The concept of the gift economy recently came up in a meeting with fellow editors. Apparently the idea of the gift economy is gaining traction and interest again in our society, particularly among Christians, with speakers discussing it at various religious conferences.
What is the gift economy exactly? It is the practice of giving items to people without any expectation of anything in return. This is in contrast, of course, to our market-based economy and even the barter system in which goods and services are exchanged for money or other items in return.
Anthropologist Marcel Mauss studied these various types of economies within a range of cultures and introduced the terms reciprocity (the expectation of something equal in return), inalienable possessions (things that can only belong to an individual person) and prestation (a cultural offering of a gift or service). The type of an economy that a culture uses tends to say a lot about them as people.
So why is the concept of the gift economy trending in our world today? My hunch is that we, especially as Christians, are recognizing more and more that our culture today is driven largely by money, the stock market, sales and profits. And we in our Christian culture recognize that our life should be less about the bottom line and more about sharing love.
While traditional financial exchanges are important and necessary in a culture, of course, ultimately life should not be about a running tally of who gave what to whom and did those items match up monetarily. Life, in the Christian model, should be at its most essential about giving to others with no conditions. It should be about caring for others as people and not as customers.
The Bible even says, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Giving should be about our hearts and our love for others, not about tracking numbers or keeping score somehow.
Our lives should first and foremost be modeled after Christ, who gave his life as a free gift for us that we can never repay. He gave his life on the cross out of love for us that we might show that same love to others unconditionally and live with him together in heaven one day.
Each day is a gift because of Christ, so we are called to give as freely to others without exception.