Gifts and Power

Today I thought we might chat about presents – it coming up to Christmas and all. There’s an interesting little piece of practical theology to do with gift giving, and it’s not necessarily an attitude that’s shared by non-Christians. We will finish Pseudo-Dionysus, I promise – there’s just the letters left to go now, and they’re all relatively short. I might post a couple of the letters in full, just as additional one-off articles. They’re pretty short (well, some of them are), and they summarise different bits and pieces in a really approachable sort of way. Anyway – back to gifts. 

Basically the idea is that when Christians give gifts, they give without expectation of getting something in return. I buy you lunch, that’s a gift. You don’t have to buy me anything in return, or do something next time round – it’s a gift. There’s no strings or social expectations attached to it.

You can contrast the approach with the Greek idea, which is probably much more mainstream for many (non-Christian) people. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus and Prometheus set about trying to trick each other with a series of gifts. Once the first gift is received, there’s a social contract that means the recipient has to give something in return. Zeus and Prometheus both spend heaps of time trying to give passive-aggressive gifts to fuck the other one over (a game which escalates eventually to the ‘gift’ of Pandora and her box). The fuckery’s not so important here though: more to the point is the social contract of the exchange of gifts. I give one to you, you give one to me, we net zero. Things balance out.

For the Christian, gifts are more sort of premised on the assumption that you can’t repay them. It’s pretty deep-set theology, in the sense that the ultimate gift, if you like, was Christ on the cross. We didn’t earn or deserve it, but he died for us and gifted us eternal life. There’s nothing we can do to be worthy of such a gift, and there’s nothing we can do to repay it. We are indebted, if you like, to the generosity of God.

And of course we’re expected to model that generosity in our gifts. To give a gift is to bless – to bless is to uplift someone. A social transaction doesn’t uplift anybody – it nets zero gain for both parties. Well, I mean, you could argue that there’s a strengthening of the social bond, seeing as this transaction has successfully taken place, but the point is that it’s a meeting of equals. You give a gift to show equal status, in that sense – because they’re going to ‘repay’ you, right. If you give someone a really expensive gift and they give you something from the $2 shop, you’re going to feel like they haven’t lived up to their end of the social contract. It’s not an exchange of equals – you’ve given more than they have, and that makes you mad.

By contrast, the Christian gift is by necessity not an exchange of equals. The model of Christ represents an inequal relationship. There’s also a repeated imperative throughout the New Testament (and the Old) to especially look out for the widow and the orphan – these are marginalised, vulnerable members of our society who sure as hell can’t pay you back for the things you do for them. In that sense, it points to a purity of motive on the behalf of the gift-giver – you’re not advantaged by giving out this gift.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway. In practice it’s possible to give a gift in an inequal relationship and then use that gift as a sort of emotional blackmail to get the other person to do what you want. Essentially that’s taking the Christian model and making it into the Greek one, right – so it stops being a selfless act of generosity and becomes a social exchange of equals where you effectively indenture the other by being deliberately over-generous. It’s a shitty thing to do: it involves using your power and position over this person to enslave them – and you’re achieving this goal by giving them stuff! So yes, what we might call freely given gifts can be an opportunity for an abuse of power, but only when the model is supplanted by something foreign. It’s a conceivable situation, but a result of failing to stick to the model rather than a failing of the model itself.

Returning to the earlier idea of looking out for the orphan and the widow, there’s a similar pattern (although less immediately obvious) throughout the New Testament. In the Gospels, Jesus spends a lot of time saying that we should transcend our social obligations to people and in fact bless them selflessly, in much the same way that we’ve talked about so far. Matthew’s quite good for this sort of thing: Jesus spends heaps of time telling people to go beyond what they’re socially obligated to do. Don’t just love your friends, love your enemies; don’t take an eye for an eye, turn the other cheek; if somebody makes you walk a mile, go two for them (Matt 5:38-44). A little later on, we get this: “You received without payment; give without payment” (Matt 10: 8). There’s really no ambiguity here. Self-sacrifice, epitomised on the cross, is taken as the cornerstone of the faith – and gift-giving, or rather Christian gift-giving, is a type of self-sacrifice. It is a blessing upon others that comes specifically at the expense of the giver. To the Christian, it is a holy act.

The other kinda cool thing is that often free gifts make us feel indebted. When somebody gives you something, and it cost them, and you’re not obligated to return the gift, in some ways it’s a vulnerable feeling. You feel exposed, because suddenly this person’s got a sort of social power over you. You can ward off that vulnerability by returning the favour, thus completing the social contract – or, alternately, you can accept the vulnerability as a part of the human condition. The feeling of indebtedness humbles. For the Christian, it serves as a reminder of our more significant indebtedness to God. We received without payment. That’s the position from which we do business as human beings. It’s also a great fuck you to Ayn Rand, which is important for everybody, all the time.

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