Kenya’s Al Capone

“When I sell liquor, it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality” – Al Capone

I have an old friend whose grandmother lived in Chicago during the Great Depression, and the days of Al Capone’s crime syndicate. Granny, along with the rest of the poor people in Chicago at the time, had a very different impression of Scarface than the history books might tell. To them he was a hero.

The reason for Capone’s standing was his philanthropy. His criminal activity (mostly bootlegging but a fair bit of prostitution as well) produced vast wealth, a small portion of which he redistributed to charitable organizations – including soup kitchens to feed the poor and hungry. In the Depression there were a lot of poor and hungry people, so there were a lot of grateful Chicagoans who lauded Capone (my friend’s grandmother was one of them).

[Side note: such criminal activity and ill-gotten wealth are the natural consequences of prohibition, whether of alcohol, drugs, or the adult sex-trade. When we move lucrative but immoral activities outside of the sphere of legal protection, they will find their own “protections” with crime syndicates, murder, enslavement, and even larger profit margins.]

So, were these Chicagoans unaware of Capone’s activities? Were they just too far removed from the victims that they didn’t care? Were they in dire need (yes) and willing to overlook murder to justify a means of deliverance? I suggest that at some level all these were true.

My friend recounted to me one time that he pressed his grandmother about Capone’s involvement in the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. Her response: “they deserved it.” Now that may be anecdotal, but it is also critical. Capone is doing “good” on the one hand (feeding the poor) and doing “bad” on the other hand (killing rival gangsters). Unable to cope with Capone being a bad man who did some venerable things (likely for fairly self-serving purposes) she had to find a reason why the bad wasn’t all that bad. The justification – his victims were bad people too, you see, so their murder was inevitable and perhaps even a good thing.

I propose to you that the themes of being unaware of the oppression, or too far removed from it, or willing to justify it based on the “badness” of the “victims” crops up in more places than Capone’s Chicago.

I was recently a non-participating observer to an interesting facebook flail regarding the re-election of Barack Obama (I know – you find this very surprising). The flail was started by a fellow who is a Christian missionary in Kenya who was rejoicing over the Obama victory and, at one point, labeling his opponents as racist. He received a fair bit of push-back from scripture-quoting Christians state-side and backed down (funny how scripture can call you out on your mess).

My main point is not the flail itself though, or the ludicrous “opposition to Obama = racism” charge, but the standing of Obama in Kenya. The president obviously has ties to Kenya. (Regardless of whether you think he was born in Kenya or Hawaii – nobody disputes that his father was Kenyan.) Kenya is a rather poor country. With 43 million citizens it has a per-capita GDP of $1746 per year. (For reference, America’s per-capita GDP is around $48,000, meaning you and I are about 27 times wealthier than our Kenyan counterparts.)

Somehow the Kenyans have convinced themselves that Obama is going to rescue them. I’m not sure exactly how it started, but the rumor in Kenya is that Obama is going to build schools and give Kenyan’s food and jobs. This, of course, was the rumor four years ago, but the jubilation continues with the re-election.

I have no idea if Obama has actually done anything regarding the Kenyan difficulties, or whether he has any plans to. And, I don’t hold him responsible at all for exuberant expressions and myths (if they are myths) promulgated by the Kenyans. But I do know that if Obama successfully “rescues” Kenya with food, and jobs, and schools, and homes, and money, money, money – he will only do it by taking the money from Americans to give to the Kenyans.

Let me say that another way, the only way Obama can rescue Kenya (in the way the Kenyans view the rescue)¬† is to plunder Americans; to “enslave” Americans (even if just a bit) and transfer the production to needy Kenyans.

Are the Kenyans just too far removed from the plunder of Americans that they don’t know a wrong is occurring (again, if it happens) to help them? Probably. Even if they are aware, are they just too ensnared with their own local difficulties (and they are difficulties) to sympathize with plundered Americans? Probably, and understandably so. Are they aware that it is only through taxation that the American government can ship aide to Kenya – and just don’t care? Hmmm.

Before answering that, let’s deal with another important question: should Americans help Kenyans with their opulent wealth? (If you’ve ever left this country for a third-world destination, you understand that we have opulent wealth.) I’d be hard pressed to come away with a “no” answer here … having read the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. But that’s not the issue here. Americans can choose to help Kenyans (and quite a few do), without being plundered against their will to do so.

But what if they are plundered? Should a poor Kenyan care that a wealthy (by comparison) American is plundered in order to bless the Kenyan? Well, if he’s a Christian he should. Or do we allow ourselves to come to the conclusion, as my friend’s Chicago grandmother did, that “they deserve it”? “Those rich Americans can afford to give up some of their wealth to help the poor, and if they don’t choose to do so freely then they should be forced to … they deserve it!” We, the followers of Christ, don’t get to make those decisions. God allowed that comparatively wealthy American to get up in the morning and make his fortune through hard work (or heck, even inheritance) and God reserves the right to judge whether he has acted benevolently.

Don’t misunderstand my point. If a generous aid package comes from the U.S. to Kenya, the Kenyans should by all means accept it. As I like to say, “if somebody’s throwing cash, stand in front of them.” And the Chicagoans of Capone’s era should absolutely have waited in line at the soup kitchen to take the handout. It is not an endorsement of the violence to eat when you’re hungry and the violent happen to through food at you. But celebrating a political victory that you hope will lead to some financial aide – even if it means the plunder of the people? (Or, for that matter, to support or vote for the violent in their efforts because you benefit from their violence … yes, this is a problem.)

I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to choose to believe the best of the Kenyans, and not the worst. I’m going to choose to believe that they don’t recognize transfer of funds from America to Kenya via force and the threat of violence (which is to say the government and taxation) as a mode of plunder and enslavement. I’m going to choose to believe that if they really recognized the Capone-esque nature of their benefactor (and his many benevolent, do-gooder predecessors in the American government) they would not condone and celebrate him. I’m going to assume that they either just don’t get it, or are so far removed from the oppression (and too overtaken by their own, very serious situation) that they can’t see through the fog.

The plight of the poor and needy around the world is a very serious situation, and we – the American church – have the resources to be impactful (and in many ways we are … but we don’t advertise them). We certainly need to be mindful of the situations our brothers are facing around the world – because we would want them to help us if our situations were reversed. Regardless, we do not condone plundering the “rich man” when he fails in benevolence. God has reserved judgment to Himself, and we leave room for that.

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