John Milbank Rethinks Giving (A Post for Advent)

December 22nd, 2007 / 0 Comments

The season of Christmas is often referred to as, among other things, “a season of giving.” And when it comes to giving we frequently hear that in its purest sense, the one we are encouraged to pursue, is that which “expects nothing in return.” Within Christianity then, the reference point for the perfect example of giving is the act of self-sacrifice, which ultimately becomes the lens through which we understand Christ’s death on the cross.

John Milbank challenges this philosophy by arguing that crucifixion can not be properly understood when it is isolated from the resurrection. In his article “The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice” he criticizes self-sacrifice as:

…is incoherent, actually unethical, and not at all a translation of the essence of monotheistic tradition

and counters that:

…only with faith in the resurrection is an ethical life possible.

One of the issues for Milbank in his criticism of self-sacrifice (his article actually contains 4 issues) is that it requires an autonomy between the giver and receiver which limits the expectation for further interaction. He refers to giving food as an example of how these concepts of giving are acted out.

  1. In the first example food is given in a one way transaction from those who have to those who need.
  2. In the second example the exchange is likened to a “feast” where a mutual exchange creates the opportunity for continued giving and received by both parties that extends well beyond the initial act.

When read in the context of the cross it’s easy to see how the philosophy of self-sacrifice limits Christ’s atonement to a single act of giving and offers little context for understanding the resurrection. Yet when understood as an interaction, the resurrection becomes an opportunity for relationship and new life.

Christ’s atonement is not simply a single-act done to provide forgiveness; rather, the cross is a continuation of God’s gift of the Son to provide us with a relationship that enables forgiveness, hope, and new life.

When Christmas day arrives be conscious of the tendency to reduce giving to a single event and work instead to give as the beginning of a continued interaction.

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