On Judas & Moral Pragmatism

by Beauchamp Art

There are still some in the small Dorset village of Moreton who wish their row about Judas Iscariot had remained a purely local matter. But the refusal, 30 years ago, of a gift to their parish church of a window that depicted the notorious apostle divided both worshippers and the community – and brought the international media to this sleepy hollow.
In the gospels, the circumstances of Jesus’s arrest and death are wide open to interpretation. Since Christianity believes in an omnipotent God, then logically Jesus’s birth, ministry, arrest, trial, death and resurrection were all part of a divine plan. As was his betrayal. Which makes Judas the fall guy who had to do something unpleasant on God’s behalf. In Matthew, as Judas betrays him in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, Jesus says: “My friend, do what you are here for.” And in John’s account of the Last Supper, just after Jesus has again identified Judas as the one who will betray him, he tells the traitor: “What you are going to do, do quickly.” This implies that Jesus knows the plan, and the part Judas will play.

Judas remains an interesting character, one who is demonised for his actions, despite control being explicitly out of his hands. Its a shaming the resonates with Neo-Liberal rhetoric that blames the beleaguered for their poor standing, in blaming those who are victim of circumstance.

I played Judas in a Christmas play at school once, an important role, no lines, the character had nothing to say, he only does what is necessary to secure the martyrdom of Jesus, without which Christianity would have been not much more than a particularly quirky Jewish denomination. But Judas is a useful character for fuelling anti-Semitism and sectarian violence throughout the ages. Perhaps there could have been greater peace between the Abrahamic faiths if this figure was not made a patsy, a simple greed, guilty traitor, but a necessary figure for the foundation of a new religion, new lines of thought and discussion.

Judas was hated, and from this, further hatred grew. But perhaps it is worth considering him against Mary Shelly’s Monster of Frankenstein; someone who wronged, but who’s circumstance made such subsequent actions (not necessarily unavoidable) but highly probably. And like Frankenstein, whose creator is the true monster of that story, perhaps it is the figure of God who must be held accountable for the role of Judas, especially if he was one whom formulated the situation in which his betray was pivotal for further religious change, and for him to be unforgiven in the eyes of one whom claims to forgive all, then this is a hypocrisy of motive and of the character of God in the New Testament.

Does the shepherd curse their sheep if they lead them over a cliff, or must they question their own foolishness? If a man drives another to poverty, must he punish the pauper if he steals, or should he who impoverishes another for his own benefit be deemed ill of will? If someone has fallen, you do not blame them for their descent, you help them up, you look for the cracks in the pavement, you help them find what cause them to fall, and make the path safer for the next traveller. To damn the man is to damn the world rather than attest to amending its faults.

The same is true with other characters punished in the Bible, even if God gives man free will this does not overrule his omnipotence within the Abrahamic narrative. In Judaism, there is no fire and damnation in Hell for the wicked, as even early Jewish doctrine was pragmatic enough to understand how such practice would contravene an benevolent God figure. No person is free of history so no one has a will free of predilections, prejudices and other environmental factors outside of their control.

The idea of a Hell for sinners is a convenience, it allows one group in positions of privilege to reaffirm their rightful position of power by labelling those in lower positions of social standing as justifiably lower down because they are inherently unworthy of a more equal distribution of power and responsibility. Suggesting that the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor, the rest is happen stance. This could be referred to in contemporary discussion as a form of ‘victim-blaming’, and is echo in the malicious myth of Meritocracy creating great equality, by assuring that those with the most merit ascend the social ranks, gain the most wealth, have the most power. When all meritocratic or similar systems produce is the same hierarchy, reinforced by the self-assurance of the high, and the self-loathing of the low.

But in terms of Christian dogma, particularly the later writings, the binary between the high and low, the good and evil is made more explicit. Judas is made into an evil figure because he is greed, he takes the silver for the life of another, and therefore must be damned, again ignoring the need for the crucifixion in the deification of Jesus within the Bible, but is notably a addition to the text made whilst the new Christian Church was attempting to distance itself from the Jews, and gain favor with the establishment of the time, the Romans, who were particularly enthusiastic about the linear hierarchy of the monotheistic Christianity, that positioned on Godhead at the top to dictate what is write and what is wrong. Though the basis for these ideas comes from the Old Testament, the New Testament popularised the discrimination against the Jews through the figure of Jesus as a means of securing Christianity within the Roman Empire.

The Bible contains an interesting array of characters, though the plot is a bit messy, and the fans tend to interpret things wildly, and very un-pragmatically within particularly conservative, literal sects, discounting the need for the open room for multiple means of understanding the same text within a range of circumstances, which is evident in the extensive use of metaphor, particularly in the allegories of Jesus within the Bible.

Judas is often depicted as the Devil in human form. Perhaps it is necessary to consider this against another feat of storytelling; Scooby Doo: behind every mask of a monster there is a person, not the other way around. There are no monsters or demons or devils behind the actions of people, there are only people. Hannah Arendt describes the ‘banality of evil’, in how horrible atrocities can be committed by perfectly normal human beings, because they are, in one way or another, distanced from the consequences of their actions. The perpetrators of the Holocaust were not literally monsters, they were people, ordinary people, who were easily turned to commit seemingly inhuman actions through very slight manipulation.

One particular tool used against the Jews by the Nazis was their dehumanisation through language, referring to them as sub-human, as rats, as vermin to be exterminated, so they alleviated themselves of blame. But they were not possessed, or mad, they were human, acting as humans do. And people must be wary of the failures of man and the failures of their environment so they can help to reduce those problems, and to make things better, not just blaming one person or another. Individuals have autonomy and personal accountability, but they also have