Beware the quiet call to corruption

In the Biblical book of Proverbs, two odd sayings, almost identical, appear just a few verses apart: “Diverse weights and diverse measures are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (20:10); and “Differing weights are an abomination to the Lord, and false scales are not good” (20:23).

Why is God getting upset about kilograms and centimetres?

Quick translation: God hates there being one standard for the rich and another for the poor. God hates unfair systems. And corruption wrecks good systems.

The construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s and 1880s, at the time projected to be the longest bridge in the world, was tremendously difficult. New challenges faced the engineers and construction workers at every turn, sometimes with lethal risks: at least 20 people died due to the project, including its architect, John Roebling.

It was nonetheless possible to build such a bridge and for it to be safe for the millions who would later cross it. Washington Roebling had taken over from his father as chief engineer, and he knew that if everyone just did his or her part, his father’s design would triumph.

But corruption threatened the bridge’s very sinews.

The trustees of the bridge project, some of them doubtless in the pay of William M. “Boss” Tweed and other shady officials, maneuvered to keep the Roebling family out of contracts for the crucial cables on which the success of the bridge literally hung. The Roebling company’s cables were among the best in the world, but “conflict of interest” was hypocritically sounded at the trustees’ meeting, and the contract went instead to J. Lloyd Haigh of Brooklyn.

Haigh’s company, however, mixed in bad wire for good in the cables. Roebling’s son Washington, who took over as chief engineer when his father died, found out about the defective wire—but not in time. To this day, the Brooklyn Bridge has corruption running right through it, with weak wire in place of strong. Only the Roeblings’ specifications to make the cables six times stronger than they had to be has kept everyone safe. The cables are, now, four times stronger than necessary.

As Canada’s SNC-Lavalin corruption scandal proceeds to light up the evening news, our American cousins are dealing with a scandal in college admissions. Dozens of rich Americans (and at least one Canadian) have been swept up in an operation exposing bribery and fraud on a massive scale as parents sought to put their unqualified children into chosen universities. And since those universities have limited spaces, those unqualified children pushed out those who had earned those spots instead.

That’s what corruption does. It alters the system that, if working properly, benefits everyone—everyone gets the same shot at each opportunity. It alters the system that, if working properly, benefits everyone—every person gets to travel safely across the bridge.

Corruption always benefits only some: those who can pay and the wicked who collaborate with them. And it always hurts the poor the most: those whose hope rests only on getting a fair chance at success.

Corruption doesn’t occur only in high places, of course. In my occupation, there is constant pressure to be corrupt: to give this student a higher grade, or even whole classes higher grades, because…well, there’s always a “good” reason. And no matter how plausible the excuse or extreme the situation, it always amounts to corruption that hurts others.

How does it hurt others? Because the rest of the university, and the rest of society, trusts teachers to tell the truth about how competent our students are. And awarding a first-class designation to second-class performance, or passing a student whose work really doesn’t measure up, makes it harder for other students and job applicants (who legitimately earned their grades and whose success is now diminished by comparison) and harder for prospective employers (who rely on universities to maintain good standards).

It also finally hurts the student himself or herself, since getting into positions you don’t deserve and cannot handle will eventually come back on you—the Proverbs are pretty clear about that dynamic, too.

It’s getting close to final exam time. And income tax season is upon us. And a dozen other ways of “finessing the system” (= cheating and lying) arise on every hand. If we’re horrified by the SNC-Lavalin bribes and we’re disgusted by the college-admission schemes, let’s be honest about our own pressures and propensities to cut corners and grease the wheels. And let’s do the right thing—to benefit everyone.

As the supermarket checkout magazines love to remind us, “Celebrities? They’re just like us!”

Yes, they are.

5 I like it
0 I don't like it

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).