Reciprocity and Atonement

The principle of reciprocity is a powerful tool in our culture.  It is the principle of the quid pro quo: I’ll do this for you if you’ll do that for me.  As Robert Cialdini pointed out over twenty-five years ago in his little book “Influence: The New Psychology of Modern Persuasion.,”  it is a principle constantly at work in our daily lives.  In its best guise it is simply an exchange of more or less equal things.  For instance, when good friends invite us to their house for dinner, we make a mental note of our obligation to reciprocate at an early date.  We like to keep things even.  We feel uncomfortable when things get too far out of balance, as when a well meaning person always pays for our coffee and never let’s us do the same in return.  It puts us in a subordinate position.  It makes us wonder what he or she wants or will ask for at another time.  Obviously some kind of exchange is required, and we dislike not knowing what it will be.
Oddly enough it is not a principle in which equality of exchange is required.  The reciprocal act is essential, but it can satisfy social expectations and our consciences without being an equal exchange.  That’s what makes it so easy for it to become a principle in which significant advantage of one over the other is sought.  Accomplished sales people use it to full advantage.  They may well have a very find product or service to sell, and it may be one that you or I want or need.  But the deal can be closed solid by employing the principle of reciprocity.  In exchange for lunch at a fine restaurant, we give our life savings into the hands of a broker.  In exchange for feigned friendship and manufactured personal connections, we fork over thousands of dollars for a new car.  At its worst, it is the underlying principle of every con and scam.  We live in a culture driven by the principle of reciprocity, both fair and unfair.
We even try to work that principle into our religious faith, and we have since the beginning of time.  The psalmists are constantly imploring God to punish their enemies and in return receive unending praise.  The disciples compete for who will get the most in God’s kingdom in exchange for the quality of their discipleship.  On television a few nights ago, a well known cleric said that in exchange for being a Christian you get eternal life.  Prayers are constantly offered to God asking “What did I do to deserve this?” and “If you will do me this favor, I will do thus and so for the Church.”  It’s all about reciprocity.  Even the theories of atonement are based on some aspect of reciprocity.
My friend Tom, who teaches philosophy at a local college, wonders what it would be like to understand God in Christ as the one who refuses to live by the principle of reciprocity and invites his followers to do the same.  He suggests that through Jesus we are able to see something of what the superabundance of God’s generosity looks like when it is poured out as gift with no quid pro quo attached.  Those upon whom the gift is poured, and who are willing to receive it, find themselves impelled to respond with praise and thanksgiving, yet not in the context of reciprocity.  They may become followers of Jesus, true disciples, not as a way of paying back, but more in the sense of being swept along in God’s superabundant river of generosity.  
How would that play out in the events of Holy Week, the Cross, the grave and the Resurrection?   How would that make sense as a foundational argument for a theory of atonement?  To continue the metaphor, what if one chooses not to be swept along by that river of generosity?  What if one is content to sit on the bank and just watch?  What if one denies that there even is such a river?  Where does judgment fit in with that?  Scripture offers a tantalizing clue in Peter’s first letter where it is said that Jesus preached to the spirits who had perished in Noah’s flood (1 Peter 3.19, 4.6).  Were all those spirits now swept along in a new flood of redeeming, superabundant generosity?  Was Jesus “harrowing hell” to raise up the good and leave the bad behind?  In the 5th chapter of John’s gospel, will all the evil dead who are raised to the resurrection of judgment discover that as condemnation, or an invitation to be swept along in the new flood of superabundant generosity?
What would a theory of atonement founded on the idea of an outpouring of God’s superabundant generosity in which there is no place for reciprocity do to our usual ways of thinking about what it means to be Christian?

8 thoughts on “Reciprocity and Atonement”

  1. oooh, I hope this builds to a long discussion. I am very interested in reading what some might say. I mean this as I have never been an atonement follower (at least not as I have learned it, I am open to new interpretations however). I really like your analogy of the river, I hope that the flow stays strong enough so those who sit on the bank may always benefit from the strength of the rivers flow.

