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Airbnb, Hospitality, and the Gift Economy

August 11, 2014


My family recently returned from a road trip through the Pacific Northwest. We started off the trip by driving to Sacramento, where even the hotel manager looked at us quizzically when we said that we were coming from San Francisco to vacation…in their 102 degree weather.

From there we gradually made our way to Seattle where we spent 5 days discovering Seattle and catching up with good friends.

Along the way, we stayed with the Church of the Servant King, a remarkable intentional church community that shares much of their life in common. Besides owning their houses in common, they also share coffee shop and bookstore businesses.

Homes, Family and Fields

One particular gift that Servant King practices is to set aside rooms within their houses for hospitality. On our recent visit, we were warmly greeted in one of their guest rooms with a sign handmade by Lydia, one of their youth, “Welcome to our home, Chien family”. This sat alongside fresh berries and cookie letters spelling out “Welcome to the Salon” (their name for this particular house).

We rolled in around 6 PM and had a three and a half hour dinner relaxing in an ample backyard, made up of the combined, de-fenced backyards of 4 adjoining properties that they own together. Our girls–relishing the grassy backyard 10x the size of our concrete patch in San Francisco–ran around and climbed trees with their peers while Juliette and I enjoyed a slow dinner with delightful company.

All of the synoptic gospels recount Jesus saying something similar to this from Mark:

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10: 29-30, NIV).

Well, here we were: experiencing homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and (at least 10x) the fields.

From Sharing to Gift

This experience, along with our subsequent 4 night stay gratis in Seattle at the house of college friends from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who happened to be on vacation, prompted me to think about Airbnb and the sharing economy generally.

The sharing economy is in full swing these days, with incarnations like Airbnb, Lyft, and various co-working spaces. I believe that some incarnations began with, and retain, true impulses for sharing and generosity. And there is a very real and necessary inclination to solve the problem of unbounded consumption that plagues the rich world. Why purchase a car if I always have ready access to one? Access not ownership is the creed.

But it’s evidence of the powers that we labor under, and the thoroughness with which our imaginations have been colonized by transactional ways of viewing the world, that they have developed in the direction that they have.

It’s ironic that, as we participate in the sharing economy, more and more of our lives get ceded over to the domain of the transactional. Where previously we might have a couch or spare room for a guest to crash in, now we rent it out. Where previously we might have offered an unused desk space in our office for a friend needing a place to work, now we list it and charge by the hour or by the day. Where previously (in antiquity, it seems…) we might have given someone a lift if we were headed their direction, now we charge for a Lyft. Interestingly enough in Lyft’s case, what started off as a suggested donation has moved toward fixed charges as the service has matured.

The core issue, as I see it, is that despite our best efforts, we continually get bent toward relationships characterized by transaction or exchange– what Jacques Ellul, the French sociologist and theologian, calls the Law of Money.

Ellul, in Money and Power, posits that one of the reasons, and perhaps the primary reason, that money is so clearly talked about by Jesus as counter to the kingdom is because it operates under its own law: the law of money, the law of transactional exchange. As such, it cannot coexist with the law of grace and gift. You can only exchange for value or else receive as a gift. Not both.

“God’s only way of acting is giving. As he gave life, so he gave his Son. As his Son gave his life (‘No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord’ –Jn 10:18), so God gave pardon–and this is grace. In this new world we are entering, nothing is for sale; everything is given away. The mark of the world of money (where all is bought, where selling with all its consequences is the normal way to act) is the exact opposite of the mark of God’s world where everything is free, where giving is the normal way to act…For Mammon’s work is the exact opposite of God’s work. Given this opposition, we understand why Jesus demands a choice between Mammon and God. He is not speaking of just any other power, just any other god; he is speaking of the one who goes directly against God’s action, the one who makes ‘nongrace’ reign in the world.” (Ellul, Money and Power, 88. Emphasis mine.)

We live in a world that is increasingly conditioned to exchange for value. The world of exchange breaks outside of what could be considered the proper boundaries of the marketplace and, in an inversion of Ellul’s formula above, everything is for sale and nothing is given away. All of our relationships get increasingly reduced to the transactional. In fact, receiving anything as gift is difficult. We immediately jump to how to repay the gift. (Take the example of a meal at a friend’s house: if so-and-so invited us, it’s our turn next time. While reciprocity is a critical and healthy part of all relationships, exchange focuses keenly on equality.)

And we avoid relationships where we can’t repay–where the (monetary) disparity in what we are given and what we are able to repay is too great to overcome. Is it any wonder that our church congregations as easily (perhaps more easily) segregate along socioeconomic lines as they do along racial ones? It’s just too awkward.

This, therefore, is my critique of these manifestations of the sharing economy. In it, the domain of Money has been extended, despite all protestations to the contrary.

A slight digression

You may say that all this is easy to say from my well-resourced social location with a steady job and income. And that would be a valid critique. So, at this point, I feel it’s necessary to acknowledge that what on the surface is wrapped in feel-good terms like “sharing” and “collaborative consumption” actually frequently hides a darker reality.

