“You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality. And you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and subverts the words of the righteous.”
– Deuteronomy 16:19
What a scripture for today! From today’s crony capitalism, to “good-old-boy” (or “good-old-gal”) systems in the church, to judges who fail to recuse themselves, to countless other conflicts of interest, the issue of favoritism or partiality is intensely relevant in an age like ours where who-you-know matters more than the merits of your case. Issues of bias and preferential treatment abound in the workplace, in the halls of government, in the community, and in the church.
Now, I must confess that my eyes are not as sharp as others’ when it comes to recognizing conflicts of interest. I’m not very clever at seeing all the strings attached in the business world, such as who owns the news channel that’s reporting a story, or which companies are paying the broker to sell their mutual funds. But what I do see is scary enough: I see my own vulnerability to bias toward people toward whom I am favorably disposed. How easy it is to be blinded by our own friendships or family ties!
The Torah warns us not to “recognize faces” (takkir panim). Elsewhere, it uses the term “to lift faces” (Lev 19:35). Likewise, the NT proclaims that God is not a “lifter of faces” (Acts 10:34, Luke 20:21, Rom 2:11, Eph 6:9, Col 3:25). God doesn’t practice favoritism by checking our face to see what color or gender or economic class we are, or to see if we’re on a preconceived friends or enemies list. Paul writes to Timothy that discipline in the church should be exercised “without partiality” (proklisis – 1 Tim 5:19-21).
Motivation in the workplace collapses if workers come to feel that rewards and punishments are being distributed unfairly. Psychologist Alan McGinnis writes, “Nice guys often make poor bosses for a simple reason. If you bend the rules for certain people, it causes confusion for the staff and a drop in morale.”
Think how often we are guilty of favoritism within the church. How often do we bend the rules or do special favors or tolerate abusive behavior because of how much the person in question has done for the church? How often have churches lowered their membership standards to keep Pat on the membership roll, because Pat’s grandmother would quit baking pies for our church dinners if we placed Pat on the inactive list? How often do we say No to Dick serving as pastor at Plumville, because we want Jane to have that church?
Sometimes it’s not so simple. Do we get our lumber and repair materials at the discount store, or do we buy them at the church member’s store, where the price is higher, but we also get free labor and ongoing service after the sale? Or the classic quandary: We strive to find people to represent every geographical group within our presbytery, then we have to disqualify them from certain judgment calls because they know the people who are involved, which is ironically why we nominated them to their positions to begin with.
It is not unfair for church policy to discriminate against persons who have proven to be untrustworthy or incompetent. But there is a fine line between earning credibility and trust, and earning special favors through a process of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” A person may try to purchase influence in the church through over-and-above giving and serving, to where it resembles bribery. God’s people must resist all attempts to buy preferential treatment, whether the price is $1,000 or half a dozen pies.
Not all bribery is a violation of the Torah. Bribery in the Third World does not always involve paying someone to break the law or change someone’s mind on a legal ruling. In some cases, it’s like tipping an underpaid public servant, or paying a higher rate to the post office to deliver your package faster. But God rejects the use of gifts to blind people’s eyes to the truth, or to “subvert the words of the righteous,” to get people to change their story or their message (yesallef). A gift is evil when it changes what people see or say.
The use of money in politics is OK when it’s used to get your message out. I didn’t like it when Sheryl Crowe bankrolled the campaign that passed the Missouri cloning law, but she had every ethical right to do so. (I didn’t hear any complaints about money in politics in her case.) What is unethical is to use money or gifts to buy the votes or support of public officials, or get them to tell a different story.
So why is it that some billionaires who are oil or Wall Street executives are evil, while other billionaires who are Hollywood stars are not? Both groups make comparable incomes. Both groups give gifts to those who are in power. It is hard to miss the conclusion that some sort of favoritism is in play to blind us to some form of inequity being practiced, but not others.
Or why does the current Attorney General refuse to prosecute clear cases of voter intimidation? Because he says the intimidators are “my people.” He has publicly stated that his race is more important than his position as Attorney General. Sounds like someone’s going to check my face first before deciding whether to protect my civil rights.
No, favoritism is not on God’s top ten list of explicit evils. But favoritism is clearly a major evil to the God of justice proclaimed in Scripture. May God open our eyes to our own blindness first, so that we may see clearly to remove it from the eye of our neighbor.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 29 years, is adjunct professor at Morthland College, West Frankfort, Ill. and is currently seeking a call.