On Thanksgiving

In one of my English classes this week, I took some time before beginning the lesson to describe Thanksgiving.  I talked about the pilgrimage from Europe and the struggle to yield enough food for the winter; I talked about the friendships made with the local natives and how sharing was essentially what kept everyone alive.  I mentioned the large feast and how, today, we celebrate with a turkey.  I even tried to explain the meaning of the word “thanksgiving,” and how it was a time to be grateful for all we have, as little or as much as that may be.

The whole concept didn’t really seem all that foreign, of course.  Especially with L-3id l-kbir having just ended – you remember, the sheep-slaughtering holiday where a ram is slaughtered instead of Ishmael.  Islam is a religion that is full of thanksgiving.  And of course, learning to be thankful for what you have must always be coupled with your recognition and compassion for those who have less.  In other words, to say you are grateful for that roof over your head, grateful for the copious amounts of food on your plate, grateful that you have family and friends, on some level, demands an act of loving-kindness to show your gratitude to others.  That’s why, in Islam, after Moroccans slaughter the ram, a portion is given to the poor or the homeless.  It’s a way of saying, “We’re thankful that we have plenty, so thankful that we want to share that with those who don’t.”

But it’s not just on the holidays when giving happens.  Charitable giving is a way of life in Islam.  In fact, one of the Five Pillars of Islam demands alms-giving.  A tithe of one-fifth of your wealth per year should go directly to someone in need within your community.  Here in Morocco, which practices Sunni Islam, I encounter that kind of charity all the time.  And that’s saying a lot when you already live in the developing world where people don’t really have a whole lot to begin with; charity is important for everyone, in Islam, even the poor.

Of course, charitable giving isn’t unique to Islam alone.  After all, even Jesus states rather bluntly to the rich man, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow me” (Lk. 18:22).  It’s one of many “hard sayings” that can be found in the Gospels.  In fact, Jesus talks more about money than he does anything else.  He talks more about money than he does about heaven or hell.  Combined.  If that’s a surprise, it’s because money is something you rarely hear any preacher’s discussing in church unless they’re bold enough to ask for money for the church.  After all, when was the last time you met a Christian who “sold everything” or chose to live among the poor?  Not to say it doesn’t happen.  Or that charity doesn’t happen in Christianity.  I know plenty of charitable Christians.  But something different happens in Islam, something where giving permeates the culture in a powerful way.

Maybe part of it is that it’s just expected.  If you’re Muslim, giving is just one of the five things you’re required to do.  In Christianity, although it’s “expected,” it’s a bit more voluntary.  Some might say that means it “comes from the heart,” whereas giving as a “requirement” is more like a tax than a gift.  I disagree.  Because those who give are guaranteed to receive something as great if not greater than the gift they give – something of the heart.  Because giving is receiving.  It fills every heart with thanks.  So even if charity is required, it’s still inevitable that it comes down to a matter of the heart.

So, that’s “thanksgiving.”  And it’s no surprises that I’m saying all that as an American living abroad who was born and raised in the southern United States, in the heart of the Bible Belt.  And so I’m constantly thinking about our attitude as Americans toward “the poor” vs. the attitude Muslims seem to have toward the poor – and just how different that is.  Because here in Morocco, poverty is a part of everyday life.   Even those with money live relatively simply here. And for those with very little money at all, there’s a quiet, empathy that everyone seems to share here when they encounter a beggar.

But in America, “the poor” are a stereotype.  They’ve become the source of jokes about people with bad hygiene or Wal-Mart clothes.  They’re typecast as dirty or lazy.  And even people who call themselves Christians say we should make them pay “their fair share” while easing the burden on the rich.  Whereas there is a support system here in an Islamic country that not only supports the poor financially but also with an incredible level of respect and empathy, there’s a lack of compassion or willingness to understand the poor in America.  And support is not just money.  Support is just as much an attitude we carry with us.  And the support systems we do have – in terms of entitlement programs – are viewed by many as “socialism” that should be cut from the system.  How, again, do we manage to rationalize loving our neighbors with, well, hating them?

I don’t think the problem with the rich man in the Gospel of Luke is that he is rich.  I don’t think Jesus asks him to give up his money so his money can be put toward charity.  There’s nothing in the text, really, that suggests the man is greedy (i.e. though he’s hoarding his money, we aren’t lead to believe he came about his wealth illegally or that he is trying to gain more money or that he made his money off the poor).  It seems the rich man has even lived a moral life, following all the commandments.

If you ask me, the problem with the rich man is that he doesn’t understand the plight of the poor.  He doesn’t understand anything about their struggle to climb out of poverty.  He doesn’t understand anything about the simplicity in their life or how happy they can be at times despite the struggles they may face financially.  He doesn’t understand their culture  of sharing or why there seems to be virtually no boundaries between them, because the necessities in life are better shared; only our cravings do we keep to ourselves as we build up our own little museum houses with our museum junk.  Jesus doesn’t ask the rich man to give up his money to better the poor.  He asks the rich man to give up his money to better the rich man.  To better his spirit.  To open his eyes to a world he’s had the luxury (or misfortune) to avoid.

And that makes it hard for me to really worry about the economic state of our country.  Because maybe an economic collapse will cause some people to open their eyes to a world they’ve had the luxury (or misfortune) to avoid.  Maybe an economic collapse would force us to suddenly care for the poor, the way many of our Muslim friends are already doing so well in places like Morocco.

This Thanksgiving will be a world different for me from last year’s.  Last year, I was still – in some respects – fresh off the plane.  This year, as I gather with friends to slaughter and de-feather turkeys, I’ll remember that Thanksgiving, on the one hand, is a time for me to be grateful for what I do have, and on the other, it’s a time to remember those who have less.

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6 Comments

  1. Phillip, you continue to amaze me with your insights into culture, humanity, and scripture. I hope you are keeping every post you’ve made to publish as a book when you get home. Your perspectives are absolutely rich. I’m glad to know you, and can’t wait to have some face time with you! Hope you have a great day of thankfulness! Joy

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  2. Hi Phillip, just found your blog today and I’m really loving what you have to say. I am in complete agreement when you say “Jesus doesn’t ask the rich man to give up his money to better the poor. He asks the rich man to give up his money to better the rich man.”
    I wish more American’s would understand that money needs to be rendered powerless in your life in order to live into what God has really created you for and to allow the impoverished to live the dignified life they deserve. And how do we relieve money of it’s power? By giving it away. You should know best though and I think you documented the experience of that rather well in you blog here.
    My wife and I are preparing for our own Peace Corps service in Morocco starting this March. I look forward to following your future posts and hopefully we can meet in person someday!

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  3. Hi Pappy,
    I am so glad that I took the time to read your latest entry tonight. I agree 100% with your thoughts and so am quite convicted. My own attitude toward the poor is inadequate and unChristian, to say the least. Your time in Morocco and the way you are sharing your insights will have a greater impact than you realize, I suspect. Here is wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving with your buddies. Looking forward to seeing you soon,
    Greta

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