Though it is hard to speak for the entire continent, I can affirm with certainty that many victims of corruption in the public square are turning to religious leaders for help on my mother continent, Africa. Religious leaders are not the sole players infighting this monster called corruption, but their role is critical for its treatment.
This turning to the Church is the recognition of the role it plays in solving issues of public interest. People also recognize that the Church’s moral mandate and mission in the public square is to defend the powerless and the oppressed. Religious leaders should not take lightly this moral responsibility.
Corruption is a broad term with many dimensions, as the religious observer should well understand. Mwanalushi Muyunda, in Corruption,Poverty and Good Governance, offers a multi-faceted definition:
At its most basic, corruption is the betrayal of trust.It is the misuse of entrusted power for private gain, i.e., it is the misuse of public office for personal or sectional gain at the expense of the majority; and takes various forms, such as bribery, extortion, appropriation of public assets for private use, embezzlement of public funds, nepotism, etc. To corrupt is to destroy or pervert the integrity or fidelity of a person in his or her discharge of duty; to induce to act dishonestly or to bribe; it is the act of soliciting or offering gratification or “kickbacks.”
The theme of justice permeates the Bible message that clergy claim to serve. What, then, is the role of religious leaders in combating social and political injustices?
To begin, all religious leaders must renew their understanding of their calling, conceiving it according to the highest standard and understanding that they will be held accountable to that standard. They are in this world, but not of it; they are leaders in a community that is sustained, not by worldly values, but by heavenly values. Religious leaders are the light and the salt of the public square in all moral matters. As they renew their commitment, they rise to a high quality of living felt both in the Church and in the community at large. This is the Church’s weapon for fighting corruption.
Too often, however, the Church itself is afflicted by corruption, which undermines its witness in the public square. Religious leaders do not lead angels, but a real laity that is actively and daily involved in the affairs of society. Some members of the laity even serve on Church boards and committees and are witnesses of corruption in the Church. It is very difficult for the clergy to speak with authority against corruption if the ecclesiastical constituency suffers corruption of the same nature as the public administration. As Jesus said, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4 NIV)
There are, unfortunately, many examples of ecclesial corruption from which to choose. Individuals who claim to be raising funds for planting churches, aid and relief programs, turn out to be impostors. Church officials are caught embezzling parish money. In one case, an ordained minister stole $25,000 that was designated for hunger relief. The same culprit had already been in jail twice for similar offenses. Some clergy members are guilty of unfair elections and leadership selection in their churches. These and many others are fruits of corruption.
The laity and the public square look with suspicion to the Church when it speaks against corruption, if the religious leaders are disciples of injustice or have failed to manage their own houses. This lack of discipline is, of course, commonplace in the history of all institutions,including the Church, but that is no excuse for overlooking or condoning it.
For the Church to be effective in attacking corruption in the public square, its leaders must eradicate injustice and lack o faccountability in their parishes. This is the only way they will discharge God’s presence and glory to the followers of injustice in the public square.This is also the way the laity will emulate justice in the Church and apply it in public life as true ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The power of association is such that when only one leader misbehaves, the image of the whole body of Jesus Christ will be tarnished in the eyes of corrupt people. Instead of obeying God, they will rather be asking the Church to remove the plank from her eye before removing the speck in the eye of the public square. If the Church is not free from the faces of corruption described above, her mission will be difficult in the world. It is imperative for Church leaders to sanctify themselves in order for their mission to be effective.