Despite denials by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, stories continue to circulate that Bernie Madoff has cancer. More than a few people have suggested that he is getting what “he deserves” and that this is his “punishment from God”. Of course, if that is true, then we would also have to accept that all those people whose lives were turned inside out and upside down by Madoff’s thievery were also “getting what they deserved from God”.
If there is a God who controls the details of our lives at every level of specificity (a possibility I readily accept) and whose actions are immediately understandable and just from a human perspective (a position which I find preposterous), then Maddoff’s alleged cancer and the suffering that he caused are all ascribable to divine will. If however, we don’t accept the entire package as being from God, we dare not invoke God, or God’s justice, as the way to understand Madoff’s possible illness. Doing so would just have us using God as the cover for our own desire to wreck vengeance on Mr. Madoff – an entirely understandable, but equally absurd, understanding of God as nothing more than a projection of our own desire for control.
In fact, if we go down this road of too easily ascribing things to God, one could imagine a new defense against the ugliest crimes, including Bernie Madoff’s: “if God didn’t want it to happen, then God would have stopped me. The devil didn’t make me do it, God did! Blame God, not me.”
Ultimately, we can choose to ascribe all things to God. But if we do, then we need to let go of the claim that God’s logic makes sense to us. Does that mean that we should simply stop invoking divine will as a source for what happens in the universe? Not necessarily.
It simply means that we should humbly accept that if divine will is guiding everything, than it is informed by a divine purpose which is so vast and beyond our understanding, that the presence of divine will may provide some of us with genuine comfort, but it excuses nothing in terms of human behavior and explains little more.
God’s presence in our lives, whether in our misfortunes or in our triumphs, is a faith worth affirming. But that presence provides no excuse for celebrating the downfall of those we deem our enemies or for pretending that we understand how we came to “earn” the good things in our lives. Divine presence is just that – present with us and a present to us, not an explanation for us.
I don’t know if God gave Bernie Madoff cancer. We don’t even know if he has cancer. But we should all take note of the fact that how we interpret these events tells us more about ourselves — our need for vengeance, understanding of justice and the place of compassion in our lives, than it does about either Bernie Madoff or God.