RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–“Corruption is to be expected,” journalist Roger Beaumont recently observed. “It is the inevitability of it that is so galling.”
Verily. That anyone could believe in the perfectibility of man in the face of world events and everyday experience — much less build programs around it — staggers the mind.
Violence is exploding everywhere. Organized criminal syndicates, drug cartels and terrorists now control whole nations — or create “virtual states” to challenge actual ones. Their appetite for blood and money is rivaled only by the greed of the thugs who run many supposedly legitimate governments.
“There are 27 major armed conflicts taking place in the world; 1.2 billion people are living on less than one dollar a day; 2.4 billion people have no access to basic sanitation,” reports David Rieff in his book, “A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis,” a bleak assessment of global relief work.
Rieff admires the commitment of relief groups like Doctors Without Borders. But he doesn’t think they have a snowball’s chance in the Sahara of changing the human condition. He quotes a European relief official: “Mankind is slowly, but in a very determined way, going back to barbarism.”
Going back? When, exactly, did we emerge from barbarism? I recently visited a region of Asia where poor women and children by the thousands are routinely sold or lured into prostitution and other forms of slavery. It’s been going on for ages. Modern transportation and communications only make the trade in human beings more efficient.
Abraham Lincoln hopefully appealed to the “better angels of our nature” in his first inaugural address. But those “better angels” are hard to locate, because they aren’t there. The Lord told us so long ago through the prophet Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
The grand-scale, societal “structures of sin” — as some theologians call the organized evil that continues to oppress so many — prove that we remain fallen creatures 26 centuries after Jeremiah.
As do small-time lying and cheating. Personal corruption is “a kind of uniform, tribal duplicity,” Beaumont says. “Those involved are simply not able to extract themselves from a cycle of take and incompetence…. And the problem is not education, because many of [corruption’s] stalwart supporters come from the affluent, educated middle classes….”
In Russia, “Bribes are taken by everyone, everywhere, and for everything,” claims writer Vladimir Voinovich. “Idiots who try to do things honestly drown in bureaucratic minutiae.” Missionaries the world over can relate to this quandary: Do you pay small “fees” for this and that as the price of doing business in many countries, and get on with your ministry? Or do you refuse — and spend hours, days or weeks being hassled?
America is different only in degree, not in kind, as evidenced by recent corporate scandals and the collapse of integrity at every level of society.
Chuck Colson, who experienced his own ethical and spiritual rebirth after doing time for Watergate-related offenses, tells of the experience of philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers. A strong proponent of “private virtues” like honesty as powerful social forces, Sommers was rebuked by a colleague, an ethics professor, who told her: “You’re not going to have moral people until you have moral institutions.”
By semester’s end, however, “Sommers’ colleague was singing a different tune,” Colson recounts. “More than half of the students in her ethics course had cheated on a take-home final exam.”
How to cure the disease of social corruption? Many individuals must consistently live lives of personal virtue. Such is possible only through the purifying power of the gospel, which changes our desperately evil hearts. That’s why factory managers in communist China seek Christian workers they know will put in an honest day’s labor and not steal products. It’s why government officials in Uganda — one of the few current success stories in Africa’s AIDS pandemic — aggressively promote the Christian “True Love Waits” abstinence program.
In December, 150 mostly Christian inmates from three Thai prisons united in a choir to perform at Bangkok’s Thai Cultural Center in honor of the 75th birthday of the king of Thailand. During the occasion, which received national press coverage, retired Southern Baptist missionaries Jack and Glad Martin were honored for nearly 30 years of prison ministry by Purachai Piumsombun, Thailand’s minister of justice.
At the end of the evening, a young prisoner stepped forward from the choir and told his story with a shaky voice. He had promised his mother early on in life that he would make something of himself, perhaps become a policeman to help protect society. But bad friends led him into drug use, which in turn led to addiction and drug dealing.
One day he snatched his mother’s purse to get money, knocking her down and breaking her arm. He was arrested the same day — and later sentenced to six years in prison for selling drugs. Later, he heard about the God who was being preached by the Christian prison ministry team. He timidly asked if he could join the men’s choir and found that they worshiped this same God. Eventually he gave his life to Christ. He wrote his mother and asked her forgiveness for all the sorrow he had caused her.
As he spoke that evening at the concert, an older woman emerged from the far end of the stage and walked slowly toward him. She gently touched his shoulder. He turned, and in a sudden burst of sorrow fell at her feet, clasping her ankles and begging, “Mom, oh Mom, can you forgive me?” They were led off the stage in joyful reunion.
Later, the justice minister approached the young man and asked, “Son, how much longer do you have to serve on your sentence?” He replied, “A year and a half, sir.” The minister responded: “No, you don’t. I will pardon you within the month. You have served your time and I see true repentance. You aren’t the kind that we want to keep behind bars!”
The young man was released Jan. 3.
Bridges, whose column appears twice-monthly in Baptist Press, is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.