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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
An Address at Colston Hall, Bristol, on September 21st, 1880
From The Baptist Magazine, 1881
Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.
Take this subject because I think some recent events prove the necessity for a more earnest consideration of the question than is usually given to it. The disclosures that have been made of the corruption practised in so many cities of the land prove that bribery is a sin which easily besets us. The amusement inseparable from the unveiling of futile knavery tends somewhat to dull the edge of the disgust we ought to feel, while the high character of many drawn into the commission of these crimes, instead of quickening our watchfulness, is apt to produce a feeling that there can be nothing very wrong in what is done by men so respectable.
I know there is a danger always attendant on preaching on the sins of absentees. We deal best with those sins committed by the sinner in the pulpit, and next best with those of the people in the pews. There is a danger of gathering complacency under protests against others' wrongs. Still this fault lies palpably before us all—a fault of huge dimensions, marking both of the great parties in the State, and threatening, if it extend itself, the gravest injury to our national well-being. It is well that the pulpit should speak on such a matter, and endeavour to turn the interest existing in it into some line of meditation which would prove useful to replace corruption with patriotism.
I wish to lay before you, first, some general considerations on the sin of bribery; and, secondly, the great illustration of it furnished by the text.
I. THE SIN OF BRIBERY IN GENERAL
I can quite understand that there are many amongst the two or three millions of voters in the United Kingdom who have never thought of the duties and responsibilities of an elector. They do not know why they have a vote, or what they should do with it; and, finding many anxious to get it, they not unnaturally set themselves to sell it to the highest bidder. Doubtless, He who makes all proper allowance for our faults will find some receivers of bribes of whom He will say, "They knew not what they did," and on that score will more easily "forgive them." But if you cannot blame the ignorant and the degraded, the case is different with those possessed of mental and moral intelligence.
What is an elector? What is this vote about the giving of which such fuss is made? It cannot be too clearly recognised that every elector is one of the rulers of this great empire, and that his vote is something by which he helps to determine what the policy of England is to be. We have inherited from the patriotism and energy of our forefathers a well-conditioned State; laws fairly equal for rich and poor; liberty so perfect that it leaves us free to do whatever we desire, so long as we do not injure others; and an order so calm that it permits the development of national wealth and prosperity in the highest degree.
Each elector has in his keeping the charge of the national well-being. According as he votes carefully or carelessly, he will confirm the well-being of the people, or will enfeeble it. There is no blessing to the people greater than a wise Parliament; there is no curse more grievous than a foolish one. According as the body of electors shall use their power well or ill, we shall have a Parliament able to aid the progress of the people, to remedy injustice, to restrain vice, to foster trade, and to preserve the incalculable blessings of peace; or a Parliament incompetent, and perhaps indifferent, to accomplish these great things.
A vote, therefore, is a trust committed to us by the nation, to be used for the nation's good. It is not ours to do what we like with it; it is ours as trust-money may be ours—something of which we have the care, but of which those for whom we keep it are to have the benefit. If a judge sold his verdicts, there would be but little difficulty in seeing at once the wrong of that offence. Everyone would feel at once the crime of such a violation of an honourable trust—the wickedness of deciding on any considerations excepting the right and the wrong of the case before hint
Every voter is a judge, and every vote is a verdict; and to give, for money, a vote thoughtlessly or against the conscience, is a crime of the same kind as the selling of a verdict to one who wants more than justice would allow him.
To those men who have taken bribes recently, it was nothing what might become of their country—whether legislation was to be just or unjust—whether the well-being of the people was to be advanced or curtailed. They gave their verdict in that great Court in which the electors of England were a jury sitting on one of the gravest causes that ever came for judgment before a people, not to the party which in their judgment had justice on its side, but to plaintiff or defendant indifferently, according as one or other was most inclined to buy the verdict to which he feared he was not in justice entitled.
If a vote is thus a trust with which we are charged for the well-being of the nation, and if to give it carelessly or against our convictions is a crime the same in kind as, and differing only in degree from, that of selling verdicts in a court of law, the greatness of that sin will be still more clearly seen by observing how many are affected by what is done.
Our English empire contains somewhere about 320 millions of souls; our electoral constituency consists of a body of about 2½ millions. So that, taking the empire through, there is only one voter to every hundred subjects of the British Crown.
