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.