Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41–44 NIV)
We tend to think of gifts as those warm and fuzzy accoutrements that are occasional, gratuitous, a mercy. We assume that gifts are a kind of life décor, not something that could live viably at the core.
But what if we’re missing out by resigning gifts to the periphery? What if in our modes of survival and preservation of sanity, we are sidestepping gift as the truest and most life-giving law there is?
Comment has chosen to commission an issue that takes gift seriously because the air feels stagnant and so much in our politics and culture is near a snapping point in the zero-sum frameworks that keep us feeling secure. The questions we have asked our contributors to explore are by turns practical and philosophical: Is a gift economy possible, and what is it, really? How might more real-world experiences of the gift logic shift our ideals of what kind of leadership is needed to serve the commons effectively in the twenty-first century? What is the texture of formation that has given shape to those who become willing to die so that others might live?
I mean not to be facile in inviting some focused reflection on what the adoption of a gift logic would require of us as individuals today, of our institutional cultures and societal structures. We live in a warped era when hidden acts of selfless care are neither incentivized nor understood. Just about every calculus around our interactions with the public sphere pushes us back into our fragile selves: What can solidify my reputation, my popularity, my fiefdom, my moral standing? Our identities feel so contingent these days, even as they are ever more loudly valorized as life’s most sacred good. More peculiar, we are encouraged to have our most unique identities measured in bland, universal metrics: likes, shares, an ever more prominent platform, the real estate of public attention. That which is culturally narrated to us as existential in nature is meted out the way varieties of apples are priced at the supermarket. Even the cultural gods wind up losing to transaction and utility.
There is a different way to engage our world, to relate to one another, even, yes, to find oneself. Mothers discover this way as a matter of course. Men tutored by decades-long friendship and a long obedience to covenantal community twinkle at its name. Saints, whose choices only make sense when one begins to see a pattern in the cruciform nature of love, assume that the Gift lies at the heart of all reality and is the only logic there is.
Why wait so long to behold it? Why perpetuate our nameless distress? This issue is an invitation to look at the world a little differently, to choose to inhabit it in ways that depart from how our culture believes our economy and relationships work. It may be disorienting at first, even daunting, but once you begin to catch a pattern in its logic, it changes your very footing.