Thinking Through Bribery and Extortion

OK all you theologians, politicians, missionaries, pastors, and moral theorists out there I need your help. Stacey and I are in the process of moving to Cameroon, Africa and have recently been confronted with a reality that we will have to face. According to the World Corruption Index, Cameroon ranked 146 out of 178 countries in regards to its freedom from corruption. The nation has actually improved quite a bit in the last 20 years, but there is still corruption, some that we even experienced while we were there.

So here is one scenario that we faced:

We were driving down the road and reached a checkpoint (very common in Cameroon). At the checkpoint a government official asked us to pull aside. He then proceeded to tell us that our vehicle did not have the proper reflective stickers for our truck. What he was claiming that we needed to have was only actually required of large trucks (we were in a Toyota LandCruiser). He said that he would allow us to pass, but only if we paid a fee.

So here is the question: Would it be morally permissible to pay the government official so that we could pass on the road? In the past I would have said that this was bribery and as bribery is condemned by the Bible, I would have told you it was NOT morally permissible. However, I have been challenged to consider this (and situations like it) extortion instead of bribery. Here are some definitions if you are not familiar with the terminology:

Bribe – money or any other valuable consideration given or promised with a view to corrupting the behavior of a person, especially in that person’s performance as an athlete, public official, etc.: “The motorist offered the arresting officer a bribe to let him go.”

Extortion – the crime of obtaining money or some other thing of value by the abuse of one’s office or authority.

The Bible speaks to both condemningly:

Exodus 23:8 And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

Ezekiel 18:18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity.

The distinction between the two is that bribery is something that you do in order to get an official to do something he should not. Extortion is when an official requires something in order to do what he is supposed to. In the instance above, the act seems to be extortion. He was requiring money for us to pass on a road even though in reality we did meet all of the government requirements. He wanted something in order to do what he was supposed to do (let us go by).
So, extorting is clearly wrong, but is it wrong to give money if it is being extorted from you? It is definitely wrong to give money to someone to get them to do something they are not supposed to do (bribery). But paying for something that you should not have to pay for does seem different….or does it?
What do you think? We would like to think through this now, in preparation for when we face it again.
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Author: David M. Hare

Dave is currently still engaged in language learning and analysis of the Kwakúm language. His focus is grammar and discourse analysis. The Kwakúm language committee is planning to begin translating the Bible in the summer of 2019. At that point Dave will focus on translation.

8 thoughts on “Thinking Through Bribery and Extortion

  1. Dave and Stacey,

    First, it is difficult to define terms like “bribery” or even “treason” outside the confines of God’s law. So Rahab, to take an obvious example, lied and committed an act of treason against the civil authority. Yet the Bible is unhesitating in praising her (Heb. 11:31; James 2:25). The leglalist and moralist may condemn Rahab actions, but I don’t think that the Bible does.

    Another example is the regicide that takes place in Judges 3. Ehud gains access to the king’s chamber through deception—the offer of a gift, which turns out to be a knife in the belly.

    As to your specific concern about bribery, it is a sin. But what the bible condemns is the taking of bribes. The assumption is that godly magistrates will enforce the law without seeking personal profit. A bribe may not be accepted for one’s own well being if it perverts justice or the administration thereof. But the Bible does not condemn the giving of bribes that are designed to impede the progress of apostate governments and expand the Kingdom of God.

    I’ll give you a couple of passages for consideration, two from Solomon and one from Jesus.

    First, consider Proverbs 17:8, “A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.” Also, see Proverbs 21:14, “A gift in secret averts anger, and a concealed bribe, strong wrath” (these are ESV translations). I’m not sure I’ve heard these passages taught before 🙂 How ‘bout you? Read them and ask yourself the following: is it better to not prosper or pay a bribe? Is it better to not pacify the anger of a corrupt official or pay him off? The passages seem pretty clear to me.

    Second, Jesus warned his followers: “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt. 5:40-41). Christ informs His followers that if we are compelled to do so we are to give extra goods or services to those in power over us. This is under conditions of coercion. If it were voluntary we would call it a tip, but the word for this is bribery—a “gift” above and beyond what the law advocates to encourage the offending magistrate to leave the Christian and church in peace.

    Any such bribe must be given in good conscience with the goal of reaching a righteous end. But if the goal and motivation are righteous then paying a bribe is perfectly acceptable.

