A friend on Facebook posted the meme above today. It shows a child bending down to drink from a muddy and murky river. The caption reads, “Lord, if I’m ever ungrateful, forgive me.”
But something bothers me about the photo and caption.
I get why he posted it. He’s attempting to make a point about gratitude on this Thanksgiving week.
In one sense, I agree with the sentiment. Those of us who have plenty ought to be fully aware of the fact that there are millions of people in the world who are deprived of basic needs, including clean water. And we ought to be thankful that we don’t struggle to make ends meet.
Gratitude is about appreciating what one has, rather than lamenting what one doesn’t have. We are especially called to give thanks when we gather to celebrate with our families and friends this week.
Yet there is something fundamentally twisted and corrupt about this picture.
First of all, I am uncomfortable with the fact that there is a real human child in this photo. There is no way to know anything about where the picture was taken, who took it, and who the child is. If it’s a staged picture, then I am disturbed that somebody has faked the shot in order to make a point.
But if it’s a real-life situation, I’m bothered that a photographer took a picture of what is a truly desperate and dangerous moment. I want to know if the photographer approached the child after taking the picture and offered him or her a drink of clean water. I want to know if the photographer asked his or her permission to share the image with others. I want to know if the photographer profited in any way from the picture. If so, did the photographer share the profits with the child?
I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I have to refer to the child as only that — a child. I don’t know his or her name. The photo completely objectifies a precious human being, for the sake of making a point.
And what is the point being made?
That we should be grateful that we’re NOT LIKE THAT CHILD.
That’s what bothers me most. The caption tells us to give thanks to God that we have it better than others. And it attempts to shame us into this position of thankfulness by pointing out that there are people worse off than us.
Throughout my life, I’ve heard lots of people come back from mission trips and say things like, “I’m so glad I went to Far-Away-Third-World-Country because I realized how good I have it here at home, and I recognize that I need to be thankful for what I have and where I live.”
This line of talk has always bothered me. Because it makes mission about us, about “me.” I want to say in reply, “But what about them? In what way did you give hope to someone in despair? How did you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, comfort the hurting? Did you give anyone a reason to be thankful for YOU?”
Another thing that bothers me about the picture is the fact that it’s a black child. I recognize that the fact that the child is black doesn’t necessarily mean the picture was taken on the continent of Africa, but it seems clear that this is what is implied. The image plays on a stereotyped idea of Africa as a continent of great poverty, need, and deprivation — and ends up confirming the stereotype.
However, we should never forget that the problem of clean drinking water is NOT merely a Third World problem; look at Flint, Michigan, where water supplies only became safe a few months ago, after several years of dangerous lead levels.
The worst thing about this picture? I can’t imagine Jesus would have responded with platitudes about being thankful.
No, if Jesus saw a picture like this, I believe his response would be something closer to this:
“What’s wrong with you people? Why don’t you make sure every child of mine has clean water to drink? How can you enjoy your Thanksgiving meal when kids are drinking disease?”
I know that’s not what any of us want to hear on Thanksgiving, but it’s the truth of the world we live in.
And the only way to live faithfully in this world is to maintain an attitude of gratitude while, at the same time, working to relieve the suffering of the world’s poor.
But let’s not attempt to make ourselves feel better by saying, “There’s always someone worse off than me — thank you, God!”