Shortly after crossing from Rwanda into Tanzania, I found myself being detained at a police station. A traffic constable had confiscated my travel documents at a roadblock as I drove into a small town. I was charged with failing to have the proper transit permits for a foreign vehicle.
Sitting in the police chief's office, we all knew the game. In fact my papers were in order. The border officials had already verified that. Although they didn't say as much, the police were expecting a bribe. After all, that's the normal way of things in Africa, isn't it?
We talked around the issue for a while. Finally I said to the chief, "I'm sorry, but I won't participate in anything that would support the suggestion that either you or your officers are dishonest public servants." He seemed stunned. The next 20 minutes or so passed in silence. Then the chief returned my documents, wished me a pleasant stay, and let me go.
So much of the world is in a quandary about corruption. As economies become more and more integrated, there's a growing acknowledgment that crooked dealings are unacceptable. But the problem stubbornly persists. Journalists often write about corruption being a way of life in certain countries - something tightly woven into the very fabric of society.
The mayor of a large city in Mexico, for example, recently annulled all the traffic laws in his town so that citizens would no longer be tempted to pay off the police officers enforcing them. That's certainly a novel approach, but it seems to me that it also inadvertently points to the nub of the problem: Corruption thrives on consent.
Africa's reputation for corruption is probably unparalled. Yet over the past seven years I've been able to travel continually through 18 African countries without ever paying a bribe. I don't count that as a personal achievement. There's something more to it.
Very often at the same time that people engage in bad behavior, they're looking for a way out. This was certainly the case with the police chief I encountered in Tanzania - and it presents an opportunity.
I've found the Ninth Commandment in the Bible especially helpful in challenging corruption through prayer. Agreeing not to "bear false witness" against our neighbor requires honoring the innocence of every individual. It involves resisting the temptation to expect evil, and a willingness to counter it whenever it seems to occur.
As men and women made in God's likeness, we're all innately moral. That's a powerful idea. Its effect is release and restitution. Were it not so, King David of Israel could never have gone on to write some of our most cherished prayers - many of the psalms in the Bible - after conspiring to kill a young soldier named Uriah so that he could steal his wife. Nor could the persecutor of Christians, Saul, have gone forward, as Paul, to spread Christianity throughout the Mediterranean. Yet it was Paul himself who wrote emphatically that "this corruptible must put on incorruption" (I Cor. 15:53).
As civilization advances, new measures continue to elevate the way individuals and nations interact. Many of today's African leaders have vowed to work toward a new era of accountability. Companies in one part of the world can no longer illicitly entice government contracts in other parts of the world with impunity.
These trends are rays of light. They reflect the natural human tendency toward good. I believe they're worth supporting in prayer and practice. The apparent preponderance of an evil does not make it normal. By aligning our thoughts and actions with divine law, it is possible to change our expectations from evil to good - to recognize, for instance, that corruption is not as tightly woven into human affairs as we sometimes think.
Honesty is spiritual power. Dishonesty is human weakness, which forfeits divine help.
You uncover sin, not in order to injure, but in order to bless
the corporeal man; and a right motive has its reward.
Mary Baker Eddy
(founder of Christian Science)