  2. @Dave and Stacey, your original distinction between extortion and bribery is helpful but I think Darrell is right that the Bible condemns taking bribes, not offering them. Of course, someone will say that you are causing the person to sin (do what they ought not to); however, I think that depends on whether you are defining "ought" by man's values or God's values. If I were smuggling Jews out of Nazi Germany and paid a soldier to look the other way, am I paying him to do what he ought not (disobey as a soldier) or to do what he ought (show mercy as a human)?

    @Darrell, I resonate with all your thoughts save your inclusion of Mt 5:40-41. The only caveat I would add (and expect your agreement) is that we must be careful of the indirect effects of our actions. In some cases, bribery could cast us as underhanded and dependent on human means. Ezra was unwilling to ask for an armed guard (Ez 8:22) because he did not want to portray Yahweh as weak.

    -Warren

  3. Hi Dave, We've been in Cameroon a long time. We have alternate ideas to think about. If you'd like we could chat on the phone about this, or we could send an email. In general when faced with one of the types of friends on the side of the road, we have certain inner protocol we follow. We've never paid a bribe on the side of the road.

  4. I agree with Warren that there may be indirect effects and you've mentioned that as well, Dave, in that missionaries in Cameroon generally refuse to pay when extorted and hence are more likely to be left alone. It is very much a wisdom issue, will depend on individual circumstances, etc.

    Wondering why you find the inclusion of Mt 5:40-41 objectionable, Warren? You think the text can't be applied to civil corruption?

  5. @Warren – I have never really thought about it like that. This discussion is really challenging me. I wonder though if it seems less right when the correct moral governmental action is not so clear. Say, the government has a policy that you have to pay a 10% tax on shipments and I pay 5% to a customs agent and save money. It is not morally wrong to charge a tax on shipments (would that be a tariff?). Seems to make the issue a bit more grey.

    @Darrell – Do you have to be a legalist/moralist to believe that it was wrong for Rahab to lie? Though the Bible does not condemn her lie, it also does not praise it. Instead it praises her for her giving friendly welcome to the spies. So, your argument seems approval by silence. Whereas the Bible clearly says deceit is wrong (Proverbs 12:17). Second, I have a hard time saying that it is evil to take a bribe and not to give it. See the example above. I would be paying a man to not do his job when I am called to submit to the government. And what if it was to find an innocent man guilty? I would not be performing injustice, but encouraging it. Is bribery only wrong when it hurts others? As I said, this conversation is challenging me. I want to think rightly in this area. So, please continue to challenge me.

    @Paula – can you email me? We are going to be on the road for the next few weeks, but I would love to hear your perspective.

  6. Dave, I would say that there is a distinction between deception done with a righteous motivation and giving false witness, which is what I think is in view in Proverbs 12:17. Giving false testimony distorts justice and is punished by the law accordingly. Engaging in a deceptive act, however, may advance the cause of justice.

    As for Rahab, the commentators defending her actions would argue that the law of God permits men to lie in certain situations (e.g., Warren’s example of a Nazi guard who stops by your house where you are hiding a Jewish family in violation of a state directive.) I don't think there is anything unusual in that position.

    My use of the terms legalist and moralist are probably too strong for the context and I should have chosen my words a bit more carefully.

    Bribery certainly can be a sin. In your example where a legitimate tax is imposed by rightful authorities, using bribery to circumvent established law clearly appears problematic on its face. Likewise if an act will cause evident harm to an innocent party it should be avoided. Based on the example you provided I didn’t assume that would typically be the case, but I am speaking with a great deal of ignorance about the types of situations you might face.

  7. Hi guys. I spent 3.5 years in Namibia, Africa pretty recently.

    One thing that's important to remember in the book of Proverbs is that they are descriptive, not necessarily prescriptive, and that they often aren't imperatives either. It's wisdom; it describes life the way it is.

    With that said, I'm all for Rahab and the other civilly disobedient Bible characters.

    This is what I would do in the situation: politely and firmly tell the gentleman that you are not going to pay him anything. He must do the job he is paid to do and let you go on your way and that is that.

    I suspect the person living there now will tell you something similar.

    As a foreign face in Africa you will quickly pick up the polite & firm ability to tell people how it is as a survival skill.

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