On Gratitude and Justice

The global faith leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently asked all practitioners to engage in a #GiveThanks campaign on social media. Simply put, religious practitioners were asked to post daily about things they are grateful for. The faith leader believes this action will heal people’s spirits during the woes of a global pandemic, political turmoil at home and abroad, and deceitful industries attempting to destroy the planet we are blessed to care for—just some of the many things we face in our world today. Showing gratitude and being grateful are good ways of feeling good and are great ways to change the focus and tenor of our communal conversations. We are in dark times, and light is always welcome.

However, the constant influx of gratitude on social media has one major flaw: narcissism.

By design, social media is a narcissistic paradise; by intent, social media is a dopamine reward system built like Vegas slot machines to keep its users in a constant state of elation . Every post, every like, every comment, every notification triggers in our brains a heightened sense of excitement and pleasure. We are a people enslaved to the red notification icon. 

This is why the flaw of this campaign—this prophetic challenge—is so damning. Gratitude given on social media is a performative act meant to show others that you are pious and good because you can express the simplest platitude, a thank you, in a very public way. This action then rewards you with notifications, allowing your brain to fill your body with positive, good-feeling hormones that help you to feel better. Thus, the post of gratitude made you feel better because it is a simple effort with a simple reward. The performance of gratitude is applauded temporarily; however, the spiritual act of being grateful is not, I would argue, completely fulfilled.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us of performative acts just for performance’s sake:

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

Matthew 6:1-2

Instead, Jesus exhorts his followers to do alms—or thanksgiving, or praise, or worship—in private, sacred spaces:

But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and they Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

Matthew 6:3-4

Now, one who posts on social media using #GiveThanks may not think that what they’re doing is a performative act. “But I really am grateful for my spouse and family and dog and weird left toe and that book or this movie,” one may think, and one is justified in this thought. It is truth, even: They are truly grateful, and there really is nothing wrong with expressing gratitude. The real question one must face, and it is a question faced in the solitude of the soul, is how they show gratitude when it is not a requested act to be performed online, for hundreds or thousands of people to see and to like. 

I hope to make at least this clear: My contention is not with gratitude itself. It is with how #GiveThanks is a performative act that rewards the performer through notifications and through fulfilling the simple commands of a faith leader, shames those not participating on social media, and mocks humility and Christian piety. Indeed, posts are wonderful for a temporary elation, a quick Coke before you start your day, but Christ-followers should be asked to show gratitude as Christ shows gratitude: by seeking justice.

The concept of justice I am using is not the justice many Latter-day Saints may first think of. Latter-day Saint justice typically focuses on recourse for a broken law or the universe righting itself for a wrong. It is a reactive justice, one that is meted out when something else happens. A sin occurs, justice is what is required to fix the broken soul; Christ’s mercy, then, overcomes that requirement of justice and provides the balm to the soul that sin has broken. The Book of Mormon’s justice and mercy, especially as seen through the words of Latter-day faith leaders like President Boyd K. Packer, have become a transactional justice and mercy—a trade, a contract.

This reading of justice and mercy is not a bad or incorrect one. However, it is a reading, and not the only reading.

Justice, in this instance, means the righting of inequality, inequity, and iniquity. It favors seeking equality, equity, and righteousness—righteousness not defined as blindly or dogmatically following rules but instead as actively doing good in the world. It is a justice of works and positive action rather than punishment.

This view of justice can be found in scripture. The author of 2 Corinthians explains that “God loveth a cheerful giver” (9:7). He adds to this that “God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may about to every good work: . . . Being enriched in every thing to all bountifulness, which causeth through us thanksgiving to God” (2 Cor. 9:8, 11). According to this author’s argument, God gives all grace toward an individual, but the individual, then, should go about doing good works while being grateful; in other words, the individual can show their gratitude through doing good works, or seeking for justice in this world.

Gratitude is shown by seeking justice.

In other words, one shows that they are grateful when they are working to make this world a better place. When someone is seeking to express gratitude, instead of sharing posts that flaunt the blessing’s in one’s own life, one should fight like dragons for those same temporal blessings to be brought to other people’s lives.

Jesus, as always, is the perfect example of this principle. Jesus fought for temporal justice when he performed miracles, healing the temporal ailments of those who had faith in him and his Parents. His gratitude for his part in the plan of salvation was by attempting to alleviate the mortal hardship in this life and provide balm for the next life.

In a way, sharing on social media does provide this effort. It gives an elated feeling as others like your posts and as you see others and the gratitude they show. However, as with all social media, this feeling fades in time. When Jesus performed miracles, most of them were for all mortality—the blind who saw continued to see, the deaf who heard continued to hear, and the lepers who were healed continued to be healed.

The grateful Christian lunges into the fray of inequality, inequity, and iniquity, seeking to alleviate these afflictions—afflictions created not by a loving God but rather by children of God as they toil in a fallen world. Gratitude is best shown, in my opinion, in the actions we take, rather than the words we post.