A gift given in secret soothes anger, and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath. Proverbs 21:14.
I sat sipping coffee, listening to a missionary, recently arrived in Ukraine, telling a common story. After he rented an auditorium, the director of the building began dropping hints that the agreement might have to be canceled. We both knew that a gift to the director would solve the problem. The new missionary felt he could not do that. He could not compromise his biblical integrity. It would be more "Christian" to spend his valuable time finding another facility than offering a gift to the director. As we parted I asked him to look up the verses he felt he was being asked to compromise. He agreed. I had been in his spot several years before and I wanted to see if he would come to the same conclusion I had.
The Biblical Argument
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word shochad usually is translated as bribe, but sometimes as gift or ransom (Proverbs 6:25) or present (II Kings 16:8). Minhah normally is translated as gift, but sometimes as bribe. Both shochad and minhah are used to show the submission of an inferior to a superior. The idea of bribe or gift in this sense does not appear in the New Testament. In an examination of Old Testament passages which mention gift, present, or bribe, two principles clearly emerge. First, the Bible always condemns taking a bribe. Those in authority who are deciding people's futures are to be the embodiment of impartial justice. Second, the Bible never condemns giving a gift or a bribe. In fact, the opposite is true. Proverbs clearly states that if we need to meet with a great man, we should remember to bring a gift (18:16). It also states that if we need to pacify an angry official, we might want to try a gift given in private (21:14). This is a difficult concept for Westerners to understand. Those blessed enough to live in a law-based society rarely face the problem. Unfortunately, most people around the world do not have this advantage. In many settings worldwide, gifts or bribes are not simply a way around the law. They also can be a culturally based incentive for officials to do their prescribed jobs. Many would call it a tip. For example, it would not be biblical to bribe an official in order to evade a building code or visa requirement. But if this official is delaying action, or is misinterpreting the law, it would not be unbiblical to offer a gift. It may violate Western cultural assumptions and personal convictions, but it does not contradict Scripture.
We must bear in mind that the Bible is for all cultures, for all times, and for all social classes. Scripture is clear that God's people, who are in positions of power and leadership, must uphold blind, impartial justice. But all of God's people do not have godly rulers. Many times His people suffer under unjust decision makers, blaspheming tyrants, or lazy clerks. In such situations God's compassion and wisdom are found in His not forbidding a bribe. He knows His children may find themselves in positions of powerlessness where the future depends on the personal favor of the decision maker, regardless of the written law.
Stories of corruption seep into many daily conversations and articles dealing with the former Soviet Union. There are mafia and customs officials smuggling weapons-grade plutonium. And there are police manufacturing traffic violations or refusing to respond to calls for help, claiming a lack of personnel or gasoline. How are missionaries and their families to understand and cope with this climate of lawlessness?
First, recognize that post-Soviet culture is held together by relationships, not laws. The average businessman avoids troubles with officials through strategic friendships, which he has worked hard to cultivate and which he maintains through gifts. In an environment without a working financial or legal system, these relationships provide a form of insurance. Second, the lawlessness of post-Soviet society stems from a very poor economy. Often government officials are months behind in their salary, they have no motivation to work, and bribes may be their major source of income. Third, corruption was longstanding in the dual economy of Communism. The shadow, or second economy, beyond the control of the government, was a way of life for all concerned. And today nearly every official one deals with secured that position because of past Communist connections. Bribery was part of the Communist system, and post-Soviet officials have inherited the expectation that bribery is a matter of course.
Westerners, as well as Russians, now play the gift-giving game firsthand. They work to get coffee or chocolate into the hands of a particular official who is blocking their path, being careful not to insult or embarrass. They have seen the knowing smile of officials who recognize the shape of a bottle in a shopping bag left by their side. They have watched as plain envelopes of money slide casually into suit pockets. Yet not all Westerners are comfortable with this system, nor should they be.
To cope, expatriates and missionaries in the former Soviet Union have adopted several strategies. The most common involves intermediaries who serve as buffers. Typically, lawyers are hired to expedite paperwork. Their fee includes various expenses, including approximately 25 percent for bribes. The more savvy the lawyers, the more detailed their knowledge of various officials' tastes. They will know to send a certain brand to a certain official using a certain carrier. Usually expatriates prefer not to know the minute details of charges. A second strategy involves the use of humanitarian aid as a means of leverage with the official gatekeepers. Sometimes a city will receive gifts of medical or dental equipment. At other times guest lecturers, free English lessons from native speakers, or student-exchange programs are used to improve relations with those in power. A third variation is to try to play the difficult gift-giving game in person. Here the biggest hurdles for foreigners are the delicate nuances. But with an average of one holiday every month, built-in opportunities abound to solicit the friendship of decision-makers in a society which is based upon relationships rather than laws.
