“Be courteous and look for opportunities to give tips rather than pay bribes.”
The NIV Bible mentions the term “bribery” twenty-eight times, twenty-seven in the Old Testament. The main focus of these verses forbids leaders from taking bribes, called in one place “money to pervert justice” (Deuteronomy 16:19). The prophets repeatedly condemned those leaders for taking bribes (Micah 3:11).
Missionaries rarely face situations in which they are expected to give large sums of money to bribe government officials. More commonly, missionaries encounter forms of extortion, and usually at police/military checkpoints while traveling. The police or other officials won’t let you pass unless you give them some money. These situations are frustrating and stressful, and one feels that he or she is being “taken.”
What do you do? Don’t get angry, demand your rights, or insult the officials. Ask them how they are doing, thank them for their service, and have a small food item or a cold drink to give them. This is really more of a tip than a bribe. Other times, you may want to say, “our company policy is not to give bribes.” And then you wait. David Armstrong, who served in Guatemala and Colombia, summarized the challenge: “Usually it was more of a game – being friendly and talking, maybe tipping a bit, and trying to prick their conscience a little.”
If you’re regularly visiting government officials or clearing “loads” from customs, you need to develop friendly relations with those officials. At holiday times, a small gift may be in order. If you know that the official has experienced a birth or death in his family, then you can pray with that person. You might even give a staple such as some rice to help the family meet the requirements of hospitality at such a time. As a participant in the culture you will be witnessing to others by your actions. You need to know how and when to give a tip or gift and when not to give anything.
Answer from Ed Klotz, who served for 22 years with SIM in Nigeria, Liberia, and Eritrea.
“Be sensible, but righteous.”
One time I was on a bus coming in from U.S. and Mexican immigrations/custom officers stopped the bus, picked my backpack out of the under-bus storage, and called me to come out. I didn’t have anything in it but clothes and some food items. There was no table, no asphalt even, just a dried up mud puddle, and he wanted me to dump everything out on the ground so he could go through it. I balked as I do in Mexico City, and he pulled his gun and asked if I wanted him to send the bus on without me. He and his buddies could finish this in the desert behind the check point! There is a fine line between an official asking for money and a man with a gun demanding it. You better be careful at “playing these people” because it can backfire.
In general, I don’t give bribes. I have my prepared answers and I can complain, take their names and badge numbers, and threaten to report them to the government authorities and US embassy.
Pray a lot. Then focus on resisting. You will generally not get things as other people do. One missionary friend tried to get a telephone number, filled out an application, and got nothing after a month. He went back to complain and the clerk who found his application asked for a bribe. When he said no, his form was put it on the bottom of the stack. This is typical of the problems missionaries face. Luckily here in Mexico that is going away mostly.
Checkpoints in Mexico are VERY problematic. The bad guys have police uniforms and ID, and guns, even patrol cars. When you stop, you do not know if they are legitimate, legitimate but corrupt, or criminals going to take you for everything you have. It is always best to keep an empty or mostly empty wallet. Keep most of your money elsewhere. If they won’t let you go (neither forward not back), then open your wallet and tell them “See?” If they take what you have there (always leave something), then they just robbed you. You did not give them permission.
You can also get other people to do things like signing up for services for you, and they know how to get around a lot of that. They may have their prepared answers for those situations, too.
You should realize that as a missionary and a foreigner, it is typical that vendors jack the prices by 50% to 300-400% when they see you. If it is too much, don’t buy. Go to the next vendor down and look at the same stuff. This kind of thing is just normal for Americans living in foreign countries. It is not right to pay bribes, and you as a Christian are contributing to the growth of criminal elements by giving in. Better to suffer for the Lord than give in too easily.
Answer from David, who has served with local church in Mexico for 30 years. See DavidCoxMex.com.
“Relationship and patience are key.”
Throughout my years of service in Kenya I often experienced “tip” requests, bribery, extortion, and everything in between. Because I believe that many requests or demands for bribes are systemic rather than an individual consciously trying to take advantage of you, a significant part of my approach to these situations was to choose to view them through a lens of grace.
By doing so, I found it much easier to maintain a posture of calm and patience rather than anger, defensiveness, or fear. From there I would strive to enter into relationship with the officials or officers that I was dealing with. Sometimes this simply meant taking time to get to know them. Other times it would be putting myself in their shoes and them in mine. Engaging in relationship and conversation about life made my polite (or other times intentionally comical) decline to pay a “fine” or bribe much more palatable to 99% of officers or officials.
One examples of this was in 2010 when I spent about 30 minutes on the side of the highway with an officer as he threatened to arrest me and impound my vehicle if I didn’t pay a $75 undocumented “fine.” From the very moment he came to my window, I engaged him with respect and friendliness. As we talked I was able to explain why I was living and serving in Kenya and that I was sent by a US organization. He seemed glad to hear about what I was doing but insistent on getting money from me. With a big smile I told him that dispersing any amount of money without a receipt could put my standing with the organization and ability to serve in Kenya in jeopardy. Since he let me go on my way, I have wondered if it was his impatience with how long I was willing to talk to avoid payment, the actual conversation and banter we enjoyed, or the ethical dilemma I put out there that led him to release me.
Lenses of grace, patient/calm posture, and engaging in relationship solved 99% of my issues. When that fails you just have to deal with the fact that they may actually arrest you, block your application, or present you with a fine that is substantially more than the proposed bribe.
Answer from Jordan, who has served for twelve years in Kenya and the USA with New Mission Systems International.
“To pay or not to pay?”
It is a situation-by-situation issue. We could all tell our own stories. I have done both, paid and not paid. With our direct line of communication with God open, he will direct our steps. When God himself told Samuel to be deceptive to King Saul (You know the story of him going to the house of Jesse to anoint a new king), I believe we saw we have the latitude to work within the framework of other cultures. And that often means “paying fees to expedite the process.”
If you want to hear my story of how we got out of Brazil without paying the $500 “fine,” or the family that…. Let me know. I would be happy to share.
Answer from Neal Pirolo, who has served with Emmaus Road International in more than 60 countries for more than 40 years.