Corruption and the Church

This September I had the privilege of participating in a meeting on corruption and the church at the Oxford Center for Mission Studies at Oxford University.  The idea was to bring together a globally and professionally diverse group of about 24 people to discuss the problem of corruption and strategize about responses by the church.  I was privileged to be there representing the World Evangelical Alliance.

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This is an interesting subject for me for many reasons.  I often run into corruption in my work and have seen how it undermines development.  I am also disappointed and concerned about the direction the US seems headed as inequality gets greater and greater.  As a country we seem to need a stronger moral framework to balance the extremes of aggressive capitalism.

At OCMS we were challenged to discuss some difficult questions – If, as the research shows, extreme inequality of wealth goes with corruption, how do we explain the US, which has a relatively low corruption rating and extreme inequality?  How is it that the countries with the greatest inequality are predominantly Christian?  How is it, in some countries, that the church is seen as part of the corruption problem rather than the solution?  If an action is legal but strikes people as immoral (such as the Epi Pen controversy) is it corrupt?

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Corruption is not one thing.  We agreed on the general definition of diverting or exploiting resources for a purpose other than intended, to the benefit of elite power groups.  This can mean sexual exploitation, such as trapping refugees into human trafficking, abuse of power, such as using power to change term limits and so keeping one group in power for life, or abuse of finances, such as using relief aid for family and friends, or church donations for extreme compensation.

When looking for corruption it is easy to focus on the developing world, especially if our view of corruption is quite narrow.  Looking at the US, Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote in Globalization and Its Discontents (2012) that the extreme inequality in the US is undermining democracy, and shows that the political system is failing to protect citizens from the extremes of capitalism.  Philosopher Jurgen Habermas writes that democracy is in danger when people are excluded from its promises and real participation is concentrated with a small group.

But the question posed to us was what is the church to do?  The underlying theme of the discussion is that there is a need for the church to assert its moral authority in confronting corruption in all of its forms.  Where the church is corrupt, it must first clean its own house to regain that authority.  There then follows four proposed actions –

  • The church needs a clearer theology of ecclesiology (theology of the church) that includes the role of the church in transforming society, economies and politics. The church in the West is often reduced to voting up or down on politician’s platforms rather than asserting a unique perspective that reflects the church’s role in society.  This the mission of the church, especially where it means advocating for the poor and oppressed who require special consideration given their vulnerability.  In order for this to happen there must be open discussion about this role to seek areas of common ground across faith groups.
  • The church needs clear strategies for putting its ecclesiology into action in a way that engages the local church. Acting as a watchdog, detecting and guarding against ways the church can be co-opted by politics, and speaking into the media as the church.
  • Gather and share stories on the fight against corruption as a tool for engaging people in this struggle.
  • Learn to gather and use evidence. Science should be a tool of the church, not a competitor.  Science can generate evidence that can inform actions, clarify the extent of the problem, and in some cases reveal the problem.

Some authors have suggested that engaging the church to confront corruption and challenge the dangers of extreme inequality can renew the Western church, giving a greater sense of relevance in today’s world.  That is something the declining Western church could sorely use.

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