The taxi headlights stabbed the blackness—and the occasional ?donkey—as we rolled along the main road of Ongata Rongai, shuttered for the night. I stared at the dozens of darkened storefronts that lined our route, marveling that so much commerce could be crammed in so short a space. Cell phones, building materials, fresh vegetables, tools—all could be had in daylight, for a price.
And then I saw him, propped up on ol, slumped against a blue-lit wall, obviously both drunk and asleep. As if to make the dismal tableau ironically complete, the hand-painted letters above his head proclaimed in shadowed eight-inch characters—“THE WINNERS’ CLUB: BAR and BUTCHERY.”
I wondered what, in fact, he had won. A poor night’s sleep? A fogged tomorrow? A few less Kenyan shillings in his pocket? The likelihood that those who depend on him would go hungry, unwashed, lonely, cold? He had won a midnight prize he would be paying for each noon with bloodshot eyes.
And how fatefully symmetric the pairing of “BAR” and “BUTCHERY.” No doubt the owners missed the irony of their chosen name, thinking only to attract those who might wish to down three fingers of whiskey while they waited for their ribs. I found myself instead thinking of the other fingers and the other ribs—those broken in bar fights and wife beatings—generated by the Winners’ Club. What scenes of tragedy and heartbreak had been caused by this small storefront—and the dozens like it up and down the strip of this swelling suburb of Nairobi? In how many other hundreds of towns across East Africa and, indeed, around the world is the fabric of a fragile society being ripped and gouged by alcohol-fueled excess and violence?
Where is the “band of buds” loud promised on the center field signs, the companionship routinely signaled in a hundred beer commercials alight with broad smiles, short skirts, and golden suds? Truth be told—and the alcohol industry will not tell you this—for every soul who finds a quarter hour of grog-filled levity at a pub there are a dozen “winners” sleeping drunkenly alone in places like Ongata Rongai. And there are, more ominously, at least as many acts of violence and rage occurring in the houses they mistakenly call “homes,” the weapons they misnomer “cars,” and the tyrannies they describe as “marriages.” Who will calculate—and tell—the social cost of such a “winners’ club”?
Time was when readers of this magazine routinely knew the cost—in lost jobs, lost productivity, lost lives—of alcohol, and did their level best to keep their peers from “winnings” of these kinds. A century ago the pages of this journal were alive with reasons why informed and socially conscious Adventists should advocate for restricting the sale of alcohol. But as our culture has drifted libertarian in the past 50 years, we have grown quiet on this front, afraid, perhaps, that saying anything about socially destructive behaviors behaviors—like alcohol—could endanger God-given rights that build society’s health and prosperity—like the Sabbath. This is, dear friends, a scale without equivalence, a comparison unfounded.
In a typical year in the U.S. alone, 79,000 persons die from alcohol abuse, the third-leading lifestyle-related cause of death for the nation, with 1.6 million hospitalizations per year because of alcohol. Nearly 14,000 of these preventable deaths occur in alcohol-related automobile accidents.*
We may, with clear and freedom-loving consciences, advocate for tougher sanctions on alcohol abuse and its enormous social destructiveness even as we advocate for our right to keep the law of God, which no human law can abrogate. Both are consistent expressions of an Adventism that loves the neighbor just as fully as it loves the Lord.
* U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published October 13, 2011.