If we believe the slick marketing copy and glossy advertising, the sharing economy is about people with an abundance of space, time, or whatever who love being the smiling driver (“your friend with a car”, Lyft) or the local with expert knowledge of a place who lets you crash in their pad (Airbnb). But the reality is a bit less airbrushed.

On a walk in my neighborhood recently, I met Rajah, the proprietor, along with his wife, of a small grocery in our economically depressed urban setting. His wife was eight months pregnant at the time and was not able to sit for very long. Rajah told me that they would open the store at 7 or 8 in the morning and close up around midnight. And, on top of that, in order to make ends meet, Rajah’s wife would sit for several hours tending the store in the morning while Rajah drove Uber to earn some extra cash. This visit includes a story of deep (and unexpected) hospitality which I’ll save for another time. But, for today, I suspect that this, in fact, is what much of the sharing economy actually looks like.

I don’t intend the above critique to be for those for whom their participation in the “sharing economy” is actually a job and their livelihood. I wonder, however, if we do a disservice to those very people by allowing corporations to mis-name it in ways like this instead of properly naming it as work for which humane wages are owed.

Great. Now what?

How can we live into a new economy of free gift–of hospitality or other goods–when our entire world and nearly every aspect of our lives is implicated in a global economy of transactional exchange? As a person in business, which, if nothing else, is characterized by the exchange of money, the above could be clearly problematic.

If you couldn’t tell, our congregation has been in the beatitudes recently. Implicit in these is the “already but not yet” nature of the kingdom of God. While we long for the day when the divine gift economy finds its full expression, we live in a time when that is not yet fully realized.

Meanwhile, in our congregations we need places of truly radical sharing where we receive without cost and give without price. We also desperately need our congregations to cross socioeconomic boundaries. And, as those who hunger and thirst for right relationship, we need to maintain, even in business, some areas that are not overtaken by transactional exchange. Whether this is pro bono work or practices in which we don’t let customer lifetime values or other such metrics be ultimately determinative for us, we need these spaces. Spaces in the otherwise transactional world of business like free services for budgeters and going the second (unpaid) mile for paying clients, to take examples from my own context. And, perhaps as importantly, we need spaces where we allow people to serve us without charge.

We need spaces where our work is gift and our currency is gratitude.

How about you? Where might you move from the sharing economy into the gift economy?

Thanks to Suzie, Lydia, Katrina, Tyler, Shannon, Adi, Stephanie, Doug, Stacie, Jon, Christian, Katie, Max, Jim, Karlie, Dave, Tamara, Eva, Isaac, JP, Keren, Amanda, Olivia, Linus, Isaac, Gloria, Owen, and Nico for your warm hospitality on this trip. We are grateful! And thanks to Brian for early feedback on this post.


From → business

  1. Reblogged this on Evangelical Blind Spots and commented:
    A well written piece on the kind of stuff I’m working with too. Church of the Servant King is a cousin to my community here in Chicago. A great quote from Ellul and a question: “Where might you move from the sharing economy into the gift economy?”

    • Chi-Ming permalink

      Thanks, Josh for reading. I enjoyed reading the pieces on your blog as well. You must be part of Reba Place Fellowship? I work with Dale of Church of the Sojourners!

      • It’s true, I’m with RPF. Also, I may have been at a table with you during one of the last three Ecclesia Project gatherings.

      • Chi-Ming permalink

        If true, that’s more evidence that we need more time at tables… 🙂

  2. Sharolyn permalink

    A very timely post. I can’t remember how I found your blog but I am glad I stumbled along here. It was from a link somewhere on facebook I believe. Thank you for the challenge of a gift economy. Helpful words and articulation of some things we’ve been thinking about.

  3. Julia Smucker permalink

    Along the lines of your helpful distinction between hospitality and economy, I would put the impulse toward reciprocity in gift-giving, as it occurs in the natural context of relationships, in the former category. Feeling the need to reciprocate out of gratitude is fundamentally different from owing a quantified monetary value.

    To put it in the terms of another French theologian, Louis-Marie Chauvet, I would see the phenomenon you’re describing as “symbolic exchange”, which includes that natural impulse toward reciprocity (and also paying forward), mutating into “market exchange”, largely due, as you say, to “the thoroughness with which our imaginations have been colonized by transactional ways of viewing the world”.

    • Julia Smucker permalink

      As a more personal addendum, I grant that there is another factor in addition to gratitude, namely embarrassment. With the inability to reciprocate, as Chauvet also said, “Too much generosity alienates.” I’ve been feeling this from living without a car in a commuter city where car ownership is seen to be – and often made to be – a practical necessity, which often means having to be on the receiving end of favors to an uncomfortable proportion. Yet it is oddly comforting, to some degree, to think that there’s a stigma in there that comes from certain misplaced values.

    • Chi-Ming permalink

      Thanks, Julia for your thoughtful comments. I like the distinction you draw between “feeling the need to reciprocate out of gratitude” versus “owing a quantified monetary value”. This makes sense.

      And I hear what you’re saying about receiving to an uncomfortable degree. I think that at the point where we all are able to recognize that *all* is gift, wherever it happens to come from, then this discomfort will disappear. Until then…we wait in hope for that day.

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