Early in February 2020, Bernard Madoff asked for compassion. Specifically, he asked to be freed from prison. Madoff has served 11 years of a 150-year sentence for running a Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of people. Many were regular people who lost everything they had tried to build. They lost their retirement savings, so they kept working past retirement age. Some contemplated suicide. At least one followed through on that impulse.
Madoff has about eighteen months left to live. He has end-stage kidney disease. He has pointed out that he has suffered during his imprisonment, including by the death from suicide of one son and the death from cancer of his other son.
The easy answer to the request is to keep Madoff imprisoned and to let him live out his remaining months in his cell. At first glance, religion would seem to support that idea. Christians often quote Exodus 21, the idea of “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” and so on.
In fact, this may be one of the most misunderstood lines of Torah/Old Testament. This admonition limited damages. If person A put out person B’s eye, person B could not kill person A in return. No more could be done to the perpetrator than what the perpetrator had done.
In fact, Jesus would later repudiate that law in Exodus, asserting in Matthew 5, “I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to…take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
Both Exodus and Jesus sought justice, although in different ways. “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” demands the writer in Deuteronomy 16. Islam focuses on justice as well throughout the Quran. “God demands justice and fair dealing,” it is written (16:90) and followers are exhorted to “judge with justice” (4:58).
What exactly constitutes #justice?
The definition is not straightforward. Look in the dictionary, and you will learn that justice is to be just. Rules are far simpler. For example, #Buddhism has, greatly simplified, five basic precepts for laypeople: don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t commit sexual misconduct, and don’t use intoxicants.
We know that Madoff committed at least two of those acts – stealing and lying – and if the suicide of a person he defrauded is the direct result of his actions, then we can consider whether he is also guilty of “killing” in the sense of unintentional manslaughter. Clearly, he broke rules.
So, what to do? Prison seems just, but is it just to let him die there now? Does the punishment fit the crime? Is bilking people out of money, for example, more heinous than killing someone while driving drunk?
Interestingly, Buddhism says little about justice. Instead, it focuses on karma. One story that illustrates karma is the story of a robber and murderer who had a change of heart and became a mendicant follower of the Buddha.
We talk about such redemption; we learn stories, for example, about white supremacists who renounce racism and violence after listening to people who changed their hearts. We appreciate when people change their ways. Therefore, we can admire this robber-murderer for changing his ways.
But what of the families he had affected? Could they easily now love him? No, of course not, so when he would go out to beg for alms, they would throw rocks at him, and he would return to the woods bloodied and broken, again and again. The families thought they were meting out justice.
The robber suffered from their blows. But, Buddhism insists, his suffering would have been far worse had he not mended his ways. What would have happened, though, if the families had fully given in to their blood lust and had killed the robber? Then they would have brought suffering upon themselves, and the robber would have never had the chance to become fully awakened, to fully realize the causes and effects of his own actions.
The question with which we must grapple is whether justice should be devoid of #compassion. Again, what exactly is justice? Taker Bernard Madoff. His investors lost much that will never be fully restored to them. Yet he has also lost much, and the most priceless – the lives of his sons, the love of his wife – will never be restored to him. He does not have enough length of life left to regain wealth. In a real sense, then, he has been meted an eye for an eye.
Confucius might advocate for wisdom, but human wisdom can be hampered by desire for vengeance. “Humaneness” can become contrived. Daoism might suggest that if nothing can be done, then let the issue go. We can consider whether keeping Madoff imprisoned until his death really “does” anything other than making people feel good that he is in jail.
Surely, what Madoff did was heinous. We can all agree on that. What is less easy to agree upon is what true justice might be now, and what value should be assigned to compassion.