Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas bribes?, presents? and corruption

Three days ago, I had an animated conversation with a former student of mine who now is an mid-level executive of a government agency involved in regulation. He told me that he gets a heaps of Christmas baskets and other presents from contractors and suppliers. His rule is that if the supplier or contactor is involved with a project under his watch, he returns the present. But he finds it increasingly difficult to draw the line.

He says that if it is a money envelope, it is easier to deal with it. He told me that bribers know when to sense if the public servant is really in need of money. So I told him "I am in government service too, and we all know that government servants are ALWAYS IN NEED of money. Just look at the paychecks we get!"

But contrary to what many in the public think, the overwhelming majority of public servants are honest. The papers report of cab drivers, security guards and other blue collar workers returning thousands if not milions of pesos to their rightful owners, without thought of reward. We barely hear of the papers reporting of the honest deeds of public servants. Public servants are very aware of the importance of their job and its ethical dimension. But the public may have the perception that public servants are corrupt.

Civil service directives may order that government employees not to accept presents. But that is futile, Pinoy culture loves presents. And I think that one may receive presents in appreciation for a job well done but we have to leave it at that. The giver must not expect any favours in return as the taker never expected a Christmas present in the first place.

I apply that principle with students who appreciate what I did to them in the semester. I tell them a simple note of appreciation will do, but still some give presents. I give most if not all the presents to people who need them since many of the presents I don't have use for. For example: What am I to do with five Queso de Bolas?

In Robert Bolt's play and movie "Man for all Seasons", Thomas More received a silver cup from a woman who had a case in More's court of requests. More received the gift and whilst on a boat back to Chelsea, threw the cup overboard. The boatman just in time caught it and said "This cup's worth good money!"

Obviously the cup was a bribe. More gave the cup to a social climbing student (who later would give a perjurious testimony in More's own trial for treason). In More's inquest a few years later, the cup would be brought against him. Norfolk would say "As soon as Thomas knew the gift was a bribe, he threw it to the nearest gutter!"

This leads us to the question, when to know if a gift is a bribe or not? And when we realise it is, what then?

Perhaps we could return the present to the briber. In most cases it may be too late. In More's case it was. But can we take comfort that there is a way out.

The Catholic Church teaches that bribery is a violation of the 7th Commandment. In fact bribery is a result and will result to stealing from the poor. So if follows that the bribe may be given to the poor "who are in the gutter". That is the only choice (CCC 2412).

But we have to realise that it is us who have put the poor in the gutter. So the act of gift giving is really a penance. To give presents is to diminish the giver so that the taker will increase. This is a prime Gospel value.

The was the spirit behind the first Christmas presents to the Baby. The Wise Men gave the Lord gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Wise Men recognised the Divinity of the Child and also the inevitable sacrifice He would give so that we may increase.

So if I have turned your concept of what Christmas really is, I apologise. Christmas really is redemptive since it looks into the Passion and the Resurrection. The gifts we give and receive are signs of that truth.

A Blessed Christmas to you!

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