The Indian thinker Vishal Mangalwadi tells the story in his book Truth and Transformation: A Manifesto for Ailing Nations of attending a conference in the Netherlands, sometime in the early 80s. Their host wanted to get some milk, so they walked into the countryside to a dairy where 100 cows were milked, but where no one was present to sell the milk. Their host simply filled his jug with fresh milk, and then put his payment for the milk into a bowl full of cash that no one was tending.
Vishal said to him, “if you were an Indian, you would take the milk and the money.”
A few years later Vishal told this story in Indonesia, and an Egyptian gentleman in the audience laughed the loudest. As all eyes turned to him, he explained, “We Egyptians are cleverer than Indians. We would take the milk, the money, andthe cows!”
Why did this system of voluntary payments work so well on that Dutch farm? Perhaps you are thinking that this is required of all people who constitute a society, especially when your sense of identity and personhood is so closely linked with the other people of that society. Japanese people may be very loyal followers of the moral mandates of Japanese society, paying for the milk even when no one is looking to make sure the milk is not stolen.
But, what do you do when people from another society, another culture, enter your society? How do they know what is expected of them? What compels them to be honest?
I wrote the book Taming the Beast: Can We Bridle the Culture of Corruption? because of my work as a campus minister amongst international students at the University of Minnesota for the past 30 years. Early on, as we sat together with our Cokes, or cups of tea in the case of most Asians, I found that the single most aggravating fact of life back home in their countries was corruption. They had come to America to study, and discovered a society where daily interactions involve a degree of trust, and where, when trying to get drivers licenses, or dealing with a traffic cop who has pulled you over, or the desire that your child gets a good grade, or conducting almost any kind of business, doesn’t involve bribes.
I explored Christian ethics textbooks, and I rarely found one that ever mentioned bribery or corruption. Is the Bible silent on the topic? But, wait a minute: There are about 30 verses that speak directly to bribery, and another 50 verses address corruption in general.
What could I tell my international student friends from around the world, many of whom are future leaders of their societies? Is Christianity only about eternity, or is it relevant to life here on earth, especially to injustice like corruption?
What I learned as I wrote the book is that the heart of corruption is inside each of us, and that we will make no progress taming the beast, bridling the culture of corruption that infests most societies around the world, unless we face this central fact.
Corruption is rooted inside each of us because we are predisposed to sin. That goes all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden. Jeremiah 17:9 says, that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and exceedingly corrupt.”
This idea—we call it original sin—-that every human being has an evil nature within them is extremely abhorrent to many people today. And yet I tell my students that the reason why America has relatively little corruption is because our Puritan founders cultivated consciences that were tender and troubled. They believed relief for their troubled consciences came only from Jesus Christ.
Cotton Mather, one of the truly great Puritan pastors in New England, designed a catechism, that is, a statement of beliefs taught to adults and children, that included the following:
Question: What is your Birth-sin? Response: Adam’s sin imputed to me, and a corrupt nature dwelling in me.
Sarah Osborn may have been a distant relative by marriage—we don’t know—but the book Sarah Osborn’s World, published by Yale University Press, is filled with quotes from her diary as a Rhode Island schoolteacher in the middle of the 18thcentury. This dear woman was exceedingly generous amidst her poverty, but to read her diary you find that she condemned herself for her sin while always simultaneously celebrating the fact that only Jesus could save a wicked woman like her.
Watch for Part Two next week.