Mark R. Elliott, Editor
The East-West Church and Ministry Report published three articles in volume 5 (Winter 1997), giving differing perspectives on the issue of bribery, a topic very rarely tackled in church or missionary publications. In October 2011, I discussed this issue—and the Christian community’s reluctance to air examinations of it in print—with psychologist Ron Koteskey, a longtime friend and academic colleague. Dr. Koteskey and his wife Bonnie took early retirement in 2002 in order to establish a counseling service for missionaries and to prepare books and brochures on all aspects of missionary care. (See www.missionary.com for the full text of Dr. Koteskey’s 14 books and 90 brochures, all of which may be downloaded at no charge.)
Ron Koteskey subsequently did his own literature search on the issue of bribery and was struck, as well, by the paucity of reflection in Christian publications on the subject. This lacuna prompted his decision to write Missionaries and Bribes, completed in May 2012, and now available on the missionary care website. In July 2012, I requested responses to Koteskey’s book from believers who could write on the issue of bribery from the perspective of the Eurasian context. Find below reflections on the subject from church historian and missiologist Walter Sawatsky, attorney Ekaterina Smyslova, missionary/journalist Sharon Mumper, and religious liberty journalist Lawrence Uzell.
Overcoming the Soviet-Era Legacy of Secrecy
This book appears at a time when missions and money are in a troubled relationship again. What changed since the debates over Bible smuggling and financial mismanagement in the late 1970s? Secrecy for smuggling and supporting beleaguered pastors across the USSR and Eastern Europe had served to justify secrecy about mission budgets, lavish salaries for key leaders, etc. Evangelical mission societies responded by establishing a financial monitoring body that rated agencies according to mutually recognized standards [Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability]. Another change was the collapse of socialist or communist states. There followed major economic collapse as the new post-Soviet states shifted to a form of crony capitalism. Small elites seized large sectors of former government economies through dubious means and deposited much of the liquid wealth in secret Swiss bank accounts.
For missions in those countries the impact was similarly dramatic. A significant level of indigenous mission work had already developed, financially supported in secret by the churches, which after 1989 could become legal and public. Instead it became a tortuous road, soon overwhelmed by dependency on the West. The massive invasion of Western missionaries, with so many poorly informed about existing Christianity and established ways of living, included large sums for the construction of seminaries and churches, as had been the pattern in the Two Thirds World. Sensing a looming problem, Mark Elliott organized a conference in Moscow on ethics in the early 1990s, bringing together new entrepreneurs related to evangelicals plus Western missionaries and scholars.
Koteskey’s book arrives at a still later phase of East-West church relations, when the bitter disappointments, especially about repeating the mistakes and sins of earlier mission eras, have made local church leaders and those missionaries who stayed very cautious. Koteskey’s observation that in many cross-cultural settings missionaries frequently do confront the issue of paying bribes (seldom that of taking bribes) does apply to Eastern Europe. What he offers (along with a set of appendices nearly twice as long as his 75 pages of text) is a practical survey of the meaning of bribery (and its cognates) from Scripture and history. He helps the reader think through the ambiguities of situations and settings, offering advice on what to do and not do. Rare is such a book on bribery, hence a worthy read today. Rare too is Koteskey’s generosity as counselor. This book, and a dozen others closer to his pastoral care and counseling field, can be downloaded for free from his website (www.missionarycare.com).
What I found myself pondering longer and more critically was that the focus on bribery was too narrow, and the Biblical approach (or hermeneutical approach) too limiting. A survey of the use and occurrence of the word bribery in Scripture to establish definitions and to seek out a set of principles from the few cases involving bribery is interesting, but it feels like proof texting. Given what we have been through during the communist and post-communist eras, the bigger issue is one of integrity. An authentic Gospel witness was long measured and respected by the way the believer lived the faith, did so in a hostile environment, and with a keen sense of powerlessness. The ability to trust one another, including with money, to be open before the authorities because they had nothing to hide, had been a persistent challenge. The record of openness about church finances is a spotty one, and after 1989 earlier ways of surviving were not easily changed. I remain surprised how few financial scandals have surfaced, and I am thankful.
It struck me that the issue of paying bribes to get registered, buy or rent a facility, or bring resources through customs were all options for missionaries with money and power, with time limits to get something done, and not easily issues of shared decision-making by a church union or congregational body. I was reminded again how often Jesus would respond to queries with counter queries to make one think. To think about ministry is a constant challenge. It is what seems embedded in that first commandment Jesus noted in Matthew 22, to “love the Lord your God with heart, mind, and soul,” and the second commandment, “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Given the literature so far available on Koteskey’s website, I would welcome his broader counsel on money and mission when framed by these love commandments.
Walter Sawatsky, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana
Bribes and Gifts
Missionaries and Bribes by Ronald L. Koteskey has come to me as a pleasant discovery. Every Christian visiting a Third World country faces a very difficult question: Shall I compromise my conscience paying bribes, as it seems to be an organic part of local culture, or quit the ministry field? Unfortunately, many missionaries cannot make distinctions among gifts, extortion, and bribes.
