The Psalms on Bribery

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We are learning about the spirituality Psalms by carefully reading Psalm 26. We are in the penultimate strophe of the Psalm, where we beg to be kept far from sin. But the last line of that strophe takes a surprising turn. The first line identified “sinners” generally. The second called them “men of blood,” describing sin as violence. The third spoke generally of “crime” on their hands. But this final line says, “And their right hand is full of bribes.”

The word bribery occurs only a couple times in the Psalms, but it points to a deeper concept that is ubiquitous – and to which Pope Francis has drawn attention by his calling for a Church “poor and for the poor.”

The Psalms say, “Blessed is he that considers the poor” (41:1). The Psalmist repeatedly identifies himself as poor, and says that God’s king (which, depending on the reading, could be God himself, the Messiah, or those who do as God wills) “shall judge for the poor, and save the children of the needy” (72:4). So we too are told, “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy” (82:3), where as he will be cut off who “remembered not to show mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart” (109:16).

Examples could be multiplied. But the point is well made with the example of bribery. To take a bribe is to choose the rich over the poor because we choose self-interest over justice. The poor are vulnerable precisely as those who cannot pay bribes: who need to be treated right because it is the right thing to do, and not because we can profit from them.

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Consider the Church’s traditional teaching on usury.

I’ll spare you at the front and say I don’t think everything the banking industry does is usury, and my point is not to condemn any particular financial practice, but to bring out a more generally applicable principle.

Usury is defined as making money off of someone else’s desperation. You are so desperate for bread that you beg me for some money. I tell you I’ll help you out – but for a price: only if I can make money off of you.

Usury is defined by its difference from trade or partnership. In trade and partnership, both parties benefit. Normally, if you buy bread for me, I get money I need for other things, you get bread, and everyone benefits. The word “interest” is meant, at least in theory, to suggest that both parties are interested in the success of a venture: as if I lend you a ship, or money to buy a ship, so that you can take your products to market, and we both benefit from your success.

Usury, to the contrary, is defined by my making money off of a person without really helping them. It is like bribery: I don’t care about giving you justice, I just want profit. I don’t care about you, I care about money, and me.

It’s only a little over-simplifying to say that the heart of Catholic Social Thought is simply the condemnation of the theory (a standard one in the United States) that you can treat another human person as merely an opportunity for profit. No, says the Church, never. You must always treat another human person as a human person, whether they are your employee, your customer, a beggar, or whatever. Basic justice – treating other people right – can never be set aside in favor of self-interest.

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Let us return from social thought to our spiritual lives more generally – Catholic social thought is really just an application of true Christian spirituality to the marketplace.

Our Psalm – and all the places the Psalms invoke poverty, orphans, widows, etc. – treats bribery as a kind of paradigm for all sin. It is not bribery to ask someone to do their fair share. Bribery means I don’t care what’s fair, I just care what benefits me.

The poor are those vulnerable to bribery. How often we come across people and situations where my material self-interest and the right thing to do come in conflict. As in economics, much of the time we can work together on an even keel. But when someone is wounded or impoverished, we have to treat them right even though they can’t repay us.

It is true with the beggar on the street, of course. But it is also true with the wounded coworker, with the needy child, or the exhausted spouse – who, but for us, would be left a widow. We must do the right thing, respect their human dignity, even when we have nothing to gain by it. And that is a challenge.

Think of someone in your life who is emotionally needy. Do you ever look for personal benefit instead of their human dignity?

eric.m.johnston

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