The only other alternative is to not play these games but to abide by the local official's interpretation of the law. Some hope that by not offering bribes they can change the culture so that in time it will conform to their understanding of equality before the law. Some missionaries eventually have found success by ignoring hints for bribes from officials. Like the bothersome widow in Luke 18, over time they have managed to wear officials down.
Recently I received an e-mail from my missionary friend who had agreed to examine the Bible's use of gift, present, and bribe. He had not been able to find any verses in the Bible that clearly prohibited giving a bribe. I don't know if he now acts accordingly. But if he does, he has taken a major step in his cultural adaptation process, recognizing the mistake of confusing a law-based culture with mandatory biblical requirements. Missionaries must come to examine a new environment through the prism of the Word of God, not through the prism of the culture and comforts of home.
Gregory Nichols is a missionary with Greater Europe Mission in Odessa, Ukraine.
How do you define bribery?
After five years of living in Russia and interacting with its people, I have come to the conclusion that to get something accomplished here, people often give money to people nalevo, under the table. One of the main reasons is to buy protection to cover an illegal act. For example, to import something into the country without paying 100 percent of the taxes, someone pays a lesser sum in cash to an official, with some or all of it going into that official's pocket, rather than into an official bank account. The customs official stamps the documents and the container of goods comes into the country much more cheaply than if the shipper had paid all the taxes. I would define this as wrong because someone is paying somebody to do something that I think everybody would consider illegal.
A second major reason is to pay someone to perform a legal function. You need their services, usually to get permission to do something. What you're asking for is totally legitimate and they're being paid to provide the service. But they hold the power. Many times I'm discovering that people will use that position of authority for greedy purposes, and so they'll say no until you pay them personally, and then they'll say, "Yes, of course, we can do that. That's no problem." Recently, for example, while registering our car, we didn't realize that the officials had not given us a window sticker. When I went back to get it, the police officer said that because my car was painted two slightly different colors of yellow, due to a partial repainting, I could not have the sticker. The Russian man who was helping me said, "Cliff, what he is really asking for is for you to pay him. If you'll pay him, I can guarantee you that he will register you quickly. What you're asking for is not something that is illegal. He is just making it difficult for you." In this particular situation, I was faced with an unnecessary $500 paint job and another four to eight hours in line, or payment of a "personal tip" to complete the registration quickly.
Would you distinguish between an incentive bribe and a gift? How would a gift differ?
In some of my responsibilities with our organization, we work regularly with government administrators. In order to try to avoid bribes and to get people to do what they are supposed to do, several times a year we give them flowers, candy, or some other token of appreciation, just to say, "We appreciate our working relationship with you." In the West we would never take flowers to the person who works in the tax office and say, "I really appreciate everything that you're doing." But we have found that, over the years, there has developed in Russian society this type of expectation among people who are in positions of authority. Even if a person's job is only to admit people into a building, that person is a door opener--or closer. That person is in a position to serve you--or to block you. And so keeping the relationship friendly is really important in this society.
How do you think Russians you work with define bribery?
I think almost all the Russians I've interacted with on this topic have been brought up with bribery since infancy. They rarely have seen anything different. They just assume that this is the norm: "that's the way our parents and our country have always done it." They know others will take advantage of them. They know they are going to have to pay extra to get certain services done. And so they expect to pay "tips" or bribes--and they expect to receive them. It may be too harsh to say that their consciences have become seared, but I think because they've done it so many times, by the time they are adults, they don't think about the fact that they're asking somebody to do something which might be illegal. It's just standard operating procedure.
What biblical passages are central to your thinking on bribery?
The Bible says my unspoken thoughts are known to God. In the same way, my actions are known to God, even if they're done in secret. Initially, I have to report to my ministry leadership. But ultimately the person I stand before is God, and I have to evaluate what I am doing. How will I feel when I stand before God and I look back on how I manipulated a particular situation? If I feel I had to do something wrong in order to accomplish a good purpose, I think I would still feel very uncomfortable before God, because I feel I would have missed the opportunity to trust God to work out something supernatural. My role on earth is to please and serve Him, rather than take matters into my own hands. If He wants to see something accomplished, He can do it, with or without my help.