In the 1990s and after, I assisted many Christian missionaries coming to the former Soviet Union. I saw some pushed out of the country, others suffer nervous breakdowns, and others lose great amounts of property, goods, or money simply because of cultural inflexibility. Practically all missionaries have been equipped with knowledge of local history and general culture, but I never met any who were effectively educated in the area of dealing with local officials. As a result, missionaries often were demanding actions from national officials which had to be granted by law, but at the same time, they did not even try to invest time or creativity in preliminary relationship building. Officials facing such “rude behavior” and demands usually felt insulted and exercised all their influence to cause as many problems as possible to these missionaries.
Relationship building is the key to work in the Third World. Yes, many officials are spoiled by bribes, but they need more than payoffs. If we will be channels of true love and care for everyone, including officials, we will not view them as obstacles on our way but as special persons created in the image and likeness of our precious God. With this outlook, then a miracle may happen, and we will receive our permissions, registrations, and all we need without the necessity of paying bribes. In addition, we will plant seeds of faith in the hearts of officials. I have seen such miracles many times over many years.
At the same time, I never suggested to my clients to come to officials empty-handed. I did not mean envelopes filled with money but some small gift that officials could place on their desks. It would help officials have pleasant memories of their visitors. Actually, Ronald Koteskey suggests doing something exactly like this. I believe the most important gift giving is to have the right motivation. It should be an act of love, not an attempt to bribe on the cheap!
Why does extortion exist in Eurasia? Unfortunately, even today officials’ salaries simply do not allow them to survive without tips and bribes. As a result, missionaries may face extortion at every step when dealing with any government official. Working in Central and Southern Asia as well, I have discovered that the practice of gift-giving is unavoidable and is a very innocent traditional part of relationship building.
I am glad to know that Missionaries and Bribes by Ronald L. Koteskey is available on the Internet and can be downloaded for free.F
Ekaterina Smyslova, International Christian Adoptions, Moscow, Russia
An Airport Incident: Bribery or Extortion?
I was in the Kyiv airport at the conclusion of a conference that Magazine Training International had organized there, and I was undergoing the kind of thorough document examination typical in 2001. How much cash was I taking out of the country, I was asked. In fact, it was a couple thousand dollars. The dollar exchange rate had risen, our expenses had been lower than anticipated, and I had overestimated how much money I would need for the conference.
“Please come with me.” Oh no, this is not good, I thought. And it wasn’t. The official wanted to see the cash with his own eyes, and he laid it out carefully in stacks of bills on the table. Then, the questions began, irrelevant and personal, obviously designed to make me fear I would miss my flight. I had committed no crime, but cash was available. I don’t remember how it was phrased, but finally minutes before the doors were to close on my flight it was made clear that a “payment” would make it possible for me to make that flight. He pulled out a couple of hundred dollar bills. “That’s too much,” I protested. It was clear that I was prepared to pay something for my “ransom.” In the end, he took $100. Was I a victim of extortion or had I paid a bribe? Either way, there was no receipt, and I was out the money.
Although I’ve held conferences in every East European country and most of the countries of the former Soviet Union, I have not often been confronted with the issue of bribery. Or, if I was, I was too ignorant to realize it, and the Christian nationals with whom I was working were too embarrassed to tell me. However, as a missionary I have wrestled with the question of bribery over the years, but until now I had never found a definitive statement concerning the issue.
I now have finally found the answer in the very thorough, scholarly, yet well-written eBook Missionaries and Bribes, noting with interest and a great deal of sympathy the author’s proviso, “Other people have reached different positions, and I may change my position at some time” (p.7).
I’m ready to stop wrestling with the issue, and I’ve decided to accept the final statement Ronald Koteskey makes concerning the issue: “Giving something to an official to disobey a law or to give you preferential treatment is wrong, but giving something to a corrupt official to get him or her to obey or apply a law may be acceptable at times” (p. 73).
I still don’t like the feeling that I’m encouraging corruption. So, having made the decision to stop wrestling with the issue of bribery and extortion, I find I am still doing just that. But, at least, thanks to Koteskey’s book, I have better tools with which to continue the fight.F
Sharon Mumper, Magazine Training International, Colorado Springs, Colorado
In my opinion, missionaries who try to justify bribes have exaggerated their difficulties in Eastern Europe. During my seven years of living in Moscow (1992-1999), I avoided paying bribes. I decided not to own or to rent a car in Russia, knowing that my driving could become a magnet for bribes for traffic police. (Don’t forget also that the huge majority of Christian believers in Russia do not have cars.) As a journalist I had the experience of an offer from a well-positioned source to give me information in exchange for money. I refused, and the source immediately ended the conversation. I had many other sources and other methods of finding information without sacrificing my conscience.
Dr. Koteskey’s e-book Missionaries and Bribes provides a fascinating compendium of texts. In my judgment the most convincing text is the appendix by Rev. David Montgomery entitled “The Price is Wrong: A Biblical and Ethical Examination of Bribery.”F
Lawrence Uzzell, International Religious Freedom Watch, Fishersville, Virginia