Friday, April 26, 2013

Two Kinds of Gift: Theology, God, and Giving

Christians talk a lot about sharing and stewardship.  Giving to each other and to the community is hardly their unique property.  And they talk about giving, gratitude, and sharing freely just like any community.

Christians miss out if they don't make use of the difference between a gift, which is found everywhere, and a free gift, which is impossible.

Giving a gift is pretty straightforward.  They are not especially unique; cultures are rife with them and variations on them.  Not only the gift of a material thing at a "gift occasion," like a birthday.  Hospitality, forgiveness, accompaniment and sharing of time, casual conversation:  these are all gifts.

Gifts are pretty straightforward in one thing:  they are not free.  Despite their diversity, they all carry with them force and obligation.  Every gift, even those that are mutually agreed upon, sets in motion a cycle that is aptly described as a circle.  One gives and so one has to return or pass on the gift.

The gift circle is continued if one gives out of gratitude or out of forced obligation.  Sometime unwelcome gifts are challenges and the beginning of battles.  Other times, they are to demonstrate equality -- I can give just as much as you can.  But they are always competitive, even when they work.  There's always slippage that could result in a misfire.

The problem:  Christians often invoke what amounts to a kind of Jesus magic (or God-gloss) to get other Christians to give money to make their giving seem, somehow more "joyful."   I don't just mean the big-time evangelical hoodwinks who pledge prosperity.  I'm talking about ordinary, low-level, mainstream protestant talk about giving.   This talk is bewitched, fascinated, and frequently employs a kind of magic.  This is a magic we should be suspicious of.

It's a magic that has one basic logic but many forms.  The magic works this way:  if you give, you'll get back.  Or:  because you've been given, you should give.  Now, this can be spun in many forms.  This is just the circle of giving all over again.  There's nothing special about it even if it has a Christian or Jesus-y veneer.  This is, in fact, the world of creation and its economy.  There is a promise attached here, and it is graceful, after a fashion:  do this and live!  Take care of your children and they shall take care of you.  Give to your community and it will care for others.  You listen to public radio all the time and it's there for you, so show some gratitude.  This is the logic of creation.  There's nothing particularly free about it except that it got going in the first place.  It has its rewards and blessings and perils.

As a practicing Christian, I am frequently subject to a variety of ways of pleading and or raising money for various ecclesial or missional ends.  The other kind I get is from public school and other kinds of fundraising, I much prefer the later since there's not this additional layer of pretending that gifts are free when they are most certainly not.

I would much prefer, if there is a Christian difference in giving, to see how the economy of God's promise alters or frees up ordinary giving so that we can engage in ordinary giving in all its conflict and impurity. 

And so the free gift is a quest, a search, a gift that is without strings, without force, that is utterly free of charge.

Two economies are at work here, an intersection of two kinds of gift:  God's promise of Christ and the gift-circuit that belongs to the world, to the very creation.  Peril occurs when these two are flattened together.

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