Rethinking Cronyism




“It’s not what you know.
It’s who you know.”
Popular wisdom


Politicians give and receive special favors. CEOs are granted pay raises from friends seated on their corporate boards. The wealthy grease each other’s palms while segregating themselves from those they look down upon.

How would you describe this conduct? The term that pertains from the field of ethics is cronyism. Like nepotism, favoritism is shown toward the “in” group. The difference is that the favored group for cronyism consists of friends rather than family. Whether intended or not, the consequence of both violations is to harm others by treating them as less than equal.

If we believe cronyism is committed only by politicians, executives and elitists, perhaps we are limiting our perception. The connotation of cronyism is so nefarious and corrupt, it’s no wonder we fail to perceive it as commonplace. Or do we?

Don’t teachers who bend the rules for a favored student exhibit cronyism? How about supervisors who give a break to an appreciated employee, an action not granted for another subordinate in a similar circumstance? What about social workers dragging their feet for someone they consider a nuisance while responding promptly to a request from a favored client?

As we reflect on the frequency of cronyism, do you suppose you and I might occasionally commit this offense? Do we consistently welcome outsiders and outcasts, striving to treat them fairly? Are we guilty of favoring some coworkers over others? Even if we lack the formal power to hire, promote or fire, all of us have the informal power of personal influence.

Ancient wisdom is instructive. In the earliest days of the church, the apostles were accused of bigotry. This was a time when, facing persecution, believers bound themselves together by sharing their finances with each other. Many sold their property and gave it to the apostles to distribute to the needy. This demonstrates an extraordinary commitment to community.

Soon, however, a complaint is aired: Greek Christians accuse the apostles of ignoring the basic needs of their widows. Instead, they charge, the Aramaic-speaking Christians receive all the assistance. This is an accusation of racial discrimination. Though they share the same spiritual inheritance, Hebrews are favored over Greeks.

How do the apostles respond to this allegation? They appoint seven leaders—all Greek Christians—to distribute food to the widows. This is amazing. Instead of arguing whether or not the Greeks were treated as outsiders, they make them insiders. Instead of wondering whether these Greek leaders will be fair to the Hebrew widows, they entrust them with all the funds for this ministry.

The result of this trust is the healing of a wounded faction. An explosive issue is resolved through trust, and their mutual ministry is empowered through prayer.

Like the apostles, we would do well to admit the possibility of our own bias and respond with magnanimity. Perhaps we too can treat foes with the same care and respect we give our friends. Sometimes we can initiate trust, risking failure as we pursue the healing of wounds.

As for when we are on the side treated unjustly, like the Greeks in this incident, we can assert the imperative for equitable treatment. Like them, we must also be willing to strive for unity with those we perceive as oppressors. As Martin Luther King advocated in his 1957 address, The Power of Nonviolence, the resister of injustice “does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.”

Cronyism can only be denied its power to divide if, in the midst of strife, we seek to treat others with the justice they deny to us. This requires faith that overcomes fear, wisdom that perceives more than our wounds, and love that overcomes our impulse toward vengeance. Ultimately, cronyism is conquered by compassion.

©2004 Harry Rix. All rights reserved.

Related Articles

Enlarging Our Radius of Concern
Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
Should We Separate Politics and Spirituality?
Entering the World of the Child
Luke’s Call for Compassion

Share Button