Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Relentless Politics of Generosity

There's this great line in the Ben Harper song, "Put it On Me." I think I have an idea of what he means when he sings, "the politics of generosity are making me weak." Sometimes, there's nothing more manipulative than kindness. And even if kindness is offered without strings, the burden of reciprocity still lingers in the one who received the kindness. The gift becomes something other than a gift. Some cultures, I have found, know how to kill you with kindness.

Don't get me wrong, generosity is a good thing. I'm always looking for persons who are generous of spirit, not small or provinical or who return evil for evil. But even good things, like the law, offered earnestly can end up enslaving us.

There's this great Gomer Pyle episode (and yes, I'm embarrassed) where Sgt. Carter saves his life only to receive in return Gomer's overwhelming gratitude, an unwelcome attention. Sgt. Carter decides that the only way to get Gomer out of his debt is to stage an opportunity for Gomer to save his life in return. Of course, Gomer messes it up and Sgt. Carter ends up having to save the both of them again, increasing Gomer's determination to smother Sgt. Carter with care. The politics of generosity can make us weak.

Several years ago there was a book on marriage entitled, His Needs, Her Needs. The book offered itself as a Christian recipe for a succesful marriage. Men and women, according to the author, have a hierarchy of needs, differing by gender. As long as you're meeting your spouse's highest needs, everything will be great. So, as long as a wife experiences affection, the husband will get sex, and vice versa. The author talked about a love bank, a place where you pile up credits that will come back to you in having your needs met. There are so many things wrong with this, I don't even know where to begin. I'm not saying that some people couldn't manage a happy marriage this way, but this establishes for many couples a viscious cycle of reciprocity. They beat each other up for the ways their needs aren't being met. As the old Heart song, "Even it Up," puts it, "I made you your breakfast in bed, now even it up, even it up, even it up." The politics of generosity is making me weak.

In the New Testament, Paul is very careful to root his relationships with churches in something other than reciprocity. He refuses, for instance, the patronage of the Corinthians precisely so that what he offers them will be experienced as free. In Philippians, he takes great pains to make sure that the gift they sent him while he was in prison is not seen as an obligation for him to return.

This is not because Paul does not want to be in service to others. He does. But he removes service from the human economy of generosity and reciprocity. He places his sense of security, not in the response of others, but in the resurrection of Jesus. Here love can remain a gift, something we do not manage or produce, but something that sustains us anyway. Gift. Love. Freedom. These things go together for Paul and allow a new way of human relating.

Some days I'm better at seeing this than others. I fall too easily out of thankfulness, or try to secure my own sense of well-being through generosity. And it makes me weak and I love poorly. So, today I am living in the confession "that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us also with you..." Gift.

No comments: