Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 5, Number 2



Ed Mathews
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

"A gift is never free," so the saying goes. Indeed, there are usually "strings" attached, obligations that demand certain reciprocal responses. These strings or obligations are culturally determined. To be unaware of or ignore the "rules" of gift giving will damage--or even destroy--an effort to proclaim the Gospel.

I. Illustration of the Idea

In order to understand and appreciate the interrelationship between missionaries, gifts, and the Good News, it is helpful to begin with an illustration.

A team of missionaries had gone to a remote jungle area to make contact with an isolated, unreached tribe of people. They hung mirrors, combs, beads, and knives on the branches of trees. The missionaries were certain that the people were hiding nearby. The gifts were an attempt to establish initial contact. The following day the missionaries returned to the place where they had left the gifts. Some of them had been touched. Others were carefully examined. None of them had been taken, accepted, or received by the local people.

Missionaries do not merely step into the world of other people. They must win acceptance, must be received. Part of that acceptance involves bringing gifts. Frequently these gifts are touched or examined. Often they are not received. More often, perhaps, the people would like to decline, but are unable to find an appropriate way to do so. The missionary fails to "read" their discomfort. He is unaware of the rules of gift giving.

What does all of this say about mission work, about the agenda of the missionary, the use of North American money on the mission field, the support of national preachers?

II. Meaning of the Word

The word "gift" in Old English meant "payment for a wife." In Middle English it indicated "something given to corrupt", a bribe. The later idea was related to "blackmail" or a forced gift extracted from the less powerful in return for immunity from plunder. Hence, the word expressed the notion of "protecting" or "cherishing." Collectively these variations in meaning show that (1) more than one person was needed to complete a gift exchange and (2) the intention of one party was not necessarily the intention of the other party. Therefore, if gift exchange is open to misunderstandings within the same culture, it can easily lead to major misunderstandings across cultures (See Leach 1982).

III. Cultural Aspects of Gift Giving

Human beings throughout the world give and receive gifts. Such seemingly spontaneous interaction occurs everywhere except among those existing in the throes of abject poverty. And, even between people suffering the gravest economic depravation, the desire to offer, give, or be accepted is not absent.

In spite of the apparent spontaneity, however, gift giving and gift receiving are governed by strict cultural rules within each local society. Understanding the social aspects of gift exchange includes comprehending the particular action as well as knowing the appropriate response in any given situation. To do so, one must have answers to several questions: Who gives and who does not give gifts to whom? Why? When are they and when are they not given? What kind and quantity are accepted or rejected? Why? Is "power" transferred in the gift exchange? If so, how much and under what circumstances?

Gift giving is a manifestation of social rules in the same way language is a reflection of linguistic norms. The exchange of gifts reveal the cultural expectations and constraints involved. Because gift exchange is governed by rules, it is open to misinterpretation. One can misunderstand what is given as easily as misunderstand what is said (when the rules are not known, misinterpreted, or ignored). Should this occur, and it frequently does, the result can be anything from mild rejection to extreme rejection. Clearly a missionary would not want to foster either feeling. An awareness of culturally appropriate gift giving is imperative.

IV. Framework of Gift Exchange

Since obligation accompanies gift giving, a missionary must ask: Why should a gift be repaid? And what compels the recipient to reciprocate? Far more than a mere transfer of goods and services, gift exchange is a patterned behavior that reinforces social values. It creates and maintains relationship between persons and groups (Keesing 1958: 231. See also Asen Balikci, The Netsilik Eskimo. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. 1970 pages 133-144). Does western culture prepare us for giving and receiving gifts in a non-western society?

A. Capitalistic Economy. North American culture teaches missionaries a particular style of interpersonal relations. Capitalism encourages private enterprise and impersonal economic transactions. Little (or no) consideration is given to persons or relationships. Prices are fixed. Business is computerized, facilitated by "plastic" money rather than human interaction. The world of western commerce is based on anonymity, profit, efficiency, individualism, and isolation. Human relations are sacrificed on the altar of personal advancement and business success.

Westerners exchange gifts but such behavior is emotionally separate from economic transactions. Gift giving resides in an area of life characterized by intimacy, human relationship, and concern. Gifts are often surprises. Spontaneity is preferred. Blackmail, hush money, and payola is repugnant. Gifts should grow out of freedom instead of obligation, i.e., "doing what is expected" or "doing what is good for business." What kind of spontaneity is there in the gift that is "required," that binds the recipient to the donor as a debtor? What kind of language is spoken when offered against the background of western capitalism? Is the language of western gift giving the same language as non-western gift exchange? Do our gifts speak unequivocally what we want them to say to one another? Are we always understood? Do we receive the message of the giver as unambiguously as non-westerners receive the message of the giver in their society? With the suspicion that there are probably discrepancies, that missionary interpretation of local behavior may be wide of the mark, there is ample reason to press on.

B. Gift Exchange. Bronislaw Malinowski, the father of participant observation, identified a difference of activity among the Trobriand Islanders ranging from "real barter" to "pure gift" (1961). The first was understood as commercial business while the second was seen as personal interaction. The former was considered self serving and impersonal while the latter was assumed to be spontaneous and simple. Such a dichotomy is familiar to western missionaries, but unfair to non-western societies (Mauss 1970). What appears as barter, trade, exchange, or gift is patterned behavior--involving people in relationships--which is neither self-serving nor impersonal, neither spontaneous nor simple. Whether such action is direct or indirect, immediate or delayed, what appears to the missionary to be similar or identical to his culture is in fact very different. It is differently motivated, patterned, and understood by the local people. Economic behavior and gift exchange are separate in the west. In the virtual absence of such a separation, non-western societies exhibit a continuum of behavior which includes and merges the two into one activity.

V. Logic of Gift Giving

If a missionary is likely to misunderstand some of the behavior in other cultures, how should he approach gift giving? Certainly it must be addressed in its own context, on its own terms.

A. Sign of Relationships. People in a gift exchange are connected in relationship. This reciprocal arrangement is not entered lightly nor broken casually. It involves matters of honor, prestige, and self respect. One party does not repeatedly shower unsolicited gifts on the other nor relax into the comfortable position of mere recipient.

B. Governed by Rules. The rules of giving--unwritten and often unstated, but present and morally binding--indicate approximately when, how, how much, and to whom gifts are made. However, not every gift that is offered and accepted is a positive demonstration of gift exchange. There is always room for manipulation and exploitation. Nevertheless, gift giving is as carefully orchestrated as a Bach symphony.

C. Extension of the Giver. The gift embodies something of the giver. If one party gives of himself, then respect and reciprocity become understandable and necessary. In some way, the receiver possesses the giver. Most of the world does not differentiate between persons and things, i.e., things once attached to persons remain part of them (though they may be detached or given away). Since the person and the thing given are already in relationship, the exchange of gifts creates strong and lasting bonds between giver and receiver. Herein lies the seedbed of missionary misunderstanding (Lewis 1976).

VI. Mechanics of Gift Exchange

What may appear as a similar, free gift from one person to another is really much more. For what is seen in the giving and receiving is only a small part of what is involved. Gift exchange includes expectations, concerns, and obligations--the stuff of human interaction and relationship. It encompasses the obligation to give, to receive, and to repay. With these three aspects in mind, it is easier to understand the mechanics of cross cultural interaction, to appreciate the response of the nationals when, often inadvertently, the missionary violates their expectations (Parry 1986).

A. Obligation to Give. The Obligation to give applies to everyone, to everyone who wants to be a part of a particular community. Unless a person gives, he cannot receive. Unless he gives, he will remain isolated. Hence, Jesus said, "Give and it will be given to you," Luke 6:38. Within most non-western societies, to refuse to give is equal to an act of war. Respect is lost. Blame--for unsolved mischief--is gained. Giving initiates chains of indebtedness, bonds of reciprocity, sense of community. Gift exchange reinforces unity and strengthens relationships.

B. Obligation to Receive. Because giving creates (and maintains) interaction, gifts must also be received. In group oriented societies, to refuse to accept is viewed as an unwillingness to be in relationship. The giver is initially in a superior position to the receiver because (1) the giver (usually) initiates the relationship and (2) the receiver becomes indebted. The latter ingredient is the focus of "power" in gift exchange. Indebtedness is not viewed as a bad thing. As the Lord said, "freely you have received, freely give," Matthew 10:8. People want to be indebted to others. It is a sign of relationship, of belonging, of community. However, no one wants to be indebted to everyone, to have no one in his debt. For if a debtor has no resources with which to repay, then a dilemma is created. In gift exchange, "resources for repayment" are those who are indebted to you. Everyone is in debt to someone, everybody is related to somebody. Thus, gifts equal debts, and indebtedness creates community, in non-western societies.

C. Obligation to Repay. Repayment must be possible though it may not necessarily be immediate. In some cases, to reciprocate quickly reflects negatively on the perceived value of the gift. A debtor is required to remain in debt for a significant time as an acknowledgment of the importance of being related. When gifts can be received and repaid almost immediately (as in western culture), the participants are of equal status, the gift exchange does not result in a flow of power, and creating relationship (through indebtedness) is not the object. When gift giving is asymmetrical and repayments delayed, the reverse is true, namely, the participants are not of equal status, the exchange results in a flow of power, and the object is to create relationships. "A gift opens the way for the giver and ushers him into the presence of the great," Proverbs 18:16. To a missionary who separates persons and things, the process seems incomprehensible. To the national, such separation is not only impossible but also immoral. Such is the challenge of cross cultural ministry. The need for identification with and understanding of the local people is no small matter.

VII. Future Issues to Explore

If the missionary merely observes surface behavior (without understanding the deeper meanings), he will be unable to find a relevant point of entry for the Gospel. This is true of gift exchange. By discovering its manifestations in a given culture, the messenger of the cross will make significant progress in grasping the local language of interaction.

In order to communicate, there must be mutual intelligibility--whether speaking words or giving gifts. Herein lies the challenge for the messenger of God. By practicing gift exchange according to the specific culturally determined rules, the missionary can be a powerful, transforming influence. In light of gift giving, these items have significant implications for mission.

A. Duty to Give. Missionaries are givers. They spend their lives lavishing care on others. Yet, others have the same obligation, the same need to give. How much do we acknowledge their rights in this regard, do we allow or encourage their giving on their terms and in their way? Do we allow ourselves to be indebted to them? Are we guilty of being the rich almoner who humiliates and antagonizes the recipients of our charity? Is this not the danger in supporting nationals with North American money?

B. Duty to Receive. Giving and receiving characterize each party in a gift exchange. Are we as attentive to our social duty as receivers as we are to our moral obligation as givers? Not to receive is to refuse to place ourselves--even temporarily--in an inferior position, to fail to establish a relationship of reciprocity and mutuality. Is our receiving on their terms or our terms? Do we demand immediate return of what we lend or immediate reciprocity of what we give? We really need to learn to be gracious receivers, to accept what is tedious--things we do not want or appreciate, do not need or cannot use. There is more to authentic, mutual relationships than our preferences allow.

C. Duty to Repay. Missionaries are influenced by capitalist economic theory. Repayment is considered the conclusion of a transaction. As Christian stewards, we take seriously the speed with which repayment is made. If we are to communicate in the language of gift exchange, if we are to establish communities of believers in terms of local interdependence, we will have to learn to be less independent, to repay less hastily, to always be indebted to some people, lest we cut ourselves off from the very ones we wish to save. Our cult of efficiency, repayment, and honesty makes us aliens among those we want to call our friends, makes our message unacceptable to those we want to be His disciples.

What does a study of gift exchange contribute to the message we carry as a gift. How should that gift be shared? How do we give it? Receive it? Repay it? Are we now more prepared to concede that "a gift is never free"? Have our interactions with the local people been reciprocal? We have talked to them, but often talked down. We have listened to them, but often listened selectively. We have had relationships with them, but usually as givers. We have wanted to learn from them, though primarily as teachers. We proclaim the gift of God, yet our actions speak louder than our words. The language of gift exchange offers a corrective that may be difficult to understand, necessary to hear, and above all, imperative to practice.



1970 The Netsilik Eskimo. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

1958 Cultural Anthropology: The Science of Custom. New York, New York: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston.

LEACH, Edmund
1982 "Debt, Relationship, and Power," Social Anthropology. Glasgow, Scotland: Fantana Publishers.

1976 "Exchange and Market," Social Anthropology in Perspective. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.

1961 Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York, New York: Dutton and Company, Inc.

MAUSS, Marcel
1970 The Gift. London, England: Cohen and West Publishers.

PARRY, Jonathan
1986 "The Gift, the Indian Gift, and the Indian 'Gift'," Man, XXI, 3, 453-473.

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