Running a Spiritual Ponzi Scheme (#325)

Everybody’s going somewhere, riding just as fast as they can ride
I guess they’ve got a lot to do, before they can rest assured, their lives are justified
Pray to God for me baby, He can let me slide
Bright Baby Blues by Jackson Browne

NPR’s Radio Lab had a fascinating program on Bernie Madoff last week. You know, that Bernie Madoff, he who bilked billions of dollars from his investors in the largest Ponzi scheme (i.e., to date, stay tuned) in history. Madoff’s interviewer spent hours talking with him trying to get a sense of how Madoff, serving a prison sentence of 150 years, now understood his own past behavior. Apparently, Madoff, even as he expresses tacit remorse for his actions, considers himself a victim. He claims he was under enormous pressure by his early investors to duplicate an annual 18% return on investment. He felt bullied by them, so he made sure they received the returns they wanted, even though anyone who knows anything about investing would never expect such a return every year. So, he wasn’t the one at fault. It was those awful “investor bullies.”

This is just another version of the old the-dog-ate-my-homework excuse: “It’s not my fault, it’s the dog’s,” or in Madoff’s case, those “investor bullies.” What the Radio Lab segment illuminated for me is that Madoff is hardly unique. He’s just an extreme example of our human inability to acknowledge fault. We resolve the universal problem of being human by trying to avoid any sense of guilt. When was the last time we heard a public figure say: “I was wrong to have sex with an intern.” Or, “I created a major conflict of interest by allowing Halliburton to write environmental legislation.” Or, “I was wrong to say President Obama’s birth certificate was fake.”

But we rarely hear that. And we rarely do that ourselves.

Instead, we either insist we have no fault, or we speak of wrongs committed passively, as in “mistakes were made,” so the actor of the wrong is separated from the deed. When we don’t admit our faults, we create a society that’s spiritually and emotionally stunted. And when our leaders fail to take personal responsibility for their faults, they bend us all further toward communal sociopathic behavior.

As with Jackson Browne’s song, we’ve got “a lot to do” before we “can rest assured” our “lives are justified.” For such self-justification to occur, we must convince ourselves of our own righteousness, and by doing so, innocently declare ourselves to be fault-free. So, if not us, who’s to blame for what’s wrong? That’s when we give ourselves permission to blame the wrongs on immigrants, or lazy poor people, or those who don’t share our political convictions. But when we look in the mirror, we must know we’re only fooling ourselves. And when such self-delusional behavior is role-modeled for us by people we elect, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. We get the leaders we deserve.

None of us are fault-free any more than we’re sin-free. We’re all spiritual Ponzi schemers passing the fault on to others. Just like with all Ponzi schemes, it only works when one makes the other pay. Is that really so hard for us to admit? Apparently, it is. Our only hope is to pray to God, hoping he’ll let us “slide.”

The Rt. Reverend Scott A. Benhase
Bishop of Georgia


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