Bribery

By Peter Eng

 

 

 

“Should I give a bribe?” the young businessman starts to sweat as the customs officer is obviously looking for a reason to deny the passage of goods even though everything is aboveboard. “Should I give a bribe?” the speeding driver deliberates when he is pulled over by a cop who talks about how tough it is for him to raise his family on a policeman’s salary. “Should I give a bribe?” the missionary asked himself as the immigration officer toys with the visa stamp while he talks about how “You rich Christians should help poor people like us.”

Bribery in the Bible

There are more than 20 verses where the Bible talks about bribery. Most of them concern the taking of a bribe. Every instance of bribe taking is condemned in the Bible.[1] We have clear condemnation for accepting bribes in sayings such as: ‘‘Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous” (Exodus 23:8); and “A greedy man brings trouble to his family, / but he who hates bribes will live” (Proverbs 15:27).

There seems to be two exceptions to the rule: “A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; / wherever he turns, he succeeds” (Proverbs 17:8); and “A gift given in secret soothes anger, / and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath” (Proverbs 21:14).

It is clear that the tenor of Scripture condemns the practice of taking bribes. Yet, these two verses seem tolerant of bribes. We can understand these verses and the subject at two levels: the interpretation of the specific texts, and the social-theological meaning of these injunctions.

Interpretation

Proverbs 21:14-15 reads: “A gift given in secret soothes anger, / and a bribe concealed in the cloak pacifies great wrath. When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous / but terror to evildoers.” From the start of the chapter, we find a juxtaposition of contrasts: The king’s heart is in God’s hand even though the king thinks he is directing it according to his own free will (21:1). A person thinks he is right, but God weighs the heart (21:2). The plans of the diligent lead to profit but haste leads to poverty (21:5); etc…

If we take Proverbs 21:14-15 as one unit rather than two different injunctions, it would mean a contrast in these two verses. Proverbs 21:14 speaks of how a gift that is given in secret soothes anger and pacifies great wrath. But when justice is done, the righteous rejoice and the evildoers are in terror. If we take Proverbs 21:15 as an adversative, as a “but,” rather than a new injunction, the act of bribery would be depicted as a judge who is indignant at the injustice done by the perpetrator, but a bribe given in secret removes that wrath and justice is perverted. However, when justice is done, the righteous rejoice and the evildoers [the giver(s) and receiver(s) of the bribe] will be in terror.

It is not possible to assert definitively that these two proverbs given without a connecting conjunction should be taken this way. But it is certainly possible given the pattern in the immediate context.

Proverbs 17:8 is more subtle. Among other literary features, proverbs are expressions of social realities and have to be applied appropriately. The classic example is Do not answer a fool according to his folly, / or you will be like him yourself” immediately followed by an opposite assertion, “Answer a fool according to his folly, / or he will be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:4-5). Proverbs concerns the wise application of truths in differing situations, and sometimes opposite principles must be applied to the same situation but on different people.

Proverbs 17:8 expresses the reality of bribery in many cultures. In some cultures, bribery is the way of life and its evil is so entrenched that life becomes impossible unless one pays bribes. The text does not openly approve the giving of bribes, but it does suggest a concession that believers sometimes have no choice but to offer a bribe.

The social-theological point is that while the accepting of bribes is always prohibited, the giving of bribes is not openly condemned. There is some suggestion that in certain contexts, it can be tolerated.

The crux of the issue is what constitutes choice. Before that question is addressed, one needs to ask if there is any gap between the ideal and the concession. The logical ideal does not support the giving of bribes. Since the Bible says the taking of bribe is unethical, the giving of bribes which makes the taking of bribes possible, cannot be considered righteous conduct. In addition, we have a clear instance in the New Testament of a refusal to give a bribe. Paul was imprisoned and Felix the governor wanted a bribe from Paul before he would set him free (Acts 24:26). Paul refused to give the bribe and so remained in prison and was eventually sent to Rome for trial. It would be easy for Paul to say he had no choice but to give a bribe, but Paul did not make that choice.

When do we have no choice except to give a bribe? Strictly speaking, there is always a choice. Paul made the choice not to give a bribe, but to remain in prison and to risk execution. But some would say they have no choice but to give a bribe because it affects their business profits. What does this mean for Christians today?

It appears to me that the biblical ideal is quite clear. A believer must not accept bribes. A believer should not offer bribes. But we bear in mind that the giver of bribes is usually the powerless or the victim. It is inconceivable that a person wants to give a bribe if he does not need to do so to achieve his objective. The bribe giver is a victim turned perpetrator. His moral culpability remains, but his role as victim deserves special consideration.

The believer who gives the bribe should not think that is the norm. He should diligently seek the Lord’s wisdom of how he can extricate himself from this unhealthy transaction. The stronger believer must not be judgmental but be supportive. It is not the duty of the stronger Christian to condemn or to lay guilt on the weaker Christian. He should recognize that his brother is at a different point in his spiritual growth. It is God who causes the growth and the increase. We do not determine where another person’s spiritual level should be. The Christian community should be firm in rejecting the taking of bribes. But let us embrace the weaker brother who is stuck in the quagmire of giving bribes. He is not someone in an ideal situation, but someone who needs our support to become stronger so he is no longer a victim-perpetrator.

Conclusion

The Word of God does not give any provision for the taking of bribes. Bribes are received to change the course of events which would naturally go in a certain direction. Receiver of the bribe is in some position of authority and can choose to decide for or against the giver. By the giving of the bribe, the course of justice is perverted.

However, there are times when the person in authority refuses to act in the interest of justice, and want a bribe before he will execute justice. The biblical example for us in the action of Paul is to stand firm and refuse to give the bribe. However, there seems to be a concession to the weaker brother who chooses to give the bribe. This is a form of extortion, and the giver is a victim of the one in power. We need to be gentle to such people. They need our encouragement and not our condemnation. They are not promoting injustice, they are trying to secure justice in a fallen world, and their method falls short of the ideal. God has a concession for them in their weaknesses and we ought to do no less.


[1] In the OT, the word regularly translated as “bribe” (SHoĤaD) is used more than 40 times in more than 20 verses. It refers primarily to personal bribes (Ex 23:8; Dt 10:17; 16:19; 27:25; 1 Sa 12:3; Jb 6:22; 15:34; Ps 15:5; Pr 6:35; 17:23; etc.). It is used secondarily for a gift or national payment to buy peace from an impending invasion (1 Kgs 15:19; 2 Kgs 16:8; Isa 45:13; Eze 16:33). The sense with which this word is used is clearly negative. There are other words used for bribe in the OT, but their uses remain consistent to the negative connotations associated with the practice of receiving a bribe.


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