American Greed New Era style

This is a TV series that explores the famous and the infamous who “go for the gold” in extreme ways. One of the episodes is devoted to the ponzi scheme that was New Era back in the 1980 and early 90s.

John Bennett was the scammer and NGOs were his target. The promise made to churches, mission agencies, Christian colleges, etc., was that if they invested their money (which had to meet a minimum amount) in six months they would double their money. Bennett said that there were anonymous philanthropists behind this who refused to be named. Of course, Bennett would take the new money invested and pay off previous investors, all the while taking huge sums for himself.

I had many friends immersed in this scam. Without knowing it. But with a motive not to know it. The motive was “something for nothing.” And for that they were liable. Maybe not in a court of law. But it was a moral flaw nonetheless.

I saw the rich, who already had the means to bless charitable organizations with great wealth, seek  to give even more. This might be seen as a worthy motive. After all, they were only seeking to be charitable. I do not see it in such rosy colors. The ability to give money is power. You are invited by these very same institutions to whom you give an opportunity to influence them – sit on their boards, hang with their Presidents, make decisions about their futures, to be perceived as important and necessary.

I was invited to participate and roundly criticized because I would not support “investing” our church funds in a fail safe, double your money in six months opportunity. I insisted that the church should base its income on the tithes and offerings of its own people. In other words, sacrificial giving is worship. Merely channeling anonymous donors money is not worship in any meaningful sense.

But I regularly saw rich people go after this scheme in a frenzy. Many of these people were power brokers. They dispensed money on a regular basis with their names on buildings and their pictures taken with significant others. They were front and center in their giving. No anonymous donations here. They were going to double their money in giving, and you, the recipient, would know it.

Quick money and narcissism are a toxic mix. It is hard for me to feel sorry about the doom that followed. It was a necessary justice. So much money passing hands in the name of Jesus even back then was a nauseating thing to me. I had to break some friendships to get away from it. The lesson is still with me today.

I continue to refuse any knowledge of who gives at churches I serve. If I had my way, I would limit the amount of money that any one person can give to the church to an amount that even the less well off could give. This would force the church to base its budget not on the largesse of a few who effectively have the power of the purse but on its outreach to the larger community. If a person wanted to give more, then they could give it to missions. But the one thing they could not do is make the local church dependent on them. It’s just too big of a risk.

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