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The theology of giving

"The theology of giving" Continued...

Issue: "Effective compassion," Sept. 2, 2006

Is it appropriate for us as loving givers also to be wrathful? Certainly we should avoid both the stance of implacable judge ("You're undeserving, therefore you'll get nothing from me!") and of doting grandparent ("I could never give you enough, sweetheart."). But is there a proper way to be wrathful? Let me put it this way: It's important to educate recipients about how to receive responsibly. It's an art to receive well, just as it's an art to give well; and we can sin not just as givers but also as recipients, and sin gravely. But givers aren't best suited to teach their recipients; for when they do so, their giving has a tendency to turn into rewarding and therefore to cancel itself as giving.

WORLD: You write, "It's morally wrong to treat an adulterer and a murderer as if they had not committed adultery and murder . . . such offenses should not be disregarded. Instead, they should be forgiven." How does that work out in practice concerning criminal justice and incarceration? Why do liberals tend to disregard offenses, while conservatives tend to refuse to forgive?

VOLF: I don't like using the labels "liberals" and "conservatives" because they miss so much. But since you use those terms, let me give you only two considerations about what is a very complex issue. Some liberals think that any form of passing of judgment is already an act of exclusion, while one of liberalism's main impulses is to include. So if you can't pass judgment and still include, you must disregard the offense.

In contrast, some conservatives think that generosity toward transgressors is a form of weakness that will invite the forces of chaos to overwhelm us. For this reason and some others, conservatives feel compelled to punish instead of forgive.

It's one of the extraordinary features of early Christianity-of any authentic Christianity-that it combines the robust passing of judgment with an even greater show of grace. That's exactly what happens in forgiveness, God's forgiveness and ours. To forgive is to pass judgment, yet not to exact retribution-which, as it turns out, may bridge the liberal and conservative sides in American culture (or further alienate them!).

Because I believe that Christ has died for the whole of humanity and "paid the penalty of sin" for all, I don't believe in retribution, whether personal or social. As far as criminal justice is concerned, my stance implies that the purpose of punishment can never be retribution but must always be protection of the innocent population and/or reformation of the criminal.

I understand that this isn't necessarily the prevalent view in the Christian tradition, but I don't know of a better way to apply God's forgiveness and reconciliation-the center of the Gospel-to the issues of criminal justice.

And of course, unlike some in the history of Christianity (notably the great reformer and my hero, Martin Luther), I think that it's a mistake to distinguish sharply between the Law and the Gospel by applying the Law to life in society and the Gospel to the interior life of the soul and to personal relationships. The Gospel of grace should inform the criminal system, as well as other spheres of life.

WORLD: You observe that government, while it has an important role in tending to social needs, should not replace gift-giving, which binds people together. Has the expectation of government payment tended to squeeze out both the offering and the acceptance of charity? Can we restore community bonds and other cords of concord?

VOLF: That's right, I don't think that the government's distribution mechanisms should replace personal gift-giving, even if in contemporary societies the government has an indispensable role to play. Giving is fundamental to human flourishing, and giving can't be bureaucratized (using "bureaucracy" here in a neutral and descriptive sense rather than a derogatory one).

And yes, I do believe that we can restore community bonds that are forged through giving. That's partly why I wrote the book Free of Charge-I wanted to draw attention to the extraordinary Christian resources for restoring the practice of gift-giving and, as an aside, point out how impoverished secular culture is when it comes to such resources.

However, if we are to restore a culture of giving, it's important not to think of giving simply as help we render to the poor, although that is a central function of giving. Instead, we need to think of giving as permeating all of our relations and all of our activities. Nor should we think of giving only in materialistic terms, as though to give of one's time and talents didn't qualify as giving. A good teacher is a giver, even when she gets paid for her work. The same is true of doctors, plumbers, lawyers, pastors, mechanics, scholars, etc.

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