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Corruption

-A Biblical Reason to Respond
Joel Edwards
November 23, 2013

For those of us committed to tackling poverty in general and extreme poverty in particular, corruption has been identified as one of the greatest obstacles to poverty alleviation. Joel Edwards presented this paper at a seminar in Oslo this week under the auspices of NORME (Norwegian Council of Missions and Evangelism), and is printed on our webpage by special permission from Edwards.

For those of us committed to tackling poverty in general and extreme poverty in particular, corruption has been identified as one of the greatest obstacles to poverty alleviation. 

Despite its complexities a good deal of effort has been made in promoting good governance. Good governance is “the way in which public power and authority is formed and used to control and manage society’s resources.”

 This paper is a small contribution to Christian faith responding to the cancer of corruption which has embedded itself with devastating effect in civil society around the world.  The paper draws from an earlier paper, Ethical Leadership and freedom from poverty which provided a basic biblical framework for the EXPOSED campaign.

Corruption can kill

CORRUPTION IS THE ABUSE OF ENTRUSTED POWER FOR PRIVATE GAlN. IT HURTS EVERYONE WHO DEPENDS ON THE INTEGRITY OF PEOPLE lN A POSlTlON OF AUTHORITY (a generally accepted definition used by Transparency International)

It would cost the world approximately US $210billion per annum to keep our global promise to reduce extreme poverty by half in 2015 but every year the global economy loses over US $1 trillion through deliberate or indirect dishonesty.  It means that our best efforts are being devalued by the dishonesty we ignore.

In 2010 the World Bank highlighted the severe effects of ‘quiet corruption’ such as bribery, poor regulations and service delivery for the extreme poor.

In developing countries, corruption means access to household water is 30% more expensive. Maternity patients in Bangalore sometimes pay an average US $22 in bribes for adequate treatment.

The Christian NGO, Tearfund conducted a ground-breaking enquiry from their partners in Peru, Cambodia and Zambia. The central theme was unmistakable: bribery and corruption steals bread from the table and dignity from the lives of the poor. 

The call for integrity is as relevant to rich nations as it is to the poor.  Legal tax avoidance in wealthy corporations such as Google and Starbucks is now as unacceptable as embezzlement from Africa presidents. 

God’s mission against mis-management

However, the greatest obstacle to a prophetic Christian response is not the complicated arguments of the professionals. It’s the slow pace at which Christians embrace the idea that God really is concerned about “honest scales and balances.”

The first task in Christian engagement is to reclaim an understanding of God’s zero tolerance towards corruption and the extent to which the issue has been edited from our reading of the Scriptures. 

From the earliest stages of the EXPOSED campaign, the paucity of theological reflection on corruption became evident.  Admittedly, ‘corruption’, (phthora, diaphthora) as a biblical theme broadly describes “the transience of the present world order”.

But the meaning also extends to those who use the gospel for merchandise (Tit 1:11; 2 Pet 2:3, 14; Jude 11) as well as the sense that ‘corruption’ involves the kind of dishonesty which brings poverty  (2 Cor 7:2).

None of the Bible resources which contributed to my own Christian formation in the 1980s and 1990s, make any references to ‘corruption’ or ‘bribery’ in any way that would contribute to the contemporary problems facing our world today. 

But God’s impatience with corrupt behaviour is self-evident and emerges from a number of well known Bible stories.  Let me offer a brief review:

1 Samuel 2: 12-36 Much has been said about Israel’s desire to replace the prophetic/priestly order with an earthly king. Whether God approved or tolerated kingship is a key theological debate.  But the reality is that all of this was precipitated by the corrupt conduct of Eli’s sons who were the priests in residence.

1 Kings 21. King Ahab’s greed and envy of Naboth’s family legacy led to deceit, an unjust court hearing, false witness and murder.   But it was land-grabbing and murder as happens in today’s world when multi-nationals and property developers rob and displace people to commercialize the land. 

God did not ignore it.  He sent Elijah with a crucial message about justice.

Nehemiah 5 Nehemiah orchestrated the building of the wall but he also re-built the moral, economic and social architecture of Jerusalem.  Dealing with extortion, un-payable debts, land-grabbing, and child slavery were all central features of this reform and spiritual renewal.

Mark 11:15-19; Matt 21:12-17; Luke 19:45-48; Jn 2:13-22 The cleaning of the temple was important. Jesus was willing to go to the very centre of religious, community and public life to challenge extortion in the temple.

