Ask a BAM Mentor: Dealing with Corruption

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Dear BAM Mentor,

My customs broker tells me I have to give a gift to the customs officials to get our materials out of customs. He said it’s standard, no big deal. I asked the pastor at our local church and he said it would be terrible to pay a bribe like that – it’s illegal and gives a very bad lesson to others.  I’m new in the business and to importing here, and our business may fold if I can’t get this out soon. Is this a time to die for my principles or should I go with “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”?

~ Contemplating Corruption

Dear Contemplating Corruption,

Over which principle are you considering ‘dying’?  Is it God’s call to honesty? Or is it obedience to the local church and, if so, is the church correct?  I suspect that untangling the issues will help.

It sounds like you live in one of the many countries where written law differs from applied law. That’s how speed laws work in the UK, incidentally – they are applied, but not strictly. Most western country laws against foreign bribery make an explicit exclusion for “expediting payment”, which morally can be classified as extortion by the official who is withholding your legal rights until he or she gets their bribe. That’s fundamentally different from bribing an official to get something for which you don’t have the right. Paying an extortionist is generally a bad idea, but it’s on a different moral level than bribery. I wouldn’t die over an extortionists demand.

On the other hand, paying extortion to a government official is technically illegal and that’s not good. Those same western laws generally require that there be proper due diligence that the payment is customary and then require that it be properly documented. Make sure you report these things to your board or to an accountability partner and have it recorded in some way in your books.

The pastor’s concern is important. Reflect on Paul’s words about eating meat sacrificed to idols. It may be an opportunity for deeper discipleship of those around you. Work through the issues with those who are watching you and help them to see the moral nuance between a bribe and extortion. If this pressure from the church continues there will be no businesses in the Christian community except those who hide their practices from the church. This is significant opportunity for impact in the local church – help them mature in this issue. My advice is “When in Rome, work to transform Rome!”

~ Robert

Dear Contemplating Corruption,

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. Rom 12:3, KJV.

After spending an extended time in prayer (preferably prayer with fasting) and with the measure of faith you have, you must decide between two options.

One option is to give in to the demands of the corrupt officials in order to save the business (and perhaps yourself) from impending financial disaster. This would be similar to the option chosen by Naaman, the Syrian military officer, as recorded in 2 Kings 5.  In this story, Naaman experiences miraculous healing of his body, mind and soul by the living God of Israel, Jehovah, through the ministry of Prophet Elisha. As he bids farewell to Elisha in verses 15 to 18, Naaman asks Elisha to be able to bow before Rimmon, the Syrian god, in order to keep his job in the office of the king of Syria. Elisha grants him license to do so. It is clearly not the best or highest way to honor God. Like Naaman we may choose something that is against God’s holy standards and in his mercy God may choose to forgive, but it only proves our lack of spiritual stamina or depth of faith.

I do not believe that you will lose your salvation from an act of paying a bribe in order to save the business from collapse. However, as in the case of Naaman, there is no doubt in my mind that it lessens your spiritual impact and preparedness for apostolic ministry.

The other option would be for you to sacrifice your business, at least in the near future,  as a witness to the Gospel and allow God to resurrect the business, if it is His will. The word “witness” and “martyr” are interchangeable in the context of the New Testament.  So, to be a witness in the marketplace is the same as being prepared to become a martyr in the marketplace. If your measure of faith lets you stand firm as a witness (or martyr) in this difficult situation, God will use you in a more impactful manner either in the same business, or in an altogether new and unexpected way.

Ultimately, the decision between the two options in front of you, is one of faith.  Spend time in prayer, exercise your faith and make a decision.

~ Joseph

Dear Contemplating Corruption,

You are actually asking a number of questions: First, what ought I to do?  And the answer is perfectly obvious.  Then, how do I get out of this predicament? And the answer depends on two further questions:

How important is it to honour God? How much pain am I willing to take?

The response of the Pastor is broadly correct. However, I could find no reference in the Bible about not giving a bribe – although there are plenty of about not taking one. Without knowing more about the situation, it’s difficult to be definitive. There are no big sins and little sins just ‘big’ and ‘bigger’ consequence to them!!

Looking beyond the immediate situation, we need to consider the context. How have you got into such a situation? Did you do your research properly? Did you know this situation would inevitably crop up when attempting to set up business in this country? 

Having evaluated, you then need to decide if you are prepared to pay the consequences. It could get expensive! On the other hand, if you are not prepared to pay the consequences, you are on a slippery path. If my integrity is ultimately compromised, then my witness will also be compromised. We have our dilemma!

The dilemma occurs, I think, because we are trying to dream up a clever scheme to get us out of a bad situation. I think the only practical way forward is to drop all our own scheming and put the situation into God’s hands. First, that involves repentance and a willingness to do whatever is necessary to put things right. I then put my trust in God for the outcome. It may be that he will give me favour in the eyes of the customs official and all will be well, but I should learn my lesson.

On the other hand, perhaps God will not deliver me so easily, in which case I still trust Him to do what He knows is best.

I think of Daniel’s companions:

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)

So it all comes down to a matter of faith and trust.

~ David

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3 replies
  1. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    Dear Contemplating Corruption:

    I spent a number of years in an East Asian country in which bribery is rampant and I along with some other Christian businessmen used to discuss how to handle these situations.

    If you are an American, you need to consider the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. It essentially makes bribery to a foreign government official illegal for US citizens and companies, regardless of where it is being done. So while it may be acceptable to do it in the host country, if you are American, your government is explicitly telling you not to do it and may come after you if you do.

    I am going to guess however, that although it is common practice and maybe rarely prosecuted, it is probably illegal in the host country. In which case, the Bible does commend us to obey the authorities, which, by making it illegal, has said it is not okay. In the country in which I spent time, the government has recently cracked down on government officials who receive bribes. If you get caught up in a mess like that, your business in the country is pretty much finished and they won’t take ‘but it was common practice’ as an excuse.

    Of course, we need to look to the Bible to see what God says about it. Although it does not explicitly mention giving bribes to an export official, you could go to verses about taking bribery (if it is wrong to take a bribe, it is probably wrong to give one); respecting authority in the host country and the US if you are American; and being honest in your dealings. These along with the spirit of the law all prohibit it.

    The reality is that you could/will lose money or things could take a long time to clear, but my experience (and I have lost money because of my beliefs) is that a) God is faithful, b) money is not the be all and end all, c) you want to be right with God, and d) there is a great witnessing opportunity in saying you won’t do it. You would be surprised how many people will respect your stance and appreciate it enough to try to help anyway.

  2. Doug VomSteeg
    Doug VomSteeg says:

    Such a timely question. Very impactful commentary. I appreciate the nuanced language. Having recently jumped into BAM and opened up a business in a Latin American country I loathe the day when this scenario would play out. We’ve only imported three times and have skirted this issue. Perhaps it was the lengthy vetting process and seeking council from countless business people before I jumped. Yet, I am fully aware, this could be just around the corner.

    I am grateful for the insights from those who’ve walked farther and deeper than I.

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