Gift and gratitude

by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 35 - Oct 2009

You are visiting relatives, and as you arrive you give the little girl a present: some crayons and drawing paper. She goes off to a table, too busy to offer the 'thank you' expected by her parents, and starts drawing. A few minutes later she comes back to you and says "Here. This is for you. It's a picture of you."

You look at it. It isn't a work of art and it does you no favours. But it was drawn by her, and she did it for you. You give a broad smile, accept it and say "That's lovely! Thank you so much!"

Gift and gratitude. At the end of the story the two have got confused: whose is the gift, whose the gratitude? This is the way they work at their best.

In the same way humans take the wheat and grapes which nature produces, turn them into something else, and give them back, using liturgical language to say "Here! This is for you! It's our picture of you!" We convince ourselves that the original Creator of wheat, grapes and our muscles and minds, appreciates our way of saying "thank you".

At our Annual Conference in July Lucy Winkett, Precentor of St Paul's Cathedral, introduced us to some of the tensions of her work environment. Situated in the heart of the City in central London, the Cathedral is surrounded by, and ministers to, the ultra-rich, workers in the finance sector, one of the world's big three hubs where unimaginable quantities of money are constantly being transferred around the world at the press of a few computer keys. The economic and political establishment, and they themselves, understand their work in terms of 'creating wealth'.

Lucy described her task in the middle of this, to lead acts of worship which if they are true to their Christian heritage will summon those people, along with everyone else, to acknowledge that although we have been given the power to be creative our primary relationship with wealth is to receive it as gift.

We have inherited these radically different judgements. Ancient Roman pagan society had precious little sense of economic fairness. It was quite normal for rich people to walk down a street passing beggars dying of starvation, without imagining there was any moral virtue in giving them something to keep them alive. Christianity changed that. Although New Testament scholars still debate the meaning of Jesus' term 'the Kingdom of God', it does seem to echo Old Testament ideas of justice where the land and its produce are God's gifts to the people, designed to meet everybody's needs:

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses, and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied... do not say to yourself, 'My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.' But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth (Deuteronomy 8:12-13, 17-18).

So late antique literature abounds with stories of upper class Romans becoming Christians and giving their fortunes to the poor. Medieval Catholicism lost its egalitarian ethos but still generated economic laws about just prices and wages. Good and bad practice in economics remained a matter of ethics.

This changed in the eighteenth century. Radical Enlightenment intellectuals, impressed by the successes of science, set out to show how governments could manipulate their populations in the interests of increasing wealth. Since then economics has been understood not as a morality to instruct the general population but as a science providing experts with techniques of control.

In next year's annual MCU conference we shall be exploring alternative visions of how to relate our resources to our economic life. One of the persistent challenges - expressed through anti-globalisation protests, the banking and housing crises and the recession - is whether we need to revert from economics-as-technical-expertise to economics-as-moral-justice.

Gift and gratitude are not, of course, sufficient principles for a morality-based system of economics; but they do invite us to do things differently. We might live better lives if we did less demanding and more thanking.

One issue is the quantity of work needing to be done. The eighteenth century economists belonged to a wealthy elite at a time when disparities of wealth were enormous. Rather than proposing to redistribute it they sought to increase the total amount available. Most of their successors have felt the same, preferring to blame nature for its meanness than themselves for their greed. Thus shortage of resources has an essential role as the justification of economic growth. In capitalism it also has a second and contradictory role: it needs to be retained, or at least threatened, to stop us opting for a more relaxed lifestyle using fewer resources.

Economic growth, once conceived as a means to improving general well-being, has become an end in itself. As such it reintroduces morality, but in a very different form: it tells us we ought to do whatever increases wealth. Most years since the Second World War the economy has grown. It is considered a disaster when it does not, since the short-term effect is unemployment and poverty. Yet the long-term effect is not what we want. We work harder, produce more and consume more. We eat too much, drink too much, fly too much, motor too much, mine and quarry too much and pollute too much. Much of what we now do at work was not done at all, or desired, 30 years ago. Yet far from us all being proportionately better off, let alone happier, we have grown used to the constant refrain, in boom and bust times alike, that governments can no longer afford one thing or another and will need to cut public services and make 'efficiency savings'. The current proposal to increase the standard UK retirement age is one more such, warning that with increasing life expectancy more work will need to be done by older people.

A focus on gift will refer the matter to the giver. When we give thanks for all God has given us, we deny ourselves the option of blaming nature for meanness. All the world's major religions today describe nature as providing enough for our needs, and the development agencies agree: shortages result from maldistribution, not from nature's inadequacies. Instead of pushing ourselves to do more and more, we could acknowledge that there is enough to go round, and that therefore we can do less.

Another issue is distributive justice. When we presuppose that all the wealth is created by humans it seems logical to conclude that it belongs to those who do the work. To allocate any wealth at all to those who do not work seems an unjustified generosity, undeserved handouts to 'benefit scroungers'. So we resent, and long to reduce, benefits paid to the sick, unemployed and elderly; and if we were logical we would feel the same about children too. Combined with free market ideology this idea produces the absurd claims to which the banking crisis has drawn our attention - that some chief executives and city bosses 'earn' or 'deserve' or 'have a right to' a hundred times as much as a full-time hospital nurse.

Realistically, nature has made us a diverse lot. Some can, and like to, work harder than others. All of us begin life, and most of us end it, needing to receive a lot but unable to contribute anything. For all his dislike of the religion he knew, Marx's dictum 'From each according to his ability to each according to his need' has strong biblical roots. But his labour theory of value does not provide a justification for it. Deuteronomy does, by rubbing it in that the vast majority of our wealth comes from gift, not labour. We also have the power to do things with it, but that power is also a gift. When we take seriously the insight that the ability to work is itself a gift to be valued, we do not so despise those who cannot, or consign to poverty those with limited abilities. We all receive more than we could ever earn or deserve; natural justice suggests that what we have been given should be distributed in accordance with the giver's intentions.

An emphasis on gift and gratitude in our economic life will not produce alternative techniques for managing the economy. On the contrary it will discourage the expectation that we can all be made richer by a Big Brother state with technical expertise in economic theory, and instead reaffirm that the way we do our economics is a moral matter. What we tax and what we subsidise, whom we pay a lot and whom a little, are questions to be explored in public democratic debate in the interests of justice, so that we may use what we have been given for the common good, in the manner intended by our benefactor.

As Christians continue to gather for the shared meals which Jesus instituted, we could do worse than to remember how they were originally designed to affirm that the real economy is a matter of gift and gratitude. Even today, when Greeks want to say 'thank you', the word they use is 'eucharisto'.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is MCU General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.