  2. This is, in my humble opinion, an excellent post and I'm eager to read additional comments. B's comment about sitting on the bank and benefiting from the strength, etc. is beautifully rendered.xo

  3. I'm visiting as a result of stopping in at Sister Sunrise's and reading her praise of your post. Very worthy it is.I think we have but one way to reciprocate for all the beauty and abundance in the world bequeathed to us: that is, to love what is the source of all of us.There is a lovely little poem in \”Love Poems From God\” attributed to Kabir: ——It Stops WorkingLook / what happens to the scale/ when love/ holds it.// It/ stops/ working.——–Perhaps some of those who sit on the river's banks understand that.

  4. This post was genuinely thought-provoking, Steve, in precisely the way I, for one, need to be provoked in terms of my ambivalent attraction for and repulsion by ChristianityThe problem with reciprocity can be seen in terms of friendship. Reciprocity seems essential to and for friendship. Yet the expectation of reciprocity helps undermine it. OK, helps undermine what about friendship? Let me call it \”free trust.\” To trust is to be free to trust. That is, there is a sense of \”being free\” native to trust as such. Trust is not free, not freely there, just given, when you expect reciprocity.But where could the confidence for free trust come from?Jesus' practice beginning in Galilee shows confidently free trust at work. Does his death also show it at work? And where in both cases does it come from, what is its source? Luke is clear at 4:14: the source is the \”power of Spirit.\” \”Power\” here translates the Greek word dunamis (from which we get \”dynamic\”). It can also be translated as \”possibility.\”Jesus' confidently free trust is rooted in the possibilities of Spirit, that is: God's overflowing generosity. How does his death show this? By his turning the other cheek on the cross: an act that shows how the meaning of a Roman cross, even that publicly horrific torture and death, can be transfigured through confidence in God's overflowing generosity. Now: is that transfiguration Resurrection enough?Or as I've asked before, does Incarnation itself require the transubstantiation of blood and the Resurrection of the body?

  5. I think that we put too much on the \”sacrifice of the cross,\” thanks mostly to Anselm and Mel Gibson. For me the cross is not so much necessary as inevitable. As a little 'o' orthodox Christian, I believe the Triduum must be taken as a whole in which the Resurrection is the focal point. It is not so much that Christ's cucifixion somehow paid for my sins as it is that his Resurrection illuminated the defeat of death and the ultimate victory of God's grace over human evil. The thing is, we can't get there without the cross. It's a little like the Christus Victor of Aulen, but, for me, is for fully informed by Rowan Williams' book \”Resurrection.\”

  6. Well, Steve, I clearly just need to read Rowan's book.But if as you say, \”Resurrection illuminated the defeat of death and the ultimate victory of God's grace over human evil. The thing is, we can't get there without the cross.\”,then my question is still whether anything more is needed than forgiveness on the cross.Isn't such forgiveness as following from the overflow of God's generosity in itself \”the victory of God's grace over human evil\”? And if so, isn't this the death of death IF you take \”death\” in relation to \”human evil\” rather than in relation to the physical body?And if so, why insist on what I called the \”bloody miracle\”? As if it has to be added as the trump card, the final proof: you too will get a new body if you just say \”yes\”….For me, at least so far, the movement from Jesus' \”Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?\” to \”Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.\” to \”Into Your hands, I commend my soul\” is a sufficient \”yes\”.I certainly understand the temptation to have all that certified by the resurrection of the body. But at least so far for me, giving in to that temptation simultaneously opens the door to Mel Gibson precisely because the whole movement on the cross gets reunderstood by way of the bloody miracle.When that happens the emphasis shifts from the generosity of a love that has the grace to forgive on the cross to undergoing the agony of the cross to stage the bloody miracle that itself promises the same miracle for me IF I just say \”yes\” to all that spilled blood. Quid pro quo.

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