The freedom of shaking one's hands off

Listening to Life/17 - The true nature of the gift is mixed and subversive, not philanthropic

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 16/10/2016

Spiaggia Recife 01 rid"In all societies, the peculiar nature of gift is that of obligation."

Marcel MaussThe Gift

The most valuable feature of the prophets is not the denunciation of evil that is visibly already bad, but exposing the flaws inside what we call virtues. It's easy to understand Isaiah and sympathize with him when he criticizes the injustice and the crimes of the powerful - but it's much more difficult to understand and love him when he criticizes the gifts. It was difficult in his time, it is even more difficult in ours, when we sacrificed the gifts to the business of presents (or bribes): “Who among us can live with the devouring fire? / Who among us can live with the everlasting blaze? / The one who walks righteously and speaks truthfully, / who rejects profit from extortion, / who waves away a bribe instead of grabbing it" (Isaiah 33:14-15)

Why should we refuse gifts if we want to live in a land of the 'consuming fire'? Isaiah, placing presents (or bribes as he calls them - the tr.) on the side of corrupt profits and crimes, is telling us that the misinterpretation of the relationship with presents is something extremely serious, a mistake that can make us perish in the fires of our economies and cities. This is something those entrepreneurs know very well who have 'shaken off their hands' and did not accept the gifts of the mafia, and then found themselves in the midst of the fire of their shops, storages or houses. They saved their soul even if they lost their lives, because they were able to walk among the 'eternal flames', with their head held high and with dignity.

Gift is a very serious matter. So serious that when Christianity decided on the Spiaggia Recife 05 ridicon for gift it chose a crucifix. The first murder-fratricide was born from a rejected gift (that of Cain). The gift we find at the foundation of civilizations, in the centre of the family and any social contract, at the root of many of the cooperatives and enterprises and in the heart of the mystery of who takes off leaving their land behind to follow a naked voice. Being the heart, the centre and the root, gift is silent. We find it in life's most ordinary and real things. It is easier to find in our seven hours of ordinary work in the office than that half an hour of overtime that we 'donate' to our company; it's rather in the thousand words that we exchange every day than in the few words we say to accompany our Valentine Day gifts; it's more present in our efforts not to forget the last prayer than in the many prayers we recite in the easy days of enthusiasm. The gift protects its own gratuitousness by a natural device that causes it to disappear when we want to isolate it in order to appropriate it to ourselves, even if only to 'donate it'. For this reason in the places where they tell the stories of true life we find very few words about gifts. In the Bible we find it in the Covenant, in the Sabbath, in the rules on the host and the stranger and in many prophetic chapters. In the story of Joseph, the brother sold as a slave becomes a gift for his brothers that sold him. It is there in the good Samaritan, but maybe there's more of it in Simon of Cyrene, who finds himself carrying a cross that is not his for a while. Perhaps the greatest gifts are the ones we make and receive when on the many calvaries of life we ​​find ourselves under crosses that were not our choice and keep walking, quietly, accompanying the crucified ones.

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Our civilization talks a lot about the gift, but knows it little, because it sees it where there it is not, and it does not see it where it actually can be found. It is very familiar with its surrogates, tarots and counterfeits. To defuse his subversive (because radically free) nature, it marked it as something contrary to duty, separated it from the contracts, and so it has reduced it to something insignificant. Because gift is only alive in promiscuity, mixed with prices and with accounting, inside the factories, in the streets, in the courts. If in search of pure gratuitousness we take it away from these mixed and impure places, we simply kill it.

Beyond this type of gift there are the presents, which are variable, sometimes important and positive, at other times ambiguous and dangerous, different from the gratuitousness-gift. One of the poverties of our time has been, from the very beginning, confusing presents with gifts, and then reducing gifts to presents to make them one of the greatest businesses. At one point, at the dawn of modernity, European civilization realized that the true gift was a too subversive and dangerous kind of experience for politics and the modern economy. It preferred the 'Leviathan' and the 'invisible hands'; the contracts without gift. And so philanthropy, corporate gifts, discounts, sponsors, and company donations were invented to treat the victims that they themselves generate, the sponsors of gamble companies and the hospitals for children maimed by war funded by the manufacturers of landmines.

