“There is no religious justification for corruption”

“Corruption Free Religions are Possible” is the title of Christoph Stückelberger’s new book. The Swiss ethicist and theologian, founding president of Transparency International Switzerland, is convinced that religious communities must – and can – confront all forms of corruption, even within their own ranks.

Corruption-free Religions are Possible

Corruption-free Religions are Possible

The fight against corruption has been a concern for Swiss ethicist and theologian Christoph Stückelberger for many years.  In 1995, he was a driving force behind the founding of Transparency International Switzerland – just two years after the international association was established. He served as its founding president until 2003.

“Initially, I was interested in the private sector, especially multinational companies, from a development perspective. Government corruption in developing countries was also part of it,” Stückelberger explains. More and more, he says, he came across the area of corruption in education and in religions.

“Whenever corruption affects an entire society, it affects all sectors of society, including churches and religions,” Stückelberger says. Back in 2010, the ethicist published the book “Corruption Free Churches are Possible.”

The currently published book “Corruption Free Religions are Possible” is the logical extension to all religious communities, as a collaboration of various theologians, ethicists, and experts from all major religions and from all over the world.

The more hierarchical, the more vulnerable

“How can we credibly represent values in development cooperation? That was an important ulterior motive for the book,” Stückelberger emphasizes. As the former head of Bread for All, the Swiss equivalent of Bread for the World, he dealt with church and civil society partners in developing countries on a daily basis.

Churches and religions tend to be less targeted by government corruption agencies, Stückelberger said: “You don’t want to offend anyone.” Religious communities basically have a leap of faith. “Losing that bonus is all the more painful.”

Within churches and religious communities, there are big differences, both in terms of corruption and in terms of fighting it. “Protestant, Presbyterian and Methodist churches are much less susceptible to corruption than Orthodox, Pentecostal, Charismatic and Catholic churches,” Stückelberger explains.

The more hierarchical, the more susceptible, one could say in simplified terms. And the more a church leader relies on God alone, the more likely he or she is to neglect accountability and transparency through earthly rules and laws. At the same time, it should be noted that there are courageous voices against corruption in all churches.

According to Stückelberger, the openness to talk about corruption within one’s own religious communities is greater in the Christian religious communities than in the other religions. In Islam, there are strong efforts to change this, but less so in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Overall, there is a welcome trend toward more transparency within religious communities worldwide. In some countries, of course, this is also happening as a result of increasing pressure from the state.

Always an issue for religions

All the holy scriptures of the major religions talk about corruption. “Ever since there have been institutions, there has been corruption,” Stückelberger summarizes. “Even the first judges mentioned in the Old Testament were admonished 2500 years ago not to be bribed.” (Ex. 23:8) And another important aspect: all the Holy Scriptures oppose corruption because it violates justice and creates unfair conditions.

Buying votes in elections to leadership offices is the most common motive for corruption in religious communities in Africa and Asia, according to Stückelberger. “People buy the votes of synod members for leadership office. Once you get to the financial pots, you can then get that investment back.” In the same way, he said, it is common for official cars to be signed over after the term of office has expired, or for properties to be sold over or underpriced.

Finally, he said, there is also the phenomenon of sexual corruption, in that final grades or admission to a good school or university must be bought with sexual quid pro quos. “A sad chapter that occurs in all religions,” Stückelberger said.

What can religions do?

“In a nutshell: there is no religious justification for corruption,” Stückelberger emphasizes. Anyone who thinks this sentence through to its logical conclusion must take a stand against corruption as a religious leader.

Clear rules for appointments to offices are just as important, the ethicist emphasizes. “This also requires control and enforcement of electoral mechanisms.” A thorny issue, he says, is sanctions. “Church leaders need to sanction and, if necessary, suspend office bearers to show that they take their own word seriously.” Only then, he said, is one credible to the outside world.

“When a church leadership publishes a statement against corruption in the state, it often happens that its own members smile because they know how things look in their own house,” Stückelberger said. It is therefore a relief that there are now a number of religious leaders who are mobilizing on the front lines against corruption. For example, various national chapters of Transparency International are headed by religious leaders such as pastors or imams.

Cooperation between religions can greatly improve the impact of anti-corruption efforts, according to Stückelberger. “Especially in countries where a religion is already under pressure, it’s unlikely to address the issue alone, lest it come under even more pressure.”

Corruption starts small

He often encountered “petty corruption” in person in some countries, Stückelberger recalls. “If I’m stopped every few kilometers by a policeman who then finds some small thing and wants $3 to let me move on, that’s already corruption,” he explains.

He says a local colleague tipped him off about this. “In any case, ask for a receipt. And if that didn’t work, he always had some small New Testaments with him, which he then gave to the policemen. With credibility and creativity, the matter was then settled,” Stückelberger smiles. In Cameroon, a church youth group once printed deceptively genuine-looking banknotes and used them as a means of payment to policemen when they demanded unjustified payment: “When they then turned the banknotes over, they read an appeal against corruption.”

Behind the anecdotes, however, the theologian and ethicist emphasizes, is an important insight: “Corruption often starts very small.” That’s why efforts against corruption are also always a process of empowerment, of encouragement, he says: “We all have the duty, but precisely also the opportunity, to stand up against corruption.”

Note: Free download:

“Corruption Free Religions are Possible” https://www.globethics.net/documents/10131/26882169/GE_Praxis_16_isbn9782889314225.pdf

“Corruption-free Churches are Possible”


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Questions to
Christoph Stückelberger
Mobile : +41 79 419 68 12
Office : 150, route de Ferney,
CH-1211 Geneva, Switzerland

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