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O people, cause no corruption in the earth and dispute not with men; for, verily, this is not worthy of those who have chosen in the shelter of their Lord a station which shall indeed remain secure. – Baha’u’llah, Tablet of the Branch.
When the Panama Papers documents initially leaked—all 11.5 million of them—they made sensational headlines all over the world. Political leaders, business tycoons and wealthy celebrities were named, identified as the principals of shell companies that hid billions of dollars from legitimate taxation. A hue and cry went up from many quarters, demanding that countries tighten their banking laws and stop serving as tax havens for the superrich. Corruption and graft figured heavily into the story, too, because many of the politicians and elected leaders had no visible source of income beyond their relatively small salaries.
It is difficult, after all, to earn a billion dollars when your salary wouldn’t add up to that much in a thousand years.
Perhaps, many pundits thought and wrote, this kind of obvious corruption will make people distrust government even further. You think?
Worldwide, confidence in governments has fallen dramatically over the last few decades. Estrangement from the political process, already at very high levels, has increasing rapidly. Protest candidates from outside the political system; a sense of powerlessness and isolation; a widespread belief that all governments are corrupt; and a general conviction that government no longer operates for the good of the people but instead serves only a wealthy elite—each of these symptoms of political alienation have demonstrated their growing strength in countries all over the world.
Polls show that the erosion of public trust in government—a worldwide phenomenon—began occurring in the 1960s, when civil unrest, assassinations, unnecessary wars and political scandals proliferated; and when the news media more readily reported on them. The Pew Research Center has asked Americans whether they trusted their government since 1958, and reports that 77% said they did in 1964—but within a decade, the level of trust plummeted to less than 25%. Today, it stands at the lowest level ever measured: 19%.
The Gallup World Poll reached similar conclusions in its recent survey of global confidence in the national governments of developed nations conducted for the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Polling across all 34 OECD member countries showed that overall trust had also decline to a new low of 40%.
In general, we don’t seem to trust our leaders—so what can we do about that lack of trust? How can we root out and get rid of the corruption that seems to plague our politics and our governments?
The Baha’i teachings offer one central solution:
It is obvious that not until the people are educated, not until public opinion is rightly focused, not until government officials, even minor ones, are free from even the least remnant of corruption, can the country be properly administered. Not until discipline, order and good government reach the degree where an individual, even if he should put forth his utmost efforts to do so, would still find himself unable to deviate by so much as a hair’s breadth from righteousness, can the desired reforms be regarded as fully established.
Furthermore, any agency whatever, though it be the instrument of mankind’s greatest good, is capable of misuse. Its proper use or abuse depends on the varying degrees of enlightenment, capacity, faith, honesty, devotion and high-mindedness of the leaders of public opinion. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 16.
The civilizing virtues of honesty, duty and loyalty so central to human progress are cultivated by the language of the heart and the voice of conscience. Legal imperatives and penalties, while essential, are limited in their efficacy. To draw upon the spiritual roots of motivation that lie at the heart of human identity and purpose is to tap the one impulse that can ensure genuine social transformation. From the Baha’i perspective, then, the emergence of public institutions that engender public trust and that are devoid of corruption is intimately bound up with the process of moral and spiritual development. As Baha’u’llah confirms: “So long as one’s nature yieldeth unto evil passions, crime and transgression will prevail.” – Overcoming Corruption and Safeguarding Integrity in Public Institutions: A Baha’i Perspective, statement from the Baha’i International Community, pp. 2-3.
Ultimately, Baha’is believe, the moral character of every leader—and every human being—relies on that person’s level of spiritual development:
After the moral aspect of humanity becomes readjusted, then the greatest unity will be realized; but without this moral readjustment it is impossible to establish harmony and concord, for it is a fact that war, conflict, friction and strife are but the visible results of deterioration of morality and corruption of character. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 176-177.
The only real and lasting way to end corruption, the Baha’i teachings say, has to start with the individual:
For you I desire spiritual distinction — that is, you must become eminent and distinguished in morals. In the love of God you must become distinguished from all else. You must become distinguished for loving humanity, for unity and accord, for love and justice. In brief, you must become distinguished in all the virtues of the human world — for faithfulness and sincerity, for justice and fidelity, for firmness and steadfastness, for philanthropic deeds and service to the human world, for love toward every human being, for unity and accord with all people, for removing prejudices and promoting international peace. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 187.
Next: Making Governments Trustworthy Again