The thought of giving with expectation of return is something that is either seen as the epitome of the ‘worldly materialistic selfish secular’, or the driving force behind the ‘unhealthy dangerous prosperity gospel’. In most of our good Christian circles altruism is the flavour of the day, led of course by the unconditional grace of God as demonstrated through Christ on the cross. Except this isn’t quite right, is it? I mean, there are conditions; you have to believe the right thing, and actually in some places you have to believe it in the right way… and that’s before you even get to forgiveness, not to mention the judgement you will get if you don’t behave in the right way, and of course you’re not really ‘in’ unless you go the right church anyway.
…Anyway, on Thursday and Friday last week I was at a conference in Durham. It was all about money and the church and the poor. It was a pertinent topic for me professionally, given much of the work I do during the week, but also because of the discussions my church are having around a lunch we hold; we invite church goers, locals, and vulnerable people (25 of whom get free tickets). We’ve had to stop for a few months, as we have some building work going on, so we’ve taken a moment to step back and look at what we do. But I digress.
I’m at this conference, and on the first night the keynote speaker (Prof. John Barclay) gets up to talk about the church’s response to the poor. Honestly I’m sitting there not sure what to expect from this conference, I mean I’ve heard this talk before… in fact I think I’ve given this talk before. The church is a place of unconditional love, hospitality, care for the vulnerable, and service, etc. etc. when BAM! I’m hit between the eyes. He described the early church as existing within a culture of reciprocity, i.e. giving with expectation of return; but not only that, he said it was a totally normal and even expected way of being. Apparently the whole of the Roman and Jewish world was built on this concept, that when you gave something it always was so you would get something back. The Christian church developed within this way of thinking. The rich gave to receive honour, respect, power and support, and the rest seemed to give because it meant they would get something back if they did. Outside of Jewish and Christian circles, no-one gave to beggars, because they wouldn’t get a return.
Fast forward to our modern society, and we see that giving has developed across a spectrum, with the ‘worst’ being, of course, giving for ‘Self Interest’ defined by selfishness and egoism, with the ‘best’ being ‘Altruism’ defined by disinterest and selflessness, while ‘Reciprocity’ falls somewhere in the middle identified through mutual benefit. This space of reciprocity is OK. but the best attitude to have is usually deemed to be altruistic. Except what if it’s not?
The problem with charity is that it almost always leads to a paternalistic approach to giving, it feeds on dependence and power. It’s toxic…and sounds more like the rich giving because they want power and influence in the time of the Romans (except at least the Romans were honest about it). Yet we’re drawn to this model again and again, and we revile and condemn anything that sounds like self-interest, out of fear or misunderstanding or some kind of false humility.
But I see it almost every day, and I’m even guilty of it myself. After all I have power, and those who come to me for help are dependent and it demeans me and it demeans them. What if actually we could build a church where all are seen with something to offer, where all have gifts worthwhile of bringing. Because what reciprocity does is build relationship, it equalises people, it grows interdependence and benefit for all. Sure it still has the ability to be abused, show me a human system that doesn’t. But reciprocity at its best can still be unconditional, with a great ability to build generalised betterment within a community. It’s risky, so when it goes well it builds trust, and it doesn’t even have to be ‘pay back’ but ‘pay forward’. In Jewish society there was a reality that if you gave to your neighbour in their time of need, it would come back to you when you needed it, even if it wasn’t the neighbour you helped in the first place. The benefit is mutual.
At this point my thoughts turn back to the cross, and the gift of grace, of God’s unconditional love… because what if God gives for the mutual benefit of his world. Not so that we get a golden ticket into the biggest gated community ever to exist, but so that we can pay it forward, so that we can build others up and give them opportunity to reward us. We can, though, only receive this reward if we are humble enough to receive help from the one who appears to be ‘beneath’ us. What would it look like to have a meal where it wasn’t only the ‘righteous’ who served but the ‘unrighteous’ too? What would it look like to you to receive love from the one you enjoy helping, and I don’t mean your best friend, but the loser that somewhere deep down, if you were truly honest with yourself, you like to keep around because you like to look down and feel secure in your own stability?