The present-gift creates a debt in those who receive it and accept it and a credit in those who give it. We can, however, refuse presents if we don't want to become debtors of the donor, if we don't want to create an obligation of gratitude and restitution in ourselves. Not everyone and not always, however, we are actually free to decline presents that we do not want. There are many poor, fragile and vulnerable people, who are not in a position to refuse the presents of the powerful and the 'bosses'. Their subjects could not reject the presents of the pharaohs, on pain of death; the small trader, isolated and terrified for the lives of their children, cannot refuse the present of the boss who tells them: 'Accept it: there will come a day when I tell you how to return the favour'.

But to understand the deep roots of the prophets' criticism of presents we have to dig deeper Spiaggia Recife 03 rid and get to the aquifer of the fight against idolatry, which explains many theses of the prophets that are incomprehensible if we stop at the surface Isaiah tells us repeatedly in his book (1:23; 5:23; 45:13), and we it is very clearly present in other crucial passages of the Bible: "...because the Lord your God ... doesn’t play favourites and doesn’t take bribes." (Deuteronomy 10:17)

Present (in Italian: "regalo", with the root rex/regis: the / presents of/to the king) is an essential tool of every idolatrous cult, even the latently idolatrous practices that hide in the sacrifices of our religions - we do not understand the novelty of Christianity if we do not take the radical polemic of Jesus of Nazareth about sacrifices very seriously. The present-gift is, in fact, an intrinsic element of the retributive-economic religion, the relentless criticism of which served, not surprisingly, as the opening to the Book of Isaiah. In idolatrous worship, the idol is a big creditor to people. It holds an infinite credit, which can only be reduced by offerings and sacrifices, but never extinguished. The idol is always hungry, it is a voracious devourer of offerings (presents), which appease its hunger and anger for a while if the 'offering' has a very high value: the life of one's children or one's own. And as it happens in any relationship between creditors and debtors with debts that are too large and not refundable,  one day you start wishing for the death of the creditor. The idols are almost always killed by the crippling burden of debt around them - that's how our civilization has decreed and performed the 'death of God': first an idol was made of him, then the weight of a too large debt was felt and finally the self-made idol was killed thinking that it was God.

The Bible did not reduce YHWH to an idol also to eliminate the primordial and infinite debt of mankind towards the divinity - this is, perhaps, its greatest gift. Creation did not activate any debt on the part of the creatures, because it was and is nothing more than a complete overflow of love.

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But no faith can protect God from becoming the great debtor of mankind. Even the different God of the Bible can refuse our offerings: he's there, helpless (impotent), 'forced' to accept every offer and sacrifice of ours. In this impossibility of refusal he is weaker than us. And so he cannot prevent the emergence of claims against him in us - based on the presents that we offer him. It is a non-payable type of debt but - as our national debt - it is effective in history, because the idea of God has influenced and still influences our social norms, our sense of justice and the culture of poverty. Despite Job, Isaiah, Jesus Christ, there is still a strong temptation-tendency to consider the poor as debtors and therefore guilty, and ourselves as immune from the duty of brotherhood towards them - a culture that is being exasperated by today's financial capitalism.

No religion and no society is indifferent to the idea that people make of God. Too many poor people remain slaves all their lives, feeding the vain hope of a god who will deliver them through their sacrifices. Too many powerful people proclaim themselves the officials of these gods, collectors of interest on mortgages created for the sole purpose of keeping their debtors in slavery. History is a struggle between those who invent debts and credits to imprison us and those who want to delete them to free us. The prophets are among these liberators and forgivers of debt: that of people and, prior to them, that of God. They are men and women who refuse our presents on behalf of God, who cannot refuse them, and so they leave them out of the ugly business of moral finance. The prophets are the guardians of the temple door who try to stop us from entering with metals in our bags. They do it with the fragile strength of their word, knowing that they will not be listened to and that we will try to evade their control. But since they know that by protecting YWHW from our gifts they are generating a non-vain type of hope in 'that day', when the poor, finally liberated and free, will be able to shake their hands off: "with everlasting joy upon their heads. / Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; / grief and groaning will flee away." (Isaiah 35:10).

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