In The Gift , first published in the 1920s, the French ethnologist Marcel Mauss describes several Pacific Rim “gift economies.” Mauss argues that exchanges among these tribes are radically different from exchanges in money economies. In capitalism, trade is a utilitarian pursuit of self-interest; you don’t need to befriend the baker or butcher so long as he provides useful goods and services. Transactions in gift economies aim, by contrast, to forge and maintain personal bonds. A sale is finished when the buyer walks out of the shop, but among the Pacific tribes, a gift is the catalyst for a chain reaction, since the recipient must eventually make a return gift. Capitalists gain status by greedy acquisition; big men in gift cultures win honor by generous distribution.

Peter J. Leithart Inspired by Mauss’ book, scholars have scrambled to explore the phenomena of gift-giving and reciprocity in various times and places. The scramble has always been more than academic. As the German medievalist Valentin Groebner puts it, “to speak of gifts . . . is to speak of utopia.” The scholarly frenzy is a quest for the golden age of gift, when interpersonal generosity rather than money made the world go ‘round.

“Gift theorists” certainly have something to offer, especially to Christians for whom “gift” is a basic element of human life. In his Large Catechism , Luther sums up the entire history of creation and redemption under the rubric of gift. The Father gives himself “with heaven and earth” at creation. Because of sin, this gift is “hidden in darkness and useless,” so the Son must give himself to reconcile us to the Father. Christ’s gift would be fruitless, however, unless the Spirit also gives himself to enable us to receive and retain it. Since all is gift, Luther taught, we are bound to be grateful, to “thank and praise, serve and obey.”

Attractive as gift theory is, any honest evaluation will have to take account of the dark side of human gratitude. Mauss himself acknowledged that gift-giving is intensely competitive and sometimes violent, and he recognized that gifts impose obligations that can be used to dominate the recipient.

A healthy suspicion of gift and gratitude is one of the glories of the Western political tradition. Archaic Greece was, as Moses Finley explained, a gift society. Greek chiefs gained and kept power by generosity to subordinates. The head of a household was obligated to show hospitality to strangers, for he might entertain Zeus unawares, and the recipient of hospitality was expected to return favors when given the opportunity. In the Homeric epics, the standards of gift exchange are more often violated than honored. The intense drama of the Iliad begins when Agamemnon takes back the war-bride he had given to Achilles, and the Odyssey is full of egregious violations of hospitality.

Athenian democrats regarded gift and gratitude as politically dangerous. Elites bound by reciprocal services pursue their own interests rather than the common good of the political community. The heroes of democratic Athens are praised for renouncing bonds that might entice them to abuse power for personal ends or to help their friends. In the first century A.D., Plutarch was still singing the praises of Perikles for refusing to dine with influential friends while he held political office.

Yet the detachment of power from gift and gratitude opened the city to other dangers. The same Plutarch who commended Perikles also charged that he pandered to the Athenian masses. Democracy didn’t eliminate the dynamic of gift and obligation but relocated it. Democracy broke up the good old boy oligarchy to establish a system constantly threatened by politicians willing to manipulate the mob with promises of gifts. Later, Roman Emperors found they could win the loyalty of plebs with bread and circuses. Today, Democrats buy votes with food stamps and social programs, and Republicans can be sure to secure the votes of defense contractors.

It’s enough to make one turn all Rawlsian and find a place to hide behind a veil of ignorance. But Rawls’ veil is illusory, because, try as we might, we cannot escape the obligations that gifts impose. Nor should we want to.

Theology offers a more satisfying way to probe the dilemma. For the apostle Paul, gratitude is expressed not so much in giving return gifts as in faithful use of the gifts given. Christians respond gratefully to the Spirit by using his gifts to serve the common good of Christ’s body. Meister Eckhart captured this point when he said that fruitfulness in the gift is the most perfect form of gratitude. In place of a closed and narrow circle of generous giver and grateful recipient, Paul and Eckhart envision a dissemination of the gift.

More basically, theology focuses attention on the question: Who is the giver to whom we are bound? For Paul, gratitude is almost invariably to the Father. Behind every gift is a transcendent giver, the generous Father, and his gifts create an all-encompassing bond that relativizes all human loyalties and obligations. Because the Father is the giver of all gifts, gift and gratitude don’t form a closed circle between the donor and recipient. Benefactors cannot enslave beneficiaries because the donor’s donation is itself a gift from the Father. The space of gratitude opened by thanksgiving to the Father is equally a space of freedom. It is the space where we can hope to elude the dark side of gratitude.

Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic), and he is currently at work on an intellectual history of gratitude.

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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