for complacency at all, because poverty figures can rise and fall easily and the bare fact of stark inequality hasn't changed, but there is still good to be celebrated.
Perhaps most worthy of thanks is the fact that there are many, many people who passionately care about social justice and are committed to its cause, dedicating their time, money and energy for those with nothing. Some may be famous, others entirely unknown – some give their lives in said service. It can be easy to focus on the abusers and misusers, those who make their profit off the backs of the poor – but there are also those doing the opposite. Among the millennial generation, a deep concern for justice is prevalent in perhaps an unprecedented way. There's a passion for projects like ethical consumerism and environmental activism, rooted in a heightened awareness of our global connectedness and an understanding that we only have one planet to share.
We haven't become angels and injustice hasn't been quashed. But though the statistics are deeply sad and not to be ignored, they shouldn't overwhelm us either. As a fictional Hobbit once declared: 'There's good in this world, and it's worth fighting for.'
A time for truth
Among the more depressing fruits of 2017 has been the slew of sexual abuse allegations that have come out against figures largely from the worlds of Hollywood and Washington. The widespread allegations, of which many more are expected to come, point to the prolific, rampant reality of silent abuse and gender inequality in our supposedly enlightened, progressive society. But, if there is any good to claim from this, it may be the hope of a new culture of honesty. It can enable survivors to speak out and not suffer alone. It challenges and checks the powerful, reminding them how quickly they can fall through their transgression. It's painful to face but it paves the pathway to a time of truth – and the truth sets people free.
Likewise, troubling documents like the Paradise Papers – unveiling the gap between the cunning rich and famous, and everyone else – signal a transparency which though shocking at first is surely the path to improvement. When we can truly see the world and ourselves as they are under the cold light of day, we first need to repent. But our lament can also be the beginning of renewal. We shouldn't expect an imminent utopia – but we can try and head in the right direction.
The Church is still the Church
The Church is often said to be in dire straits. Dwindling in numbers and authority, heading off a cliff, the critics say. The problem with a focus on membership stats is that it can distract the Church from its vision – it was never in the business of being big for the sake of it. It has actual work to do, people to serve. And in so many ways, though often not making headlines, it is doing just that.
Amid economic deprivation, churches have been at the heart of food-banks and movements geared to combatting poverty. Consider the 'holiday hunger' programs serving families without food in the school holidays. Or the numerous homeless shelters and soup kitchens offering friendship and love to the lonely.
Pastors will be up late trying to plan childrens' work or preparing to preach God's word. Many churches are reaching out and sharing their message of profound good news in innovative new ways, especially over the Christmas season. People still care about Jesus and his radical message of transformative grace, the 'practice of hope' persists. There's always cause for cynicism, and a place for critique, but wherever the Church stands, wherever believers are loving God and loving neighbours, that is surely to be celebrated.
And this isn't all about human do-gooders. As Michael Wear posits in his prophetic book Reclaiming Hope, true hope for the world includes our action but doesn't ultimately rely on it – it points to the redemption that God promises, which is real, enduring and bigger than us.
Mercifully and beautifully, it's not a hope for we simply wait for after death – but one that's available to be found in the present. And today and all the days to come, that is absolutely something to be thankful for.
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