by Cathy Thornberg
Cathy Thornberg of the Russian-American Christian University, Moscow, interviews Cliff Harder, Campus Crusade for Christ.
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?
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, Ihave to report to my ministry leadership. But ultimately I stand before 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.
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 wemay 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?
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