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?