Bernie Madoff: A Disaster of Biblical Proportions–and Meaning

I’ve been doing a little “Rocky Mountain High” in Colorado the last few days so I’ve not been blogging much, but during that time the whole Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff has broken.  For most investors, smarting from the already gargantuan losses in the stock market, it doesn’t have much impact (yet, at least.)  But for me, coming from Palm Beach, it’s both riveting and instructive.

A little explanation at the start is helpful.  Students of the New Testament are very familiar with the division of humanity into Jew and Gentile: “And in his human nature put an end to the cause of enmity between them–the Law with its injunctions and ordinances–in order to create, through union with himself, from Jew and Gentile, one New Man and thus make peace.” (Ephesians 2:15)  Unfortunately that division is still very much alive in Palm Beach, as I discussed in my 2005 piece Join the Club (Maybe Not!) Madoff socialised (and recruited) many of his clients at the Palm Beach Country Club, which we used to refer to as the “Jewish Country Club;” in fact, the Club itself is one of his victims.  That leads me to point out something else important: most of his clients/victims are Jewish, although the impact of his collapse is now reverberating throughout many financial institutions around the world.

I’ve seen some comments which would lead one to believe that situations like Madoff’s are largely Jewish in nature, but this is not the case.  I’ve seen this kind of thing at work in the Evangelical world.  Someone comes along in church circles, claiming special financial genius and high rates of return coupled with being a great Christian.  He or she (usually male) signs up some prominent people in the church and/or Christian circles, which puts pressure on the rest of us to get in on the action.  Put another way, it’s very hard to make a putt when your golf buddies are over there crowing about how well their investments are doing with __________, and I guess there were many putts missed at the Palm Beach Country Club on account of Madoff’s clients doing this.  Once they’ve gotten everyone (including you) on board, they tank, leaving everyone broke.

There are two important differences between such Evangelical scam artists and Madoff.

The first is that many Evangelicals of this kind claim that God tells them what to invest in.  My guess is that Madoff never made this claim for himself.

The second is the sheer enormity of the losses.  No Evangelical could ever corral enough people and money to do this.  It is a disaster of Biblical proportions, and it’s no accident that such a gargantuan loss took place amongst God’s chosen people.  The same people whose ancestors witnessed the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea and the collapse of the walls of Jericho are watching their investments do the same thing.

Anti-Semites who gripe about how Jewish people control such a disproportionate portion of the world’s wealth never stop and think about why this is so.  The blessings that God gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants have never stopped, and that includes special intelligence and industry.  Out of that comes the ability to assemble and manage vast wealth.

But blessings that come can be lost.  In addition to taking advantage of the “herd instinct” of his own people, Madoff managed to circumvent the weak oversight that our government exerted over his operation.  That has led some to cry for more oversight.  Some of this is justified, but it leads us into the next trap: attempting to use oversight as a substitute for people of integrity.  Oversight’s limits are severe in an environment where people act without conscience.

It’s not an understatement that the whole Evangelical view of how a righteous society should operate is based on the Tanakh, the Old Testament.  A large part of that is that people should first act with integrity and transparency, accountable to God himself:

Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:6-8)

Coupled with that is a respect for what people have, especially people that don’t have much.  Although many of Madoff’s clients were wealthy (note the past tense,) others weren’t.  The Old Testament shows God’s displeasure at those with little having that taken away, and that includes the sovereign, be it David with Bathsheba or Ahab with Naboth’s vinyard.  It’s also not an accident that, at the end, protection of what one has is a part of God’s earthly paradise:

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it.  (Micah 4:4)

Madoff has made them afraid by betraying their trust.

In the end justice needs to be done here.  In our court system, it will take a long time.  But we who claim to reject “replacement theology” and also claim to know the Scriptures must see that the disaster of Madoff’s making must be a lesson to us.  There is no substitute for upright living and transparent dealing–not the Law, not the sacrificial system, not even whatever special spiritual gift that God has given us.  That kind living is what God expects of us, as he expected it (and still does) of his special chosen people, the Jews.

“You Samaritans do not know what you worship; we know what we worship, for Salvation comes from the Jews.” (John 4:22)  Jesus Christ himself noted this to the Samaritan woman.  Salvation indeed comes from the Jews.  That process is described here. But the Old Testament speaks of the Jews’ mistakes too.  It’s easy to concentrate on them, but ultimately were it not for the mistakes the salvation wouldn’t be as significant: “And for this, I tell you, her sins, many as they are, have been pardoned, because she has loved greatly; but one who has little pardoned him, loves but little.” (Luke 7:47)

Bernard Madoff has given us an expensive lesson.  Like those in the Scriptures, it’s our duty to learn from it.

Postscript: after I wrote this, Joyce Reingold posted a link to this, an article in the New York Social Diary about “Jewish Society in Old Palm Beach.” For those of us from Palm Beach or aficionados of the subject, both photos and reading are fascinating.

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