In the weeks before Lent, Judas Iscariot’s name popped up in secular news articles and Internet chatrooms, sparking discussions about a man reviled for 2,000 years. Many shared their views of the Switzerland-based Maecenas Foundation’s decision to publish, at Easter, an apocryphal gospel attributed to the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Some wondered whether Judas was simply playing his part in a divine plan. And the Vatican denied reports that the Roman Catholic Church would “rehabilitate” Judas.
Janet Ramsey, a pastoral care professor at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., is writing a book with theologian Lois Malcolm on forgiveness and healing. Ramsey believes the renewed interest in Judas masks deeper theological and human issues. Here she shares her thoughts:
In the story of what God did in Christ, there seems to be an inevitable tension. On the one hand, we see God as the one who identifies with the powerless of this world (victims of evil, including systemic evil). Since God was in Christ, the cross teaches us that God is with us in our pain and suffering. I think, for example, of how powerful this image of Jesus has been for the African American community.
On the other hand, various atonement theories emphasize—with different language and metaphors—that Christ was revealed on the cross as the one who died for all people, all sinners. Although difficult for us to grasp, this includes sinners in positions of power (perpetrators of all kinds), not only the Hitlers but also the people who supported them out of fear or greed, betraying their values and faith.
So we’re left asking, “Whose side is God on?” Here’s where the human stuff kicks in: We want it to be our side, of course, and most of us feel, most of the time, that we are the victims (judging by my counseling and teaching experiences). The perpetrators are everyone else. But they’re often less obvious in the “script” of our own story. So when an easy-to-spot “bad guy” comes along, it’s easy to project all of our disloyalty, greed and unfaithfulness onto him. This has been going on for years with Judas. Perhaps the brief and sketchy references to Judas in the Passion story have made this projection more likely.
Have we Christians used Judas in this way, to avoid facing our problems with temptation, forgiveness, fear? I think so. Nowhere has this been more visible than when Judas was painted with a large, hooked “Jewish” nose and used to foster anti-Semitism—as if we could conveniently remove our sinfulness and place it onto the “other.” It was a quick step then, from Judas the bad guy to the Jewish people as bad guys. We all know the horrors that resulted from this particular projection.
So I’m wondering how the long history of troubled relationships between the Roman Catholic Church (and of course, at times, the Lutheran church as well) and the Jewish people plays into this new Judas “movement.” I also wonder if, ironically, attempts to rehabilitate Judas aren’t a sign of unconscious, lingering anti-Semitism (i.e. continuing to identify Judas the individual with the Jewish people). I would hope not. There are far better ways to work on reconciliation than replacing old projections with new “sanitized” ones.
However, from the standpoint of pastoral care where we sit with both victims and perpetrators, are there not great risks involved if we rob the Passion story of Judas’ current role? What will happen to the story if we “water down” evil or try to remove the horror of Jesus’ betrayal by his friend’s kiss? There are times in our lives when it’s precisely this moment in the Passion story that we feel the strongest connection to Christ. And why the interest in doing this now, at a time when we are so “therapeutic” in our understanding of human evil and of forgiveness? Is this a symptom of our efforts to make everything psychologically understandable and, thus, “not so bad”? Might not this rob the Christian story of its power and relevance for people who carry painful stories of having experienced betrayal and injustice?
My colleagues—Lois Malcolm and Alan Padgett—and I teach a class on forgiveness at Luther Seminary. We frequently say that, from a human point of view, forgiveness is often impossible. But God makes the impossible, possible. And, for us, forgiveness is often a long process. I doubt I could live long enough to complete the process of forgiving Judas for betraying my Lord with a kiss. I’m really not interested in rehabilitating him, however much I might “understand” his story if I heard all the details (I think a new play on Broadway is attempting to do just that).
Fortunately for me, though, God in Christ forgives us all for our betrayals—daily. A hymn I love, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” (Lutheran Book of Worship, #499), reminds us, “Oh, to grace how great a debtor/Daily I’m constrained to be; Let thy grace now like a fetter/Bind my wand’ring heart to thee.”
Judas didn’t have this fetter, this binding. Our energy would be best focused on a devotional life that tightens our connections to Christ, rather than on an overconcern with Judas and his status, human or divine.
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