A couple months ago, I bought a gift for my wife from a local business owner we know and love supporting. She offered what I bought with a discount, and when I refused she insisted. I told her I want to support her work and our friendship does not mean I deserve or am entitled to a discount. Formerly, in similar situations, I have accepted the generosity of such a gesture. It is incumbent on the purchaser to discern between the generosity of the seller and the pressure of providing a discount to friends.
In that moment, I insisted on paying for her work, which is done excellently and requires great effort. My argument for doing so, in order to convince her I was serious, was to explain the word commerce. A couple years ago, someone told me commerce comes from the Latin words for together/with and mercy. This was a mind-blowing revelation! So, I told my friend that when we do commerce, I am exchanging something she values that I have (money) with something she has that I value (product). We extended “common mercy” to one another in that transaction, and we both went away happy.
The English word commerce comes from com, meaning “together, and merx. “Merx” means “merchandise,” “commodity,” “good.” However, it is also the root word of mercy, meaning “a blessing,” “showing kindness or compassion,” or “gift, reward.” Historically, commerce has referred not only to the exchange of products but also to the exchange of ideas through the social intercourse of opinions, attitudes, and sentiments. Archaically, it was even used as a term for sexual intercourse. So, the two roots carry the idea of “together gift.” It is a shared gift or kindness toward one another. This should absolutely change how we view exchanges or transactions—of products, ideas, and intimacy. So, when I purchased a product from my friend’s business, we did commerce, sharing a gift with one another.
In the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the entry on commerce starts by referencing the Hebrew Scriptures’ stories of Abraham and Joseph, one who participated in the exchange of goods and one who was given in exchange. From the earliest moments in recorded history, human beings have engaged each other in commerce. In an honorable exchange, both parties win, wealth is created, and flourishing is possible. When we participate in commerce, in common mercy, we share a kindness, a gift, or a blessing with another person who shares his or her kindness, gift, or blessing. We extend mercy toward one another. It is a gift exchange, and the exchange itself is a gift.
Does your willingness to pay a premium for a well-crafted product increase when you consider the real meaning of commerce?Does your unwillingness to pay for a poorly-crafted product increase when you consider the real meaning of commerce?
Lord, increase my capacity to extend mercy toward the makers and providers of my community. Help me to envision exchange, economics, and the work of others through the idea of common mercy.