From Marcel Mauss: Reflections on Gift-giving, Charity, and Justice

a gift
The “Note on Alms” is all but a two page passage in Marcel Mauss‘s famous sociological essay entitled “The Gift” in which this author endeavors to characterize the relationship between giving, receiving, and the obligation to return the gift in tribal societies. Mauss begins to liken the idea of charity to playing God while giving credence to the basis of justice that was previously evident in religious concepts, much like the gift-giving rituals he observes and comments on:

The Arab sadaka originally meant exclusively justice, as did the Hebrew zedaqa; it has come to mean alms. We can even date from the Mischanaic era, from the victory of the ‘Poor’ in Jerusalem, the time when the doctrine of charity and alms was born, which, with Christianity and Islam, spread around the world. It was at this time that the word zedaqa changed in meaning, because in the Bible it did not mean alms. (Mauss, “The Gift,” 18)

It seems natural that with unequal distribution of wealth and religious mandates to give to the poor, we have come to understand this vision of justice for the world in terms of charity, but it has always seemed to me that the power of the concept of justice is that it does not call people to give up things they have no need for and discard them onto the poor.  Rather, it envisions that each one of us gives up something we truly need to acquire something else we truly need as human beings. It requires redistribution of wealth, an act that is much accomplished in Mauss’s observation of gift-giving societies.
In Mauss’s sytem, a gift does not impoverish another person, because it places an obligation upon that person to give back, and of themselves; furthermore, gift produces relationship in these societies, and enhances solidarity.

How does this reflection from Mauss challenge our religious notions of charity and justice when it comes to our own giving? How are we looking to not just change the inequality in the world for the moment, but for eternity…is this not the kingdom of God on earth that we hear so much about?

Just some thoughts…would love to hear yours.

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