Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Inverted Money Laundering and Perverted Burial

As a preacher’s kid, I was raised on money put in the offering plate. When I read, then, about someone robbing a church, it hits especially close to home.

The robbery of the Berean Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, merited barely a tiny paragraph in the March 5, 2009 edition of the Star Tribune (of Minneapolis-St. Paul), buried deep inside the paper. Though criminal justice tends to take a disproportionate share of the headlines, those typically go to high-profile cases like Bernard Madoff, Tom Petters, and Sara Jane Olson. But the Star Trib item on the Lincoln robbery contained at least the barebones of the police account.

A man dressed as an armored car guard pulled up to the church. He walked into the office and told an employee he was there to pick up the church’s weekly bank deposit. After being given the money, the man posing as a guard drove away, fifteen minutes before the real armored car arrived. The money may have included the biblical “widow’s mite” and been intended for the Lord’s work — but it was gone.

From the sacred to the profane, in a form of inverted money laundering. Taking money offered to God and diverting it to wrongful ends is not unknown in the church, but more often occurs through fraud perpetrated by financial officers, not through a brazen robbery.

Not long after the church in Lincoln was robbed, I went to see Matteo Garrone’s harrowing film “Gomorrah,” about the many deadly sins of the Camorra crime families and their terrible grip on Naples and the surrounding region. In a postscript to the film, Garrone describes how the Camorra launder the profits from their criminal activities by using legitimate businesses. The ill-gotten profits don’t come only from the old standbys of illegal drugs and prostitution, either. Garrone asserts that if the amount of hazardous waste under Camorra management were stacked into the sky, it would tower over Mount Everest.

Dant'e's hell famously contained a sign at the gates cautioning entrants to abandon all hope, and Garrone's “Gomorrah” comes close. Betrayal after betrayal unfolds, and homicide after homicide, in such an ineluctable, matter-of-fact manner that one's ability to be shocked becomes dulled. Not one single act of forgiveness occurs, and even small acts of basic human kindness are scarcely to be seen. Among the several interlocking stories, the closest thing to hope is the willingness of two separate characters to simply walk away. It’s like Good Friday, with the Neapolitans on the cross — and indeed, the film ends with a makeshift perversion of a burial.

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