Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thinking about Charity and Gift-Exchange

It’s the Christmas season again, a time of year when we are called to focus upon those people who we consider less fortunate than ourselves. We are called to give from our own wealth to those who are perceived as lacking or in-need. We are repetitively informed that it is the season for such an approach to giving..



  • Charity is no gift-exchange.
  • In a gift-exchange we are giving in response to gifts already given, we enter into an emerging game of reciprocity.
  • The gift is always in response to an encounter with abundance.
  • The gift-exchange pays little interest in need or lack – that is the work of charity.
  • We all-too-often talk as if the world needs more charity, more people giving to other people who are lacking and in need.
  • I argue we do not require more charity.
  • We must resist the belief that human lives are empty and lacking.
  • Instead, we must see human lives as rich and full – understanding that this fullness is not always an easy thing, sometimes it can also be a source of pain.
  • We take on the responsibility of bearing witness to our own experience of the fullness in human lives, and in life in general.
  • And we take on the responsibility of creating meaningful, enlivening and specific response to our encounters with such abundance.
  • Such responses are always unique... they never can be truly scripted or anticipated.
  • We respond to a unique and irreplaceable presentation of a particular act of giving within a complex rhizome world.
  • We respond to the abundance of others, not to lack and poverty.


  • Such an emphasis on gift-exchange does not at all minimize the horrors of poverty.
  • On the contrary, poverty is tragic and reprehensible precisely because it repeatedly minimizes the gifts circulating within human lives and worlds.
  • Our response to poverty is actually not a response to poverty at all -- it is a response to the gifts circulating within the lives and worlds of those people we are engaged with.
  • And, our response to such a circulation of gifts is not limited to emotions such as gratitude, but might call forth any number of responses, including actions of anger which emerge upon the understanding that the circulation of these gifts might be minimized and limited.

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