Acton Commentary

The Role of Religious Leaders in the Face of Corruption


The Speck in the Government’s Eye, the Plank in theChurch’s

Though it is hard to speak forthe entire continent, I can affirm with certainty that many victims ofcorruption in the public square are turning to religious leaders for help on mymother continent, Africa. Religious leaders are not the sole players infighting this monster called corruption, but their role is critical for itstreatment.

This turning to the Church is therecognition of the role it plays in solving issues of public interest. Peoplealso recognize that the Church’s moral mandate and mission in the public squareis to defend the powerless and the oppressed. Religious leaders should not takelightly this moral responsibility.

Corruption is a broad term with many dimensions, as thereligious observer should well understand. Mwanalushi Muyunda, in Corruption,Poverty and Good Governance, offers amulti-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 ofpublic office for personal or sectional gain at the expense of the majority;and takes various forms, such as bribery, extortion, appropriation of publicassets for private use, embezzlement of public funds, nepotism, etc. To corruptis to destroy or pervert the integrity or fidelity of a person in his or herdischarge of duty; to induce to act dishonestly or to bribe; it is the act ofsoliciting or offering gratification or “kickbacks.”

The theme of justice permeates the Bible message thatclergy claim to serve. What, then, is the role of religious leaders incombating social and political injustices?

To begin, all religious leaders must renew their understandingof their calling, conceiving it according to the highest standard andunderstanding that they will be held accountable to that standard. They are inthis world, but not of it; they are leaders in a community that is sustainednot by worldly values, but by heavenly values. Religious leaders are the lightand the salt of the public square in all moral matters. As they renew theircommitment, they rise to a high quality of living felt both in the Church andin the community at large. This is the Church’s weapon for fightingcorruption.

Too often, however, the Church itself is afflicted bycorruption, 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 arewitnesses of corruption in the Church. It is very difficult for the clergy tospeak with authority against corruption if the ecclesiastical constituency sufferscorruption of the same nature as the public administration. As Jesus said, “Howcan you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when allthe time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4 NIV)

There are, unfortunately, many examples of ecclesialcorruption from which to choose. Individuals who claim to be raising funds forplanting churches, aid and relief programs, turn out to be impostors. Churchofficials are caught embezzling parish money. In one case, an ordained ministerstole $25,000 that was designated for hunger relief. The same culprit hadalready been in jail twice for similar offenses. Some clergy members are guiltyof unfair elections and leadership selection in their Churches. These and manyothers are fruits of corruption.

The laity and the public square look with suspicion to theChurch when it speaks against corruption, if the religious leaders aredisciples of injustice or have failed to manage their own houses. This lack ofdiscipline 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 inthe public square, its leaders must eradicate injustice and lack ofaccountability in their parishes. This is the only way they will dischargeGod’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 itin public life as true ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The power of association is such that when only one leadermisbehaves, the image of the whole body of Jesus Christ will be tarnished inthe eyes of corrupt people. Instead of obeying God, they will rather be askingthe Church to remove the plank from her eye before removing the speck in theeye of the public square. If the Church is not free from the faces ofcorruption described above, her mission will be difficult in the world. It isimperative for Church leaders to sanctify themselves in order for their missionto be effective.