Cody Larson is a subsistence fisheries scientist with the Bristol Bay Native Association. Larson studies the way that native residents of the Bristol Bay area harvest and utilize the natural resources of their land, and he is one co-author of a technical paper published by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on networks of distribution among native communities and beyond. Essentially, he examines the traditional ways native Alaskans share.
Larson and his co-authors found that the sharing of resources—particularly salmon—bound communities together in profound ways, far beyond the local households and villages in complex webs of interdependencies. Rather than a system of individualized wealth accumulation, native communities recognize the benefits of sharing when dependent on sometimes unpredictable resources. “Wild resources are constantly in flux and harvests are not always predictably obtained. As such, both resource diversification and sharing are base adaptive measures for reducing risk among peoples who are substantially dependent on wild foods. Individuals, households, and communities that share are considered to have a better chance of survival than those that do not participate in reciprocity.”*
The sharing practices of these communities is best described as a form of generalized reciprocity. A more specific form of reciprocity would be the classic quid pro quo—the immediate exchange of goods or services—a “favor for a favor.” Generalized reciprocity is more of a “what goes around comes around” sort of concept. Generosity is shown because the practice of generosity contributes to a cultural identity shaped by generosity. Generalized reciprocity operated under the assumption that when one belongs to a culture of generosity, there will always be someone in the community who will share with you. The culturally ingrained practice of sharing creates a community that is able to withstand the cyclical nature of resource scarcity and abundance.
The generalized reciprocity found at the heart of these native sharing practices illustrates the universality of the Golden Rule. The idea of treating others as we would like to be treated transcends cultural boundaries, probably because it’s what God has wanted for humanity all along. No matter where we come from, we get it. Unfortunately, greed and pride have corrupted God’s hopes for humanity in a universal way, too. Rather than seeking the other’s good, we’ve been tempted time and again to put our own desires in front of others. When God has provided in abundance, how often have we stored away in barns rather than sharing that abundance with those in need? We all struggle with this tension between being self-sufficient—providing for our own—and being part of a community, with responsibilities that extend beyond our selves.
In Luke 6, Jesus discusses this idea of reciprocity. Beginning in the 32nd verse, Jesus asks if the quid pro quo form of reciprocity is enough—“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” He goes on to encourage His followers to expand their ideas of reciprocity: “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” The result of this generosity is that God will see to it that things work out in the end—there’s no guarantee that the enemy will ever come around, and one may have to wait for their eternal reward to see the return, but it will happen. But perhaps there’s a reward that’s more immediate.
In the next verses, Jesus says: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Because of the way we’re already conditioned to look to God for the great reward, we may be tempted to interpret these verses in a particular way—that if we do not judge others, then God will not judge us, or if we forgive, then God will forgive us. There’s truth there—it’s borne out in Jesus’s own words in Matthew 6:14. But maybe Jesus meant more than just that—maybe Jesus was anticipating a sort of generalized reciprocity when He said these words.
When we practice a generosity of spirit, withholding judgement and condemnation, being willing to forgive, and giving freely to others, we bind ourselves to those others. We become part of a blessed community. If our generosity is more generalized—not just the equal exchange, quid pro quo sort of “loving those that love us”—then we feed into a cultural identity that fosters generosity from all. Our willingness to share will not only assure us of God’s generosity, but will help build communities that consider sharing to be fundamental, an essential component to a good and peaceful life. The good measure poured in our lap may come from our friends and neighbors. It may be through the generosity of the community that God will honor our obedience. And who wouldn’t want to live in a community that is so willing to share?
*Hutchinson-Scarbrough, L. et al., Subsistence Salmon Networks in Select Bristol Bay and Alaska Peninsula Communities, 2016. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Subsistence, Technical Paper No. 459, Anchorage, 2020. Page 329.