Gift Economies – guest blog by James Butler

As Christians we know that it is “more blessed to give than to receive.”  Giving is part of our Christian witness.  In terms of social justice we often use the language of gift to describe our actions; giving our time, our money, giving away what we don’t need.

But where do our ideas of giving come from.  There are two distinctive theological positions on the relationship between our giving and God’s giving, one given by John Milbank and the other by Kathryn Tanner.  For Milbank there is a gift exchange where giving is seen as reciprocal.  For Tanner gift exchange does not express the radical nature of God’s giving, and instead she sees God’s giving as completely unconditional.  To place these arguments in such stark terms obscures the nuances of the discussion, one that we will not embark on here; but what we will draw on is the ability to both see the nature of God’s giving as unconditional, and also to draw on the ideas of human participation which they offer.

Let’s explore ideas of gift further.  What about worship as gift?  God blesses us unconditionally with his love, but there is an opening for an exchange in which we respond to God’s love by giving back to him in worship.  Kelly Johnson reflecting on prayer says, “prayer is not an attempt to persuade God to share the wealth.  The very nature of God is outpouring gift.  Prayer is not asking for an allotment of a grant from a foundation.  Being able to pray is itself a gift, the first gift that brings Christians into the continuing friendship and outpouring of gifts that is God’s life.”

In social engagement, Tanner sees human action as participating in God’s lavish giving.  God gives generously and freely to all, but in a world of injustice this does not mean all people equally receive and part of the call on Christians is to participate in God’s lavish giving by joining in and generously giving to others of what God has given them.

So in our giving, is there a way to better understand the types of giving?  We’re going to draw on the framework put forward by Luke Bretherton.  Bretherton identifies four distinct types of giving.

Firstly, The Magnanimous man; the rich benefactor who gives out of all he has with no expectation of relationship.  This is the rich businessman or land owner who sees it as their duty to support others financially, but does not expect any relationship with those he gives to.

The Patron-Client relationship is an improvement on the magnanimous man, including an element of reciprocity, where the patron provides for the needs of the client in return for work.  Think of the Quaker businesses during the Industrial Revolution.  It is one that seeks to care for those who work, but at the same time it creates dependent relationships.

Noblesse Oblige is a common model of giving in the church.  It recognises a need and seeks to meet it, understanding its responsibility to those who are suffering, but it fails to address the power imbalance.

Hospitality seeks to put both parties on an equal level, recognising that both have the ability to give and to receive.  It is a journey to a common good with a desire to establish mutual relationship.

What this framework helps to highlight is that the way in which we give can reveal our attitudes and may be based on control and not on relationship.  All of these gift economies bring something good, but I would like to suggest that it is in the hospitality model that we are most effective.  Of course, hospitality is based on building relationships; this is costly and time consuming, but it is also the most honouring to those we are interacting with.

This framework can be used to analyse our church, organisation etc.  Perhaps your church gives to a charity which works with the homeless. The money goes out, someone else does the work, along the lines of the Magnanimous man, good is done, but relationship is non-existent.   Perhaps the church gives generously to those who arrive at its door, but it does not seek to address the power imbalance at work, giving, but always marking out the giver and receiver, perhaps even giving out food once some odd jobs have been done.  Or perhaps the hospitality model is used, where those who don’t have, come and sit and eat together with those who do, where the washing up is done together afterwards, and there is space to build relationship and for both sides to give and receive what they have.

If you want to think about gift economies further then this video is a good place to start;

For more theological accounts then Tanner and Milbank offer different perspectives on how we respond to God’s giving.

This blog is written by a friend of the jusTice initiative, James Butler. James is currently doing a PhD at Kings College, London looking at the engagement of the church in social justice.  He spent two years in Uruguay with Latin Link from 2004 – 2006, and still has an active interest in world mission.  He now lives in Reading where he is involved in a prayer community connected with the 24-7 Prayer movement and works as a private tutor.  He’s also looking forward to getting married next April!

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