Madoff in Hell

Bernie Madoff stood before the judge today for sentencing and received a 150-year sentence. We were told he would be allowed to doff his jail-issued uniform for the occasion. The judge gave permission for him to put on his cashmere-blended pants one more time, likely the last time he will ever touch the rewards of his life of betrayal. Betraying other people has consequences.

As the news continued to unfold last winter about the astonishing $65 billion Ponzi scheme constructed by the inimitable Bernie Madoff, we found ourselves endlessly fascinated and horrified. We gazed in on the financial carnage as if we were witnessing a car wreck. Who were these innocent people who could be so gullible? Might we be just as dumb given the chance?

And who was this stone-cold man who could take money from friends and strangers alike, from charities and universities and synagogues, well aware that the whole structure would one day collapse like a house built on sand?

Ultimately I felt a chill settle in. This thing was chilling.

At least when a sociopath murders innocent victims, we can dismiss such things as utterly aberrant, insane. Madoff’s scheme was cool and rational and calculated. He seemed so normal as he walked the streets of New York with his baseball cap, his dignified wings of grey hair blowing in the breeze. We called him Bernie. He looked like an uncle.

The great medieval poet Dante can tell us why chilling is the best descriptor for Bernie Madoff. Dante thought the lowest levels of hell were frozen in ice, and he believed those lowest levels were preserved for people who betrayed their friends. (I read a piece back in March by Ralph Blumenthal in The New York Times that alerted me to these thoughts about Dante and Bernie Madoff. I was intrigued. I headed off to re-read the complete Inferno. If you haven’t lived in this book since college, try it again. I recommend it, especially Robert Pinsky’s translation.)

In Dante’s great work, written in the early 14th Century, those who betrayed the trust of others were located down in the Ninth Circle of hell, down “at the bottom of the universe.” By the time we get down to the Ninth Circle, we have already passed those consumed with lust (where they are now endlessly tossed about by wind), down past the gluttons, the angry ones, the heretics, even the violent.

Down there “beyond all others ill-begot,” the Ninth Circle is the eternal home for the betrayers. The betrayers are encased in ice; only their eyes are visible above the surface. Chilling indeed.

Betrayal is the ultimate denial of our humanity, Dante believed, the deepest violation of God’s notion of human flourishing. Here we find Cain and Brutus and, worst of all, Judas. The head of Judas is lodged between the fangs of Lucifer. Lucifer’s claws “sliced/ And tore the skin until his back was stripped.” This goes on daily, eternally. This is the fate of the betrayers.

Think about it. Betrayal is profoundly frightening, destructive, hurtful, so very hard to repair. It is damaging personally. It is damaging to our companies, our churches, our society. Think about the betrayal of a colleague at work. Think about betrayal in marriage. Think about the damage of even small betrayals of gossip. All the way from these seemingly small betrayals to Bernie Madoff’s bilking of billions of dollars from his friends, there is a theme. Something is very broken here. Something very chilling.

Dante got it right. Betrayal signals that our hearts are frozen. Betrayal sends us to the deepest pits of separation from others and from God. It is from these icy depths that we long for forgiveness, for grace, for the redemptive warmth of God’s love.

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Categories: Economy

8 replies

  1. MSNBC reported Madoff “said he lives “in a tormented state now, knowing all the pain and suffering I’ve created.” Sounds very Dantelike.

    But I don’t believe him. Not really. I think his “tormented state” is the torment caused by outliving his scheme.

  2. I had never thought about the personal side to his doings – betrayal to his friends! And yet God offers hope for ones such as this. This encourages introspection and prayer. Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. I think that is a very good comparison. And it got me thinking – could it be that every mean and malicious deed has betrayal at its root? Even when these deeds occur between strangers, they are a betrayal of fellow humans.

  4. I couldn’t agree more that what Mr. Madoff did was unjust and a horrific act of betrayal to many. However, I don’t believe that if Seattle Pacific University is calling itself a grace-filled community that we should be condemning any person, no matter what crime he./she has committed, to eternal damnation. Dante’s work is a classic piece of literature and I think it’s not only unwise to use it beyond such purposes but to also put ourselves in the place of judging others, despite the evil that has been committed. I don’t mean to harp on your blog, but I would just urge you to remember that a university that claims to be engaging in and reaching out to communities should not be in a state of making such strong statements of condemnation. The Good News is that grace is there for all, and that judgment rests in the hands of a being much greater than ourselves.

  5. Thanks John for your helpful insight – I couldn’t agree more. While the comments and comparison of the Madoff cas and Dante’s Inferno may be an interesting topic, I think it is a far cry to speak of anyone’s eternal destiny (especially while they are still alive). While hell is a definitely very real and very terrible (and for that matter probably far from anything described by Dante), the grace of Jesus Christ is sufficient for anyone who would repent! And I also find it interesting that every single person reading this probably has some of their own time to stay in each of Dante’s ‘circles’, so why do we suddenly decide to declare this sitution as trumping all others?

  6. Re: John,
    Thanks for your post on Dr. Eaton’s blog. You make a good point, but it is important to remember that grace left unsupported by a framework of accountability has no integrity. Madoff is just as much in need of grace as the rest of us, but to live into that grace his wrongs cannot be dismissed as if they were of no consequence.

    The use of “judgment” you mention is not the same as what Dr. Eaton would use himself, if he would say he is judging. If I understand you correctly, judgment is condemning the very being of a person as without value, or unworthy of redemption. That is wrong, of course for us to declare since we are not God and it is not the time for God to make such declarations. But the proper judgment (discernment) we can make is to identify and call attention to that which is not of God. To do so is not demeaning to the person’s value. In fact it is necessary if we are to “set things which are still undone” (1 Timothy). Part of “engaging the culture and changing the world” includes the more somber task of calling people out of their darkness into “character”.

    I am sure Dr. Eaton does not write with a blind vengeance of hell-fire-and-brimstone mentality when he writes this piece. I read it and saw it as a glimpse into how dark an unrepentant state of living can be in eternity. Is that not one side of the coin we face ultimately?

  7. Looking at the life of Jesus I think Madoff would be one of the guys that He would have hung out with. Remeber he ate with the tax collectors, people doing pretty the same kind of thing. He turned a rough bunch of fisherman and a tax collector, among others, into apostles. Jesus did not call to attention the sins of the prostitutes and the tax collectors, He showed His love and mercy to them. Everyone knew their sins, they really did not need to be called out. You would be hard pressed to find people who genuinly do not see the wrong in Madoff’s actions. I see little use though in meditating on his sin. Rather let us seek to encourage and build up such people, that they might be shown the love of Christ.

    Remeber it was the Pharisees at the time who cried out against the sins of the people who Christ rebuked. While there is no place for acceptance of Madoff’s actions, I see little need for more condemnation (I am certain he faces plenty). Why not strive to be an imitator of a God humble enough to not only adorn the sinful flesh of man but to eat and drink with the prostitues and tax collectors. To me, this is real religion.

  8. Interesting dialogue. I don’t think President Eaton is condemning Madoff at all. I think he is talking about understanding the consequences of sin. That does not preclude showing mercy to the sinner.

    He has addressed concerns about the post on Madoff in a new entry here.

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