Mark 12:13-17; Matt 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26. This is the story of Jesus' response to questions about paying taxes to Caesar.

Jesus’ ruling on taxation was that it was right to pay – even though very little of such taxes would ever come back to the common people.  If Jesus believed in paying non-beneficial taxes to a despot what would he say about tax dodging which would otherwise benefit people?

Thirty Pieces of Silver. The Easter narrative is worthy of special mention in this exploratory study. His trial was a judicial sham, displaying a total breakdown in the rule of law (Matt 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:39-19:6)  synonymous with the kinds of miscarriage of justice with which we have associated human rights infringements in countries such as Iran, Russia, Sri Lanka or China, where civil liberties are openly ignored in the name of state security. 

But I want to call special attention to Judas’ behaviour which precipitated all of this.  Because thirty pieces of silver wasn’t just a betrayal; it was also a bribe.

The bribe is pernicious, because invariably, it is linked to the abuse of power, and as often, to the institution of power.  This is why the Bible has always been diametrically opposed to bribes (Deut 10:17;16:19;27:25; 1 Sam 8:3;12:3; 2 Chron 19:7; Ezra 4:5; Job 36:18; Ps 15:5;26:10; Prov 17:8; 29:4; Isa 1:23;5:23; Ezek 22:12; Amos 5:12). 

In the powerful story of Easter, Christians have focused on the betrayal at the expense of the bribe. Betrayal speaks to the tragedy of a broken trust. Bribery describes the mismanagement of power.  Greed, bribery, falsification, gagging and dehumanization were all embroiled in the Easter event. 

But thirty pieces of silver is not just a betrayal:  it’s also a bribe.

The power to prevent

Christians have an incredible opportunity to recover a biblical voice on corruption and in David Bosch’s words, to immerse ourselves in the “real circumstances of the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed.”

 The global church is not weak.  In 2005 2.1 billion people (a third of the world’s population) called themselves Christians. By 2050 that figure could be as much as 3 billion. 

This has been a central motivation for the EXPOSED campaign.  Many Christian voices are being raised on this critical issue

 but we still have a very long way to go.

A trinity of intervention

Over the past 3 years EXPOSED has become the widest coalition of Christian responses to the problem of corruption in our world, challenging the church, business and government to act with integrity.  The first stage in the campaign culminated in a global week of action seeking to bring awareness to millions of individuals and promote 2,000 vigils in local communities 14-20 October 2013.  We now have an ambitious target of raising 1 million signatures asking the world’s most powerful nations to take positive steps to curb bribery, a lack of transparency and tax evasion. These signatures will be taken to the G20 in November 2014.

Church

Frankly, integrity will challenge the Christian church even before we talk to anyone else. Only a transformed church is likely to be an agent of transformation. Light shines out best when our windows are clean. 

It’s a sad indictment that ‘ecclesiastical crime’ has mushroomed from an estimated US$300,000 in 1900 to US$32billion in 2010 with predictions that it will rise to US$60billion by 2025.

It was particularly encouraging that the Cape Town Commitment has identified corruption as an important obstacle to Christian discipleship:

Corruption is condemned in the Bible. It undermines economic development, distorts fair decision-making and destroys social cohesion. No nation is free of corruption. We invite Christians in the workplace, especially young entrepreneurs, to think creatively about how they can best stand against this scourge.

Business

Business has done a great deal to emancipate millions of people in the so-called BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).  All of that is to be celebrated.  But even good news can become a smoke-screen for bad news. Wealth creation is no substitute for ‘honest scales’ for in all our wealthy nations the gap between rich and poor is growing.

Government

Christians should not be selective in our advocacy. We have rightly lobbied about morality, family and the education of our children.  We must also speak up for the poor. 

And we have no reason to believe that partnership with government for the common good goes against the grain of Scripture. Nehemiah’s reformation and restoration of Jerusalem would have been inconceivable without help from a pagan king.

 Any Christian who is serious about the Bible is obliged to be serious about biblical advocacy.

A final thought

Corruption is an enormous, complicated and seemingly interminable problem. But so is human sin. No one has ever suggested that Christians should be complacent about evangelism. And neither should we be sluggish about dealing with corruption. Christians have a biblical mandate to respond and it’s worth remembering that the Reformation was a radical theological revolution but it was also the biggest anti-corruption movement the world has ever seen.

Bio: Joel Edwards is a citizen of UK and resides in London. He is an ordained minister within the Assemblies of God.

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