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Explaining Bernie Madoff

By Howard Bess
March 30, 2009

Editor’s Note: Wall Street swindler Bernie Madoff is often dismissed as an aberration, someone who presented himself as a serious, pious, reliable investor but was really just a world-class con man running a high-end Ponzi scheme.

But there is another more troubling explanation, that Madoff was nothing particularly special, just an extreme example of what went wrong with the American financial system, who simply went the extra mile in putting greed ahead of integrity, an interpretation that the Rev. Howard Bess argues in this guest essay:

How do we explain Bernie Madoff?

He swindled thousands of people out of billions of dollars. Elie Wiesel and his foundation were wiped out. Mr. Wiesel is a Holocaust survivor and a Nobel Laureate. He is a brilliant man and a master of words. Wiesel described Bernie Madoff with one word. Evil!

I beg to differ. As soon as we dismiss any person with a label, we have abdicated our responsibility to truly understand what made Madoff do what he did.

I submit to you that there is some of Bernie Madoff in all of us. Every day we put self before others and act contrary to our highest ideals. The only difference between
Bernie Madoff and every one of us is a matter of magnitude.

I suspect it is not just those who were swindled, but most all of us, who leap to opportunities to plant words of contempt on a fellow human being.

I fall into that trap along with others, not just in the case of Bernie Madoff, but in my every day living. At that point, I confess I remember more of what Jesus from Nazareth said than I find comfortable. The judgment you give is the judgment you get!

Let’s move from condemnation, and try to understand what happened in this tragedy.  Bernie Madoff is a Jew. It is helpful to remember this. He knew the following story very well.

Moses led the Children of Israel out of decades, possibly centuries, of cruel slavery in Egypt. Never did Moses take credit for their miraculous escape. In all of the Israelite tradition, it is the Lord God who delivers His people out of bondage. Moses had seen God in the burning bush and the brilliant light was imbedded in his mind.

After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they came to the plains at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses left them and went up on the mountain. According to the founding story of Judaism, it was there on Mt. Sinai that God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses.

The commandments were the summary of the rules by which God’s people were to live. They were written in stone. 

The first command was “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other Gods before me.”

When Moses returned from the mountain top, he found a horrible mess. The Israelites had become impatient, collected the gold they had, and crafted a golden calf and called it “the God, who brought us out of the land of Egypt.”

Moses threw one of the all-time great temper tantrums. He smashed the stone tablets on which were written the Laws of God.  He ground the golden calf into fine dust, mixed it with water and made the Israelites drink it. 

Moses cut two new stones and hauled them back up Mt. Sinai where the finger of God wrote the second edition. The consequences were severe. The Israelites, who left Egypt, never got to the promise land. They wandered the Sinai Desert for 40 years and died off.

It was a totally new generation that settled the Promised Land. Apart from the Moses/Sinai tradition, Jewish history and modern Judaism are incomprehensible. And so also is Bernie Madoff.

Life in ancient Near East was organized with covenants. Tribes, clans, and nations came to terms with one another and lived according to the terms of covenants.
The covenants all had a common feature: they were always between a greater and a lesser power. The lesser party paid tribute and behaved. The greater power protected.

What made the Israelite tribes different was that they had only one covenant and that covenant was not with another nation. It was with their God, who led them out of the land of Egypt, and to whom they gave the name Jehovah.

The Moses/Sinai tradition makes it very clear. Jehovah was the greater power and the Israelites were the lesser power. Jehovah provided security and blessing and the Israelites promised to live according to the whole Law of God.

This ancient story is being played out again in the Bernie Madoff debacle. The dynamics of the Moses/Sinai story are as active as ever. The names of the players change, but the plot is repeated.

Bernie Madoff set aside the first commandment: You shall have no other Gods.  He went for the golden calf.

In a new retelling of the story, if we do not want to use God language, we can use value language. Choose our highest values and retell the story.

For the purpose of our national life, let us replace God with Integrity, Honesty and Compassion. Certainly if these virtues are ignored, life throws a temper tantrum. When we push them aside, life grinds our gold into fine dust and makes us drink a cocktail that is void of nutrition.

Most everyone has an idea about a new path for our beloved nation. I propose that we as a nation embrace Integrity, Honesty and Compassion as the greater power in a new life covenant. 

I suspect that many of the people who invested money with Bernie Madoff were just as greedy, just as self-centered, just as dishonest as Madoff. I choose not to call any of them evil. I choose to look and make an observation. This is what you get when you enter into a life covenant with an unworthy greater power.

The Rev. Howard Bess is pastor emeritus of Church of the Covenant, an American Baptist church in Palmer, Alaska.  His e-mail address is          


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