Thanksgiving Day: Freedom and Responsibility

As Americans, we have much to be thankful for. Yes, it may be a trite sentiment, but it's still true. We need to acknowledge, individually and as a nation, our blessings; and for those of us who are religious, it goes without saying that this implies acknowledging how deeply we are beholden to the Creator.

I will argue here that thanksgiving is not merely a fair sentiment, nor even solely a spiritual experience; it is a moral duty. This is because our good fortune places a moral burden on us. If we have wealth, then we have the duty to spend it wisely and to donate to charity. If we have power, then we have the duty to use it in the service of justice. If we have freedom, then we have the duty to learn about the plight of those living under tyranny - to ask the questions they themselves are forbidden to ask - and to work to set them free.

If freedom brings responsibility, does oppression - or victimhood - bring absolution from responsibilty? No. If we lack the freedom to act, then we must learn from our experience and resolve to right such wrongs as we have endured as soon as we have the chance. My Islamic teacher, Imam Mamadou Toure, explained it this way: "Every person has a duty to fight oppression. If they are experiencing oppression, they have a duty to fight for freedom. If this is not possible - for example, if the person's family is threatened - then, at a very minimum, the person has a duty to hate the oppression in their heart, and to fight it when they do have the chance."

Jason Holliston has an excellent post on the subject of victimhood. The victim mentality is the greatest enemy of dignity, of responsibility, and ultimately of freedom.

We are often tempted to believe that "suffering ennobles". It does not. As liberals, we are sometimes taught that "oppressed people understand the suffering of others". This is a dangerous myth. To be dealt with cruelly by others is not, in and of itself, either uplifting or enlightening; it is an opportunity to understand the pain of injustice, but it is no more than that. How we grow from our experiences, whether pleasant or painful, is our choice as individuals - and our responsibilty.

The Torah teaches this principle unequivocally:

"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." - Exodus 22:29

"You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor, nor show deference to the rich..." - Leviticus 19:15

"You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger ... Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment." - Deuteronomy 24:17-18

On this Thanksgiving holiday, let us remember our blessings and acknowledge them; let us also give thanks for the moral burden they place on us. For that, too, is a blessing.

Biblical quotes are from the Jewish Publication Society translation.

Postscript: Please read this recent post by the Ten O'clock Scholar.