Gifts, Then and Now

Reciprocal gift-giving, for all of its potential pitfalls, can build stronger relationships.  

In his 2018 Ecumenical Christmas Letter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, appropriately chose to address a practice that is virtually ubiquitous at Christmas time—gift-giving. Describing the celebration of Christmas, Welby writes that “a gift given with the expectation of something in return is not a gift”. In other words, the divine gift of Christ is non-reciprocal, or offered without the intention of the receiver giving something back. While Welby’s statement about non-reciprocal gift-giving might well describe the divine gift to humans, it is worth pausing to ask—does non-reciprocity set the tone for human gift-giving?

In his recent book on gift-giving in the ancient world, the Durham-based historian John Barclay makes the following provocative argument: “it is only in modern times and in Western culture that we have idealized the notion of the ‘pure gift’ without strings attached”. By contrast, the offering of gifts in antiquity was rarely separated from the set of human relationships in which giving took place. The giver offered “strings-attached” gifts in the firm hope of receiving something in return from the recipient. Yet the “strings” attached to the gift were not intended to manipulate the receiver; rather, they were the means of strengthening the relationship shared between the two parties. This important insight raises a significant and often-ignored question: if mutual gift-giving can strengthen relationships, then why would we not want to give reciprocally?

The answer, at one level, is fairly obvious. The abuses of reciprocity are well-documented, and Barclay is quick to point them out—these range from self-interested, manipulative gift-giving to bribery. Yet the failings of reciprocal gift-giving do not mean that we need to discard of the practice altogether. 

One of the most promising aspects of reciprocity is the fact that it has the potential to contribute to the common good. As both parties give of what they are and have, they are brought into closer relationship. Mutual giving, in contrast to the altruistic or one-way gift, affords the recipient honour and dignity through the opportunity to offer something in return. And this brings us to the heart of the reciprocal model of gift-giving, as described by Barclay: reciprocity assumes that both sides have something to offer. It therefore implicitly challenges modern, Western conceptions of “deprivation” that have defined “needs” almost exclusively in monetary terms. While money should, of course, contribute to the assessment of a person or community’s “wealth” or lack thereof, there are a range of ways in which one can be “rich” or “poor”—relational poverty, for instance, now affects 1 in 3 adults in Britain across the socio-economic spectrum. Barclay therefore encourages Westerners to consider an individual or community less from the perspective of the needs they have and more from the standpoint of the gifts they might offer. Viewed in this way, mutual gift-giving allows plenty to fill lack in both directions

None of this is to deny the large and important place that rightly belongs to non-reciprocal gift-giving—one thinks of humanitarian disasters or famine aid, for example. Yet it is also worth reflecting on why Western cultures have so often moved away from reciprocal models of giving. For all of its pitfalls, reciprocal gift-offering has the potential to enrich relationships for the common good. 

Image Credit: Freepik

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