Every day we are inundated with stories of corruption. We hear about both people and institutions that are visibly corrupt. At every level of society, there are frequent news stories of corrupt politicians. Our banking system and Wall Street are often labeled as corrupt. There are plenty of accusations flying these days of corruption in our police forces, the very institution sworn to protect us. If we end up in court, we may well be facing a corrupt judge. Corruption has infected many of our business and even our churches. What is happening to us?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides several definitions of corruption. According to that dictionary, corruption is: a. an impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle; b. decay or decomposition; c. an inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (such as bribery) or d. a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct.
It is common to hear people use the words “corruption” or “sin” interchangeably. They are certainly interrelated, but are they really the same? Corruption is not merely another sin. Sin is an event, a specific failure in time; corruption is a state of being. A habitual state of everyday complicity with sin can lead us to corruption, but corruption, while intrinsically tied to sin, is still distinct from it. The distinction is not quantitative, but qualitative.
Corruption is in some manner of speaking, a way of life, but at the same time, a process of death. When life dies, there is corruption. This is the “decay or decomposition” of which the Merriam-Webster speaks. This is the departure from the original or from what is pure or correct. Corrupt people or institutions are impaired.
At the heart of corruption is a self-centered, self-sufficient attitude and approach to life. It is often, though not necessarily, accompanied by an underpinning of malice. More and more, it turns toward goals that pertain only to self, creating a very self-containing environment. As such, it severely limits any capacity to love, which requires attentiveness to the needs of the other. This is what makes the impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle so evident. Herein lies the easy inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means.
The self-centered have no interest in nor respect for the needs or wants of others. They will not be confined by the imposition of laws made up by and for others. Those who see themselves as self-sufficient believe they have no need for others at all. Is it any wonder then that at the bottom of every corrupt attitude is a weariness? How lonely and exhausting it must be to exist is such a contained space unable to involve or trust others!
Corrupt people always do though try to keep up a good appearance. They cultivate good manners to the point of fastidiousness so as to cover up their self-serving intentions. They develop public relationships with particular others in order to create a façade they hope will work to their own advantage. In the beginning, they may try to hide their vices, but over time, in an increasing state of self-grandeur, they try to refashion their vices into something socially acceptable. Bribery, getting in bed with one another, coercion, out-right deception or deception by omission or extortion, for example, become simply common means of doing business. “It is how the system works.”
To some degree, the corrupt have become successful in this effort. As a society, we have become so accustomed to corruption that we tend to look the other way if and when we see it. We tend to accept that this is just how it is. Because the corrupt tend to rise to positions of power, we often see ourselves as powerless. We are not.
As the political season gets into full swing and the machine begins to grind out candidates for the 2016 election and the negative ads muddy the waters, I fully expect we will hear plenty about the sins of each candidate daring enough to risk exposure, but what would seem more profitable would be to watch and listen for the signs of corruption. Personal failures or sins are virtually inescapable, but corruption is entirely avoidable.
How do we distinguish between the sinner and the corrupt? The corrupt know nothing of fraternity or friendship, only complicity. To the corrupt, you are either an accomplice or an enemy. They set themselves up in judgment over others, making themselves the measure of morality. They believe they have done nothing wrong and will justify themselves to any and all who will listen. The corrupt seek their own interests and are widely oblivious to those of others. Self-sufficient, self-contained and confined, their vision is limited and narrow, as are their ideas and resources. Corruption causes division. It may well explain the current case of gridlock we are experiencing in Washington.
On the other hand, the pool of candidates ought also to contain those whose lives are balanced and grounded in reality, people who accept both their strengths and weaknesses, working collaboratively with others to maximize the effects of the strengths and minimize those of the weaknesses. They will admit to an error when made, make changes going forward and hope for forgiveness. They will recognize their human limitations and surround themselves with creative thinkers and people of action with a plan to make the world a safer and more peaceful place in which to live and work with dignity.
Many of our political commentators today suggest that our government may have reached that state of “decay or decomposition” of which the Merriam-Webster dictionary speaks when it describes corruption. The government has certainly departed from the original form or from what was, at the time of the birth of our nation, considered pure or correct. From the beginning, however, we were given both rights and responsibilities. Our government was established with specific checks and balances to minimize the possibility of corruption. As such, if we exercise our rights and live up to our responsibilities, if we enforce the checks and balances written into the inaugurating documents of this democracy, we can reestablish the integrity, virtue, and moral principles of the pioneers who founded this nation. Only then can we expect or hope to bring democracy to others.