by Gregory Nichols
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.
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 (Prov. 6:25) or present (2 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. Inan 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.
The above perspective on bribery was reprinted from the Winter, 1997, edition of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.—Eds.
Gregory Nichols is a missionary with Greater Europe Mission in Odessa, Ukraine.
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