To Bribe or Not to Bribe?

Many times on the mission field we are faced with questions we never had to ask ourselves back in the US. One of those is whether or not to employ mordidas or bribes in our everyday interactions. Anyone who has lived in a developing country knows that bribes are a part of everyday life. Missionaries basically fall into two categories in this area. There are those who say, "Well, it's just part of the culture," and proceed to pay the tips and bribes; then there are those who have strong convicitions against giving bribes and refuse to participate. We know missionaries in both schools of thought; reasons could be given for both sides. Many "bribes" that one is asked for are not illegal; we are simply asked for money to expedite a process like applying for a driver's license (a two-day process if you do not pay a "tip"). So the missionary is left to decide based on his conscience which way is best in a given situation. Of course we would never employ bribes to get around a law or do something illegal. But many times we are asked for "tips" in order to actually get someone to help us; one thing we have learned in Honduras is that no one is in a hurry. Other times, we have been threatened by consequences if we refused to pay a bribe.

One day we were returning from our monthly bulk grocery run in San Pedro Sula, a larger city to the west of Progreso. We had the car packed with groceries, and little Claire was propped up in her carseat between boxes and bags. Just after leaving the city limits, we ran into a police checkpoint. Honduran police do not typically patrol as police in the US do; there are not enough vehicles for them to do so. Instead, they set up police checkpoints across the city, pulling over random cars for inspections and license checks. On this day, we happened to be one of the cars pulled over; Robbie grabbed his license and registration and handed them to the officer as soon as he arrived. The officer checked both, then began to peer into the windows of the backseat.

"Do you have a receipt for that milk?" he asked.

"A receipt for the milk?" Robbie was incredulous. I, on the other hand, began to dig through my purse in search of it. I was acting on a respect for law-enforcement officers that that been ingrained in me since I was a child. Robbie, however, was beginning to smell a fish.

"Yeah, do you have a receipt for that milk? I need to see it."

"No you don't. You are supposed to look for traffic violations. Not milk." Robbie wasn't budging on this one.

Feeling the milk was a dead end, the officer said, "Do you have any traffic triangles?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You know, those triangles you have to put in the road if you break down. You have to have those; it's the law here."

"No, we don't have any, and no that's not the law here. I'm not driving a tractor trailer. This is a normal truck and we don't need triangles." Robbie's patience was wearing thin.

"Yes, this is pretty bad, not having traffic triangles. I'm going to have to fine you and take your license, and you'll have to go downtown and pay it."

When he got no reaction he continued, "Yes, you'll have to go downtown. Since you're not from here, you probably don't even know where that is. Hmmm, what are we going to do about this?"

Robbie just stared back at him, not concealing his disgust.

"I tell you what! I'll help you out. I don't want you to have to go all the way downtown to pay a fine. You give me the money and I'll take care of it for you!" He looked at Robbie expectantly, hand outstretched.

This was the moment we had dreaded. Lord, what do we do?

"Fine me," Robbie said, and smiling widely at the officer for the first time.

"What? No, you'll have to go downtown, they keep your license, it will take you all day!" The officer looked confused.

"I know. I want to pay the fine. But do me a favor, before you write it, go back there and get your chief. I want to talk to him first." Robbie jerked his thumb in the direction of the older officer who was apparently in charge of the post. Then with great flair he began writing down the man's badge number.

"Uh, well, ah, I guess we could let this go this one time," the officer stammered, backing away from the car, hands raised. He shook his head as us as we drove off. Dumb gringos, don't they know how things are done here?

The Lord gave Robbie the wisdom he needed to navigate this situation well. There have been other occasions when we believe He directed us to pay a person in order to get service. I read a great explanation of this rule by another missionary: "Paying a bribe to convince an official to break or avoid a law is always wrong. Paying an official to convince him to follow a law or do his duty is acceptable."

The most important issue here is protecting the name of Jesus Christ. We may have to jump through some hoops and stand in long lines because we don't pay illegal bribes. But you simply cannot put a price on testimony.
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