I heard one case of a Russian believer who makes a distinction between agreeing to bribery for a Christian cause, but not for personal gain. You still would feel uncomfortable because you were going against your conscience?
The people around us are always observing our values. Regardless of how dire the situation, I really feel we need to continue to ask, "How will this make me feel before God when I go to the judgment seat?" Knowing that Jesus is right beside me now and sees my actions, if I am feeling uncomfortable, then I don't want to do it. To me, it's not worth jeopardizing my relationship with Him just to accomplish even a good Christian cause.
Do you see a danger in bribery leading to greater ethical compromise over time?
Yes. I feel even if it's a small thing, for me personally, it begins to sear my conscience. And if you are working with certain officials over and over again, and they know that you've paid once to do something that's illegal, they will expect bribes to continue. If you've decided the second time that you're not going to pay, and they know that you paid the first time, they may block your path. However, if the first time you had said, "I'm sorry, I understand this is the system, but this particular method is illegal and I want to do it the legal way," the official will understand that you will not pay a bribe. So I think the danger is, even in Christian organizations, once you start down the path of doing something that's compromising, you spin an ugly web. I think there's an advantage to starting clean and staying clean the entire way because once you start deviating, even in small ways, you're going to end up living with those negative consequences for a long time.
What about the case of a bad law? Is it justifiable to ignore it or circumvent it by payments to officials?
I've heard there are about 1,000 new laws made each year in Russia, but rarely are the old laws canceled that contradict the new ones. And the laws enforced will be those to the advantage of the person trying to manipulate you. That is one of the disadvantages. Second, consider an issue that a number of people have discussed extensively: is a law really a law if it is not being enforced? What happens if you feel a tax law is unfair? Russia has a 30 percent income tax law for its citizens and foreigners. Expatriates I have asked who are facing this 30 percent tax may be paying it through extra stipends from their agencies or businesses, and therefore it is not affecting their net income. However, rarely is this tax being paid by businessmen who do not receive extra salary to cover it, or by missionaries who have to raise their own support. The main reason for tax evasion, by citizens and noncitizens alike, appears to be because enforcement is so lax that few consider the government to be serious about collection. Since the law is not being rigidly enforced, many missionaries and foreign businessmen, like many Russian citizens, think of the 30 percent tax as a voluntary payment. (Editor's note: see Howard Witt, "Russia Tax Laws: A Hodgepodge Cheaters Love," Chicago Tribune, 1 December 1996.)
As for what is right on tax payments, I have heard arguments from respected Christians on both sides of the issue. Some Christians argue that nonpayment of taxes is justified because such payments go to the government for evil purposes. Other Christians point out the passage in the Gospel of Matthew (17:24-26), where Peter is asked by tax officials for two drachmas. Jesus said, "So that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours." Certainly, New Testament culture wasn't a heavenly atmosphere either. But Jesus paid and He is our example. How can we get around it?
East-West Church and Ministry Report editor Mark Elliott interviews John Williams, executive director of Holt International Children's Services, Eugene, OR. Mr. Williams has worked in international child care services since 1965 and has been Holt's executive director since 1993.
What years did Holt work in the former Soviet Union?
1991 to 1995.
How many children from there did Holt place for international adoption in those years?
About 57, mostly handicapped and older orphans.
What does the future hold for Holt in the former Soviet Union?
That is not decided. We may or may not go back.
What were the reasons Holt decided to suspend its work there in 1995?
There were multiple factors. 1) We grossly underestimated what it would take to work there financially and in terms of personnel. We were spread too thin. 2) We discovered that lessons we had learned working in the rest of the world often did not apply in Russia. 3) Information we received from orphanages about children often proved to be unreliable. Often, a child's condition was worse than described. 4) We discovered that there was a much higher incidence of severe emotional trauma among Russian orphans than in our experience in other parts of the world, including Romania. 5) Finally, we elected not to pay people off. It has always been our policy not to participate in unofficial payments or bribes in an attempt to expedite matters or further our cause.
What part did pressure to pay bribes play in Holt's decision to end its work in Russia?
Actually, it was not a significant factor because our policy is clear that we don't pay bribes.
What guidelines would you suggest regarding bribery, based on your experience in developing nations?
We play ignorant and proceed as if we do not understand when officials are hinting for bribes. Once you establish that you don't operate that way, people will respect you for it and work with you. Things may move a little more slowly, true; however, if your intention is to represent the Christian community and be there for the long term, then the policy of not paying bribes will serve you and the Kingdom of God in a much better way.
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