Righteous corruption

Sometimes you hear a talk on the radio that remains with you for years afterwards and seems to relate to all kinds of things that pop up perhaps years later. One such talk that I particularly remember was on the subject of police corruption by a senior police officer who had been involved in Operation Countryman.

He said that there were two main types of corruption in the police force. One is ordinary sleaze — police officers who take backhanders from criminals and so forth. This is relatively easy to deal with, as those who are not involved in the business strongly disapprove of it and will usually cooperate with investigators to get rid of it. The other is what he called “righteous corruption” and it is a much more serious problem.

Righteous corruption infects whole branches of the force rather than individuals. It seems to occur when the police take the metaphor of the war against crime a bit too seriously. They then come to see themselves as the only true defenders of society. Everyone else — the lawyers, the judges, the legislators — is really (unwittingly) on the side of the criminals. Consequently all legal restrictions on the way they work can and should be ignored.

Righteously corrupt police officers start from the premise that they know who the guilty men are and that it is their job to get these people into prison by any means that will work, legal or otherwise. Faking evidence, doctoring notes, beating confessions out of people, whatever it takes. All’s fair in love and war, and they are at war. And if there is any kind of investigation, they will all cover up for each other, since they all sincerely believe that they and they alone are the good guys.

I think that the concept of righteous corruption extends way beyond the police force. It pops up in all kinds of other contexts. For example, Margaret Thatcher may have suffered from a form of it. Thatcher’s policies do not seem to have been driven by the traditional Conservative desire to protect “our kind of people” from taxation, and preserve the profits (and the party political donations) of big business. For a start, she didn’t belong to “our kind of people” at all. She was lower-middle class, a shopkeeper’s daughter.

What drove her, I believe, was not class interests but a genuine moral indignation against the poor. She really was convinced that most poor people were idle and feckless, and that poverty was the appropriate punishment for them. Good people worked hard, saved up and grew rich. Bad people did not, and therefore deserved to suffer. Margaret Thatcher, in other words, was a social Darwinist.

She made it her business to remove everything that made life easier for the poor: cheap public transport, low-cost school meals for their children (not to mention free milk), a national health service that was not only free but properly resourced, sickness and unemployment benefits that were given as of right to those who had paid for them through their national insurance contributions. People would not be allowed actually to starve, but they would have to pay with constant petty humiliations for any help they got.

To justify this, she had to dismantle the previous consensus on the way a society should be run. There was, she said, no such thing as society. There were only individuals and families. The individual’s duty was clearly to grow rich for the benefit of his family. The family’s duty was to use those riches to make sure that their offspring received whatever unfair advantages might be available, so that they would grow up to become the tramplers and not the trampled on.

Margaret Thatcher’s righteous corruption shaped the world we still live in. As a Christian, I find it a morally repugnant world, but it seems to be the one we are stuck with. No later UK government, whether of the left or the right, has made any serious attempt to return to the way things were before the Thatcher revolution.

Curiously, Satan in the Old Testament also seems to suffer from righteous corruption and I think this is an interesting way to approach the problem of how evil develops. In most fantasy fiction, following Tolkien, the “Dark Lord” appears fully formed with little indication of how he got to be that way. This is also true of the traditional Christian Satan (Tolkien was after all a Catholic). The biblical Satan however is a much more complex and interesting character.

In the Book of Job, Satan is a member of the heavenly court in good standing who regularly attends meetings of the “sons of God”. He is called Satan (the Enemy) but does not seem to be God’s enemy at all. Rather he is shown as ours. Satan apparently is God’s public prosecutor. This is a job that involves constantly having his nose rubbed in human wickedness and, as a result, he has become completely cynical about human beings. Faced with a genuinely good man like Job, all he can think of is “What's in it for him?”.

The few other Old Testament passages in which he appears are consistent with this role. We see him insistent on prosecuting a man whom God has decided to acquit (Zech 3:1-2) and also acting as an agent provocateur (1 Chron 21:1). This is very much the behaviour of a good cop gone bad. But while he does tempt David to carry out a census on the people of Israel, there are no other Old Testament records of his tempting anyone (the Serpent tempts Eve of course, but the identification of the Serpent with Satan is traditional, not biblical). Even more significantly, there are no warnings anywhere in these texts about the dangers of Satanic temptation, whereas the New Testament is full of them.

Clearly somewhere along the line something has changed. The New Testament Satan is no longer God’s prosecutor. He has given up his day job and become a full-time tempter and enemy of God. It is possible of course that the New Testament writers simply had quite different ideas about Satan. They lived after all in a sophisticated urban world, much closer to ours than to the pastoral and agricultural world of the Old Testament. But the change also fits in rather neatly with the idea that Satan is actually a victim of righteous corruption. For a righteously corrupt prosecutor, there could surely be no worse disillusionment than the discovery that the judge has contrived a get-out-of-jail-free card for an entire sinful species. After that, nothing is left for him but bitter, lifelong opposition.

A question that must have arisen in many people's minds over the years is “If Satan exists, can’t God simply get rid of him? After all, God is supposed to be all-powerful, isn’t He?”. It’s the kind of question that children ask in Sunday School and I wonder how many teachers have found an answer to it. One possible answer is that you can deal with simple, straightforward wickedness that way, but not with righteous corruption. The challenge which that poses is essentially a moral one and therefore it cannot be answered by mere brute force.

So how would I deal with this situation if I were God? I think the only way would be to strip myself of my omnipotence, make myself weak and vulnerable, give Satan all the advantages and let him do his worst, then make what he has done to me the key to achieving the one thing he has been trying with all his might to prevent: the salvation of the human race. In the end the only lasting answer to righteous corruption is to show it up as morally and logical incoherent.

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