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Is offering a bribe always immoral, or is there a biblical principle which should be used to weigh the circumstances?

I want to explore an idea with you. A friend went down to Mexico and had to grease the palm of a federali in order to continue on with the work they had been doing. If you've been in other countries, you know there are some places where subtle bribes are the standard way of doing business. Unfortunately, though I'm not suggesting that all of the officials south of the border are like this, this seems to be an institution that has established itself in Mexico and in other countries as well. I lived in Thailand for seven months working with Cambodian refugees. It was my job to feed 18,500 people every day. I didn't cook for them, but I did purchase the food they needed and saw to its distribution. One of the things we had to purchase was cooking fuel. We had wood, but we also used charcoal. Rubber tree charcoal was the best stuff but it was in short supply and it was expensive. Some suppliers had made a rice husk charcoal. It was a kind of biscuit that was made from the throw-away husks from rice that they were able to convert into a cash crop as it were. It was very sub-standard. But, I was placed in a situation of being forced to purchase this because the camp commander was also the military commander and the military had secured the camp. There was nothing that could come in or out of the camp without the commander's approval. They had guns, automatic weapons, safeties off. This was big time stuff here, folks, out in the jungle of Thailand, in this refugee camp. The long and short of it was, if I didn't buy the rice husk for 18,500 people to use on a regular basis, from this particular supplier who happened to be the distant cousin of the commandant of the camp, well, life did not go smoothly. In fact, at one point, since I was not cooperating, he arrested, under the pretense of some crime, every single one of my Cambodian workers in the warehouse. About 25 people. Most of them were Christians, now thrown in the hoose-gow. Why? For something they didn't know. Because I was not playing the game according to the rules, their rules, and now I couldn't play the game at all, because I had no workers. You try to move 20 metric tons of rice or mung beans in a day with no workers. Eventually, we ended up getting that hammered out. I think we ended up buying some of that rice husk stuff but it was hard going. Of course, I had to face these situations like many missionaries. Kind of playing along by, in a sense, paying a bribe. In this case, the bribe was buying from one supplier rather than from another supplier. The question is, Is it immoral to bribe someone? It seems on the surface that it is. But then how do you resolve these kinds of conflicts that I was faced with, and many missionaries are faced with, where you've got to cash out somewhere to get the job done? And if you don't, nothing gets done.

There are two thoughts on this. You might say that giving bribes is immoral but it is a prima facie duty. In other words, it's an objectively true principle that may be trumped by a higher moral good when you are faced with that decision. Is it wrong to lie? Yes. Is it ever right to lie? Yes, I think it is, personally. I think we see examples of this in the Bible. It is right to lie when you have no other choice but to lie or break a higher moral good. Rahab lied about the spies. Had she told the truth, she would have sacrificed innocent life. So she lied rather than sacrificing innocent life. She's on the genealogy of Jesus Christ; she is the great, great grandmother of King David; she's in the hall of fame of faith in Hebrews 11 and also in James 2. She did what was right in that instance even though she lied. Why? Because we have a hierarchy. When you have an ethical dilemma, sometimes you choose the greater good, and in so doing, you must do the lesser evil. This might possibly be lying or giving a bribe. I think there may be circumstances where there is a greater good accomplished by giving the bribe and I think you can argue that way. I think the Bible teaches that not all bribes are bad. I had to go to the book of Proverbs for three verses that teach us something about the morality of bribes. Proverbs 17: 8, 17:23 and 21:14. It's interesting what they say. "A bribe is a charm in the sight of its owner; wherever he turns, he prospers." That's 17:8. Proverbs 17:23 says, "A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom to pervert the ways of justice." I think the idea of the bribe from the bosom is the idea of a man having his hand inside of his shirt and he just kind of slips something out and slips it into another's hand. It shows the deceit involved. He is hiding something from everyone else and it perverts the way of justice. Proverbs 21:14 says, "A gift in secret subdues anger and a bribe in the bosom, strong wrath." Those are three verses about bribes. Two of them identify the advantages of bribes and the third one identifies a moral disadvantage. It perverts the way of justice. That is a disadvantage. But the advantage is, it is a charm in the sight of its owner; wherever he turns he prospers. And it is a gift that subdues anger and strong wrath. I don't know about you, but those seem like positive things to me. It seems what is being taught in Proverbs is that bribes can do one of two things: they can do good or they can do evil. I guess what I'm saying is the fact of giving money for a special favor is not in itself immoral.

What do you do when you go to a fancy restaurant and you slip the maitre d' a five dollar bill and say, "Give me a nice table"? Aren't you asking for special favors? The other people didn't get those special favors. You got it because you gave a tip. "Wait a minute, a tip is a gratuity; a thank you for good service." This isn't a tip, you haven't had service yet. This is a bribe. Did you ever in advance give a big tip with the expectation of getting better service? What's that? That's a bribe. You say, "Wait a minute, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with that." That's my point. There can be a bribe -- the Bible calls it a bribe in Proverbs 21:14 -- that can subdue anger, that can turn away strong wrath. Or, there can be a bribe that is a charm in the sight of its owner, helping him to prosper wherever he turns -- Proverbs 17:8. There doesn't seem to be anything wrong in that.

However, like we saw, there is a bribe in Proverbs 17:23 that is very different. "A wicked man receives a bribe from the bosom to pervert the ways of justice." Is the wickedness in the bribe? I don't think so. I think the wickedness is in the perversion of justice. Giving the gift to grease the wheels, so to speak, is only immoral if it perverts justice in so doing. It's immoral if you get a favor that you ought not get. It's immoral if you buy yourself a place at somebody's expense when they ought to have had it. It seems to me that if you give money to a maitre d' it's his prerogative to seat people wherever he wants, so nobody deserves that table. You've given a tip to get that table. No perversion of justice there. But when you give a bribe to a police officer so that he can fix your ticket or not give you a ticket when you are guilty, that is a perversion of justice.

Imagine a situation, though, where you're in a foreign country trying to get food to refugees and the military stops you. But you can proceed on your mission if you give them a bribe. It offers you an opportunity to accomplish good if you would just give a little gift. If you do that, would you be perverting justice? Now the answer of course is no, not in that situation. As a matter of fact one could argue that you are paying to get justice because there is no good reason for you to be delayed. A person is delaying you just so he can get your money. It is tragic that you must pay to get justice and the person who demands money in order to give you justice is immoral. He's immoral at that point because justice is due you without you having to pay for it. But are you wrong in giving it? No. I don't think so. You are not perverting justice, you are getting what is your just due. Unfortunately, you have to pay for it. So I guess there is a place for bribes, in that sense, if the giving does not pervert justice.

Article | Ethics, Theology
Apr 16, 2013
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