Whistleblowers

The past months have given Canada more than its fair share of scandals. In the R.C.M.P., in the Post Office, with the Correctional Investigator and the Gomery enquiry, let alone in business ventures such as Enron, or the empire of Conrad Black, we have seen instance after instance of persons in high places enjoying the privileges, power and prestige of their positions, while lining their pockets or otherwise abusing their position at the expense of the public. To say nothing about scandals in the World Bank and the Attorney-General’s office of the United States!

It’s not something that has never happened before. Jesus tells a number of stories in the Gospels about people in positions of trust who failed in their duties. There were stewards who kept false accounts or stole from their employers, workers who complained about their agreed wage scale, or managers of a vineyard who beat up their owner’s servants, and killed his son, with the idea of later stealing his property. Jesus denounced the priests and religious leaders of his time, who “for a pretence made long prayers” while exploiting all the material and social advantages of their positions, undermining the spirit of the Law of Moses with specious interpretations.

This perhaps explains the intensity with which the chief priests and Pharisees of Jesus’s time sought his death. The great enemy of the hypocrite in high position is the ‘whistleblower’—the person who, in the public interest, makes known to authorities or to the public the misdeeds that are going on. The whole of the hypocrite’s world will collapse if the truth of his life comes to light. Prosecution, humiliation and punishment are never very far away. So the underling who ‘rats’ on those with power, or the journalist or politician who exposes corruption, will be dismissed, sidelined, denigrated, belittled, often threatened, and in many countries eliminated by imprisonment, shooting or unexplained accident.

We hear the words of the prophets of the Old Testament in church, and it is so easy to imagine them as popular figures, respected for their close contact with the Divine and their stand for morality and justice. Not so. Moses faced repeated rebellions in the wilderness. David, an innocent fugitive, was pursued by the deranged King Saul. Elijah faced four hundred prophets of Baal as well as the wrath of Queen Jezebel on behalf of the true God. Micah told King Ahab that the prophets who foresaw victory for him were led by a lying spirit, and was arrested for doing so. Jeremiah was imprisoned for suggesting defeat and counselling surrender. Amos denounced the evils of the rich of his day, and was told to leave town for his own safety. John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ himself, add to a long list of those who have stood for truth—and paid a penalty. That is what whistleblowing is all about.

A newspaper survey recently made the observation that societies that believe in eternal judgment have a better record for honesty in the public sphere than those who do not. This is not necessarily because those who have power or position fear the fires of hell, though indeed they may. Rather it is because such a society is blessed by people of conscience who have had the courage to stand for honesty and justice in the face of oppression, and have been willing pay a price for speaking out.

Edmund Burke said that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” So give a cheer for those who put their careers, and sometimes their lives, on the line in the interests of good government. Society owes them more thanks than they are ever likely to receive!

– Anglican Messenger, 2007*
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