25 February 2014

Reciprocity: When Giving Isn't Loving

There's a thoughtful piece over at Christianity Today on the reasons folks give. The article addresses the motives for giving which, by and large, aren't loving, at least in the sense of non-reciprocal generosity. In short, drawing on the insights of behavioral economics, much (not all) of the time we give out of self-interest in order to insure against the risk of future need, otherwise known as paying forward. In other words, we're generous to others today because we might need their help tomorrow.

There are, of course, other self-interested reasons for giving including atoning for misdeeds (husbands are well aware of this one) and gaining stature in a community (the reason non-profits list their donors in annual reports). As the CT post observes, Jesus was critical of those who hoped to get ahead by paying forward. Luke 14-12-14.

So is Nicholas Wolterstorff. In Justice in Love 123-126 (Eerdmans 2011) Wolterstorff identifies the meaning of a portion of the Sermon on the Mount ("You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the evildoer.") not only in the standard rejection of vengeance for a wrong but also even paying back evil with only a proportionate evil: "You should return good for evil. You should reject not only blind vengeance but reciprocity as well." Wolterstorff is not rejecting seeking justice to rectify a wrong but asserting a new and deeper ethic of love that transcends mere reciprocity.
The reciprocity code has two aspects. If someone does you a favor, you owe them a equal favor in return. If someone does you an evil, an equal evil is due them. ... In both cases, the positive and the negative, the code says that the balance that existed before the engagement took place must be restored.
In his rejection of the negative side of the reciprocity code, Jesus also rejected the "positive" side.  We may seek justice out of love but love is not subsumed in doing justice. Justice operates apart from love even though the two are not identical.
Jesus' attitude toward the positive side of the code, that if someone does you a favor, you should do them a favor in return, is deflationary acceptance. ... Jesus' attitude toward the negative side of the reciprocity code, that if someone does evil to you, then an equal evil is due them, is flat-out rejection.
I haven't decided if I buy Wolterstorff's entire argument about reciprocity but it is certainly consistent with the observations of behavioral economics, that much apparent altruism is self-interest in advance. May we seek to do good not to gain glory nor even as a means of paying forward, at least not only for the latter reason, but, like Jesus himself, as an outpouring of care for the other.

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