Thinking Through Bribery and Extortion

OK all you theologians, politicians, missionaries, pastors, and moral theorists out there I need your help. Stacey and I are in the process of moving to Cameroon, Africa and have recently been confronted with a reality that we will have to face. According to the World Corruption Index, Cameroon ranked 146 out of 178 countries in regards to its freedom from corruption. The nation has actually improved quite a bit in the last 20 years, but there is still corruption, some that we even experienced while we were there.

So here is one scenario that we faced:

We were driving down the road and reached a checkpoint (very common in Cameroon). At the checkpoint a government official asked us to pull aside. He then proceeded to tell us that our vehicle did not have the proper reflective stickers for our truck. What he was claiming that we needed to have was only actually required of large trucks (we were in a Toyota LandCruiser). He said that he would allow us to pass, but only if we paid a fee.

So here is the question: Would it be morally permissible to pay the government official so that we could pass on the road? In the past I would have said that this was bribery and as bribery is condemned by the Bible, I would have told you it was NOT morally permissible. However, I have been challenged to consider this (and situations like it) extortion instead of bribery. Here are some definitions if you are not familiar with the terminology:

Bribe – money or any other valuable consideration given or promised with a view to corrupting the behavior of a person, especially in that person’s performance as an athlete, public official, etc.: “The motorist offered the arresting officer a bribe to let him go.”

Extortion – the crime of obtaining money or some other thing of value by the abuse of one’s office or authority.

The Bible speaks to both condemningly:

Exodus 23:8 And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

Ezekiel 18:18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity.

The distinction between the two is that bribery is something that you do in order to get an official to do something he should not. Extortion is when an official requires something in order to do what he is supposed to. In the instance above, the act seems to be extortion. He was requiring money for us to pass on a road even though in reality we did meet all of the government requirements. He wanted something in order to do what he was supposed to do (let us go by).
So, extorting is clearly wrong, but is it wrong to give money if it is being extorted from you? It is definitely wrong to give money to someone to get them to do something they are not supposed to do (bribery). But paying for something that you should not have to pay for does seem different….or does it?
What do you think? We would like to think through this now, in preparation for when we face it again.

Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.