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Matters of Faith: Do we want to live in a world of quid pro quo?

These days, we have all been hearing a lot about a Latin term - quid pro quo. Translated, it means “this for that.” But there is much more to the term than I realized, as I learned not long ago by listening to a lecture by author and theologian, Diana Butler Bass.

In her talk, she explained that quid pro quo is an exchange between parties that includes the expectation that there is a contract between you and someone else. It is always about building power and maintaining it. The history of this idea has a lot to teach us today about what is happening in our nation and why it matters to us as people of faith.

More than 2,000 years ago, the Romans ruled a swath of Europe and the Middle East by creating a tight social order, almost like a caste system. They held the society together through social contracts and business arrangements between patrons and clients, people at the top and people at the bottom of the hierarchy.

At the top of the Roman pyramid was the emperor, next senators, then in descending order, the equestrians, the aristocrats, the citizens, the freed slaves and the slaves. People at the top used their wealth to cement their power through an elaborate patronage system.

For example, if an aristocrat expected that he would need military support for a new war being planned by Roman generals, he might find a farmer nearby who had many sons. Then the aristocrat would offer to pay for a new well or buy his seeds. In return, that farmer would be obliged and would owe the aristocrat a debt of gratitude; this was a steep debt for his complete allegiance had just been bought and purchased. If the Roman generals went to war, they would expect a quota of conscripts from each aristocrat and the one who helped the farmer could call in his favor and expect all the farmer’s sons to fight in the military expedition to pay their father’s debt of gratitude.

Gratitude in this system was always measured in terms of what you owed to those who had control over you. Quid pro quo was a system in which favors flowed down in return for total allegiance.

I was so fascinated by Bass’s explanation that I checked out her book, titled “Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks,” where she says that the opposite of quid pro quo is pro bono. The latter phrase is another Latin term that means “for good.” We are most familiar with this term when a lawyer gives her/his time to someone who cannot pay the legal fee. The work is done pro bono, and customarily that means it is free. At the very least, there are no strings attached. There is no debt of gratitude. In fact, often when someone gets something pro bono, the only expectation is that they will try to pay it forward and find someone else with whom they share their own gift, freely given.

Now the Bible offers an alternative to the Roman world order that ran on quid pro quo. The Bible offers a worldview that humbly celebrates God’s gifts. The faith in these pages commends us to be thankful for the gifts in our lives no one could earn but that have fallen to us because of the good fortune of birth, or education or luck. Though most of us assume that our gifts have come to us because of our hard work, the Bible encourages us to see that so much in life is freely and graciously given by God. The Bible also encourages us to consider the needs of others and promotes a vision of the Golden Rule.

As a Jew, Jesus believed that life itself was a gift. Jewish history begins with the story of gifts given by God - the gift of creation, the gift of being called into covenant, the gift of freedom from slavery. All these gifts cannot be earned, but good people respond to God’s grace by striving to be gracious. It is fascinating that so many of our religious traditions do not encourage us to be generous as a way to secure our control, but to be gracious as a way to find happiness. Most faiths tell us to treat others the way we would want to be treated.

Jesus came to a world strapped into the constraints of quid pro quo, but he did not buy it. Instead, he moved among the poor, healing people without charging a penny. He never tried to start an institution or capitalize on his popularity or build a movement. He gave himself without counting the cost or expecting to be reimbursed. He taught us that we all make choices each day, choices about what kind of world we want to live in, and what kind of world we want to leave to our children and theirs. Do we want a world where quid pro quo is just expected, or aspire to a world where we find opportunities to live with authentic gratitude and even give things to one another with no strings attached?

It’s not an idle philosophical question. In fact, it is the question of the hour.

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