Thursday, September 20, 2007

Red Dirt Ramblings: The Difference Between "Shrewd" and "Corrupt"

Lectionary Inspiration from Cameroon: Week of September 23

Luke 16:1-13

“There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg – I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ ‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’

Then he asked the servant, ‘And how much do you owe?’ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’

The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

New International Version

I walked up a flight of four floors in a ministry building in downtown Yaounde. All along the way, posters screamed at me, “Corruption kills a country!”, “Public services are free here!”, “Receiving and giving bribes is a crime!”

I entered a small office and inquired about a certain file that had been deposited a long time ago. The civil servant hardly looked at me and said, “Oh, I’ve finished the report, but my secretary needs some encouragement to type it.”

I’m not sure if my response was correct – I told him I’d take it and type it myself, thank you very much. And in fact, I did take it home, type it, and return it to his office the next morning.

I am sure that I failed the cultural test, but at the time I felt a certain kind of self-righteousness, because I had followed “the rules.”

Cameroon is a notoriously corrupt country, with the World Bank, Transparency International, the International Monetary Fund, and the American Embassy regularly commenting on the problem, and making suggestions and threats about how the president must respond. Infrastructure is crumbling or nonexistent, schools and universities are shabby and underfunded, and health care is spotty.

Having lived in this environment for the last three years, I am particularly alarmed at this week’s lectionary text, which on the surface, seems to endorse the actions of a corrupt manager. In fact, Jesus praises the hero of his story for being “shrewd,” instead of berating him for his dishonesty.

I regularly speak about corruption to people in Cameroon, to try to get a sense of what is really happening, and to understand what people think about the “corruption problem.”

One young man told me that the “corruption problem” is not addressed in the right way. “Most international organizations want to focus on the actual problem of money changing hands in civil servant offices,” he said. “But that’s not where they should be looking.”

He explained that the entire corps of civil servants had their salaries slashed by two-thirds over a decade ago. Now they are trying to live on far less than they had before. It’s no wonder, he said, that they take advantage of every situation to try to supplement their meager income; most people are not paid a living wage.

And, to make matters worse, at the same time that salaries were being cut, prices on goods were being raised, while some top ministers in the government started driving shiny new expensive cars.

Perhaps we can begin to understand the despair that would drive someone to ask for a bribe, for encouragement, for a tip. Is it really dishonesty that drives this practice? Or is it something else, something that we might (in another context) even praise for its creativity? Can we call it “shrewdness”?

Regardless, the tension and uneasiness of this scripture text remains. Let me suggest a new way to understand this text … Why not personalize it, stand inside of it and ask yourself, “If I were about to lose my job, my salary, benefits and security, what would I do to ensure that my family would survive? What kind of shrewd and clever schemes could I come up with to make it in the future?”

Then take that feeling, and ask yourself, “With that kind of raw emotion and determination, what could I do in the kingdom of God? For what purpose is God calling me to be shrewd and clever now?”