To receive and to return gifts is no easy matter. How often has the kindly birthday or Christmas gift from a boss or acquaintance led to panic the following year, as you try to figure out how to reciprocate at the right price-point and level of thoughtfulness: a bottle of wine (too common), flowers (too suggestive of romance/not gender appropriate), a book (do they read, would they like my taste in literature?), a gift certificate to a restaurant (price too obvious)….Such stress is common and it points to the real problem of gifts: is there any such thing as a pure, true gift, or are gifts merely a way of exchanging goods and creating social debts that tie other people to us?
Economic anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote in the early 1900s that there really are no gifts, just economic exchange and social debt. Of course, the question of the gift has plagued discussions of faith for centuries as well. How can God’s love be a gift? If we repay God with obedience doesn’t that compromise our individual agency (or our ability to act as free and unbounded subjects), making God into a patron with high demands? Or, if we don’t repay the gift, do we still get to keep it? For many of us, these questions still remain both as existential questions of faith and very practical questions about what to get Aunt Edith for Christmas next year.
Not that I have any concrete answers better than centuries of theological debate or great gift suggestions for your boss or Aunt Edith. But I did come across the following little scene in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South that might be helpful. John Thornton is explaining to Mr. Bell about a communal meal arrangement at the mill he owns. Thornton explains that, after seeing one of his workers making a “black fizzle of a dinner―a greasy cinder of meat,” he started thinking about how his workers ate. When provision prices became high during the winter, Thornton realized that he could order food wholesale and cook in mass quantities for the workers, providing them with better food at a cheaper price than their own home-cooked fare.
But you may ask, “but isn’t this just an image of charity, another example of the master (God or the boss) drawing attention to his own kindness through a gift?” Not in the way Gaskell develops it. Thornton is very careful to keep himself entirely removed from the meals ― he just provides wholesale food and a cook ― and the men do pay for their food (with no mark-up), which actually guards their position as free, contracting agents, since they are not receiving charity from their boss. At this point, what we have is a smart economic arrangement and little more ― with the gift being Thornton’s time and effort in organizing. However, as Thornton’s narrative continues, he reveals that the men eventually invited him to join them for a meal, which led to other meals and, as a result of eating together, master and men got to know each other. Thornton (who had previously had little time or desire to know his “hands”) becomes well-acquainted with his men and finds he even enjoys their company. And the men, who had previously been inclined to riotous strikes, discover that their boss isn’t the greedy bastard they thought he was. While Thornton initiates the meals, as he is the one with the financial power and business connections to do so, the men initiate his inclusion in the meals, acting as his hosts at the table. Once Thornton sits down with the men, neither party is in any sort of gift-debt to the other, even though Thornton ultimately initiated the meals and the workers lacked both the resources and connections necessary to undertake such a project on their own. This allows master and men to enter into mutual giving as they share what is now truly commonly offered food.
While Thornton is not meant to represent God, it seems to me that the mutuality modeled in the narrative of communal meals helps us understand God’s gifts a bit more. Why did Thornton initiate a sort of cafeteria at the mill? Because the workers needed it; because it was the right thing to do; because some were literally starving due to the high cost of food and their limited resources. What did Thornton have to gain? Nothing…initially. The workers could have enjoyed the new opportunity and never invited Thornton to sit down with them ― yet they did invite him to the table. The invitation isn’t an obsequious act attempting to somehow repay Thornton for his kindness in organizing the meals, but an act that affirms the workers’ agency, even though they are offering Thornton food that he himself has provided.
I wonder if God’s gifts and our gifts back to him work in a similar way. God is not the ultimate agent and we the ultimate recipients. Rather, his agency enables our agency, freeing us to reciprocate and act as his hosts and hosts for each other (Jesus said something quite similar to this when he taught that, by caring for the poor and the imprisoned we are caring for him). And where does mutual hosting and, by extension mutual receiving, lead? Thornton gets to really know his men and they him ― they become friends of sorts, tied not by a debt-based friendship but by a mutually giving and receiving friendship…which is perhaps the real purpose of God’s gifts as well.