Every elector, on the average, can affect by his vote the well-being of a hundred of his fellow-subjects. He is the mouth-piece of a hundred persons who have no other representative. If he addresses himself to the discharge of his duty aright, informing himself of all that bears on the questions submitted to him, he has the satisfaction of doing what tends to promote materially the welfare of, on the average, a hundred human beings. If, thinking only of guzzling and drink, or moved only by greed, he votes without thought, or against his judgment of what is right, he has the blame of having acted in a way which tends directly to injure, and may injure materially, the well-being of a hundred of his fellow-men.
If we knew the abject poverty in which hundreds of millions in India exist, who have no vote of their own by which to influence the administration of their affairs; if we knew the abject poverty of millions in Ireland who are in the same case; and if we knew how much it can be proved by experience that a Parliament of wise, honest, courageous men may do to improve the condition of their fellow-subjects, and how much a foolish Parliament can add to their misery, I believe there are very few even of the most corrupt of our electors who would not, from very compassion, repent of their levity and greed, and address themselves to the discharge of a voter's duty with the most careful and honest resolve to help their suffering fellow-men to better laws.
I have spoken of the sin of receiving a bribe to violate a trust. If it be a sin to receive a bribe, what must it be to offer one? Here it is well to tread humbly. Perhaps, had we been tempted, we would, like others, have fallen—have fancied, like Herod when he ordered John to be beheaded, that really such a sin was an absolute necessity. At the same time, if we have to judge those gently who commit the crime, we must not call evil good, or blind ourselves to the greatness of the crime which they have committed. To give a man money to tell a lie—how dark and guilty a thing is that! To become seducers—to use our influence and wealth to get men to be less honest, less truthful, less patriotic—to lower their self-respect--- to help them on the way to the hell which is the special doom of the liar—what an atrocity!
Gold is given men to do good with—to lessen misery, not to destroy virtue—to multiply the joys of men, not to increase their vices. Leave the devil unhelped. He is a seducer sufficiently strong without respectable men enlisting in his service and doing his work. If we cannot reach title or place without corrupting the morals of another, let us remember that it is an honest man's part to go without it, and that he will do so. If, for the sake of adding two letters to his name, a man does that which makes people liars by the score, no kindliness of natural disposition, no respectability which in other directions he exhibits, ought to keep us from branding his action as one of the greatest crimes which a man can commit.
It will not do to say, “We are not our brothers' keepers.” In a world where conflict is stern—where it is hard to rise, and easy to go astray—our fellowmen have a right to all the help we can give them in the attainment of whatever is honest and just and good. If, on the contrary, we help them to be liars and hypocrites—to neglect the interests of those for whose good they are entrusted with political power—to debauch themselves with drink,—however painful the judgment of the human tribunal may be at which we have to avow our faults, there is another tribunal at which all the moral injury we have inflicted will find a. more searching scrutiny, and, if unrepented, a more terrible award.
There is one other consideration which may not add much to our-impression of the sin of bribery, but which will suggest the mischief of it. They who corrupt others must be themselves corruptible. It may be that they would not take a money-bribe; they may have too much self-respect, or too much wealth, for that. But it is obvious that they who have so slight a conception of the duties of the voter, and such a contempt for the idea of his honesty, will not have a very exacting sense of the duty of their representative. They will represent the looseness and indifference of their constituency better than its interests.
General corruption in the constituencies of any land has always been faithfully reflected in the general corruption of the governing bodies of that land. Men who have bought parliamentary power will never feel much responsibility as to its employment, and will probably feel that. they have a right to sell it—it may be for place, it may be for title it may be simply to keep the favour of their party—but for some such price they will always be ready to sell the verdict they should pronounce according to truth and justice.
We want men who will go to Parliament, not to air their dignities, but to take a grave and enlightened part in furthering the good of those who compose this great empire. Let bribery flourish, and it is simply an impossibility that such an empire as ours can thrive or even endure. Should corruption become the general characteristic of the constituencies of the land, there will be folly in our legislation, recklessness, neglect, needless wars—the absence at once of the effort and the power to promote the moral well-being of the people.
Put all these considerations together, and there will be little need to add more to demonstrate that bribery is one of those sins which are demoralising to individuals and dangerous to the community in such a degree that all honest persons should visit them with the severest reprobation.
But a general discussion does not strike the imagination with the force of a fact. I would therefore seek to enforce my general argument by drawing your attention to:
II. THE GREAT ILLUSTRATION OF BRIBERY FURNISHED BY OUR TEXT
The greatest crime in human history was done for a bribe. To all ages, Caiaphas and his fellows stand as the specimens of those who give, and Judas Iscariot as the type of those who receive, bribes. It was the case of a man taking a bribe of £15 or £20 to betray his Master and Friend. The worst bribe ever given or taken, it presents, in all its naked hatefulness, the features of evil which every bribe presents in a lesser degree. Observe a few of the features of the story.
1. Men unscrupulous in expending money.—People that have five-pound notes to give away have temptations proportioned to their wealth. A careless lavishness may foster infinite evil; and the abuse of wealth in corrupting men stands as high in sin as the use of it in blessing men stands in sanctity.
2. You have here one too greedy of gold.—It is strange that so few seek to guard themselves against this. There are few things so dearly bought as gold. Some give all their leisure to get it, some all their thought; some part with their self-respect, some with their peace of mind; some sell all their manliness, some all their virtue. Here greed drives Judas to that crime which was the marvel of hell itself! Brethren, we are all fond of money; let the example of Judas set us on our guard against it.
3. Observe, further, that some delude themselves by supposing that the guilt belongs only to him who takes the bribe, while the advantage remains with those who give it.—Such was the feeling expressed by the priests. When, in the bitterness of remorse, Judas comes confessing that he has sinned in betraying innocent blood, how significant is the contempt with which they speak! "Of course you have; but what have we to do with it? That is your look out. See thou to that"
Just as to-day men look with loathing and contempt on the wretched creatures who receive their bribes—pitying them, condemning them, pluming themselves on the possession of a degree of honour which could stoop to nothing so low, and complacent in the idea that the elector gets the money and the guilt, while they get the honour and the advantage.
These priests were a little premature in their complacency. God parceled out the guilt on other principles, and did not let them off so easily.
They who instigate and profit by a crime are, even in the eyes of human law, reckoned as partakers of its guilt; and this idea, that we can deftly get the advantage and leave to others the guilt of a crime, will be found in our experience as delusive to us as it was to the high-priests.
4. Lastly, observe the bribe accepted doing no good to him who took it. —So little, that he was more eager to get quit of the money than to get hold of it. It burnt him as if it had been heated in hell-fire! So he casts it down on the floor of the Temple. It so embitters life, that he goes and hangs himself!—ends hope, and perfects his perdition!
No bribe has ever done the man who took it any good. The money you work for brings with it a blessing from God. You can increase your children's welfare with it. You can use it to some good purpose. But gold got dishonestly is only a curse. It is drank; it is squandered; or, if saved, it breeds meanness, and genders an evil readiness for action still worse. It is an example to a man's children - which trains them to low and greedy thoughts and vilest ways.
If such be the considerations that should weigh with us, and such the illustration that should deter us, what are we to do? We cannot secure unity of sentiment. There will always be (it is desirable that there should always be) parties differing in their views—one looking chiefly to the good which exists, and desiring to conserve it; another looking to the additional good that may be, and labouring to attain it. Such a division is natural and proper, and is not to be regretted. Nor should we desire any diminution of zeal in the political activities of the people.
We have inherited a grand possession in English liberty and English law. The welfare of England is an object of interest to all mankind, as well as to ourselves. She is the great mother of free nations, and whatever abates her prosperity or honour impedes the sacred cause of freedom.
If we rightly saw all that is involved in the prosperity of England, we should feel that we need a higher and a holier patriotism—one that will seek to do a citizen's duty with all the intelligence we can bring to it. We need the highest honour we can bring to our task. We may not vote otherwise than our honest judgment prescribes on any account—not to please a friend, not to gain some advantage for our own trade, not to secure the triumph of any lesser cause in which our heart is interested.
We are put in trust by God with more power than most of us imagine. Let us use it honestly, wisely, thinking only of the nation's good; and, in a larger degree than we think possible, the blessing of God will rest upon our land, whilst amongst the rewards with which at last our gracious Saviour will crown all that is right and holy in our lives, not the least will be that which is bestowed on the integrity which defies all efforts to corrupt it, and which seeks to ,do a citizen's duty with a single eye to the nation's good.