Here's why I have a double standard on corruption (and 3 reasons you might too)

If you've visited or lived in certain parts of the world, you'll know that bribery and corruption are an annoying part of everyday life.

Need a document signed? Ten bucks please. Just slide it UNDER the table.

Need a job in this sausage factory? Pay the nice guard over there to let you in for the interview.

Need to escape the country because you've overstayed your visa? Give the immigration guy some cash folded into your passport. (I have never done this I swear)

But corruption is far more than just an annoyance for tourists, it's a cancerous scourge that undermines the very basis of a healthy society. And it especially sucks for the poor.

The first part of this animated video shows exactly how corruption destroys a country's institutions - making it impossible to develop a healthy society.

The Bible is clear that integrity will bring stability to society while corruption brings destruction (Prov. 29:4).  So, corruption is an issue of injustice, that we as followers of Jesus, are called to battle against with all our wisdom and strength.

You might find it strange then, that I would confess to having a double standard when it comes to corruption. I act differently from how I expect others to act.

You see, living here in Cambodia I have this supernatural layer of protection that covers my whole body. It's called white skin. And with that white skin, comes white privilege - or simply "rich foreigner privilege".

This privilege is not something I asked for, sought out, or feel guilty about. But it is something I need to recognize, grapple with, and use for the good of others whenever possible. 

So, in dealing with issues of injustice, here are 3 ways that my "magic white skin" forces me to live a double standard... 


1. I can make a stand without getting shot in the head and dumped in the river

Yep you caught me fair and square - here's that beer money I owe you. 

Yep you caught me fair and square - here's that beer money I owe you. 

When the local police spot me coming around the corner, they like to leap out on the road gleefully and wave me over to the side with their orange plastic baton-thingy.

They are pulling me over for riding my motorbike with headlights on during the day. Yes, I have actually been fined several times for just that! But I can choose to respond in a way that most local Cambodians cannot:

"Excuse me officer, but it's not illegal to ride with my headlights on - in fact it's safer. You're not willing to issue me a proper ticket, you just want cash. So, I'm going to report you for corruption. Please tell me your name so I can write it down."

As you can imagine, that conversation doesn't exactly earn me a pat on the back and a free donut. But it's a conversation I can get away with, merely because I am a certain kind of foreigner. (I speak Khmer so I can make my point more forcefully).

It's not just, but it is reality. So I'm not naive enough to suggest that my Cambodian friends should make the same stand on issues of corruption or injustice, since the outcome would likely be very different. They must make the choice for themselves, because the cost will be much higher. After all, speaking out against injustice here can get them shot in the head and dumped in the river.

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2. I can bear the cost of not participating in corruption more easily

This week we're in the process of helping an undocumented family get some essential documentation - birth certificates, residence papers, Starbucks Coffee discount card...

Surprise, surprise, the local government officials are not being very cooperative even though this family have completed all the right steps. These tinpot tyrants at the local government office need their palms to be greased with ten shekels of silver (is that even a thing?) They want bribes to get the job done.

I'm not even going to mention how uncooperative the staff at Starbucks are being.

Wow Starbucks. You guys are being real jerks. Just give us the discount card!

Wow Starbucks. You guys are being real jerks. Just give us the discount card!

So, a worker from the government office comes to us privately (in the dead of night? - not really, but wouldn't that be cool?) - and says he knows the right people and he can sort it all out for $300. That's the way things work here in Cambodia. 

You might think, what's the big deal? Pay the guy and let's get this done! 

But here's the problem with that - every time someone pays, it gets harder and harder to do it without a bribe, and so the poor - who can't pay - are excluded from all these essential services. They literally can't get anything done, they can't get ahead, because they can't afford to pay the stupid bribe.

So, paying these bribes is not only corrupt. It is unjust for the poor. And that's why I try to make a stand. I don't pay. I can afford to wait. I can afford to go back day after day and annoy the guy till he gives me what I need (Lk 18:1-8).  I can afford to be a jerk about it.

But my undocumented friends can't afford that approach. They don't have enough time off work to go back every day. They don't have money for gas to put in the motorbike for endless trips to the office. And they need those documents. Desperately.

So, who am I to judge when they scrape together the $300 and go through the back channel? It seems to me, God's judgment in this situation will be on the corrupt officials - not the poor who are forced to pay them.


3. I have connections to open doors and bang heads together

The poor don't know Kevin Bacon like I do.

The poor don't know Kevin Bacon like I do.

Kevin Bacon says we're all 3 degrees of separation from one another. And a quick look through my Facebook Friends list shows that I've got quite a few friends who can pull strings. Important strings. I know people who know people in high places. And if I need to, I can call in favours.

And that's actually the way the corrupt system works here. If you know someone, who knows someone - you can get around the bribe, and circumvent the system.

But playing that game ensures the poor continue to be locked out of gameplay. Because they don't have the connections we have.

Again, you might think, what's the big deal? Call in some favours from higher up the chain. Bang some heads together. Make it happen. Why not?

But every time I do that merely for my own benefit, I miss an opportunity to engage and confront an unjust system that is locking out the poor. By using my privilege to leapfrog the corruption at the front desk, I'm skipping past something everyone else has to face and failing to use my privilege to confront it.

So, I'm very cautious about that approach, unless it is for the direct benefit of the poor.

On the other hand, if my undocumented friends tell me they have a cousin Vinny in the government who can help them out - I'm not going to hold them back. They need all the help they can get.

Yep. Double standards all around.


So, that's where I've landed for now on this complicated, messy business of dealing with corruption. I want to use my privilege - as a wealthy, white Westerner, just as Paul did in Acts 22, to advance the Kingdom and speak out against injustice.

As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. (see Acts 22:22-29)

Paul appealed to the law and used his own privilege under that law, to call the authorities to account. If we happen to be people with privilege, that's the right thing to do. 

But unlike Paul and me, there are many who live their lives under the jackboot of corruption, who are forced to face this kind of injustice in different ways - very often by participating in it.

They pay a higher cost for speaking out. They can't always afford the cost of refusing to participate. And they don't often have the luxury of fighting back.   

It may seem like a double standard, but I understand where they are coming from and I stand with them - until such day as things are made right. 

And as Aung San Suu Kyi says, "Use your liberty (privilege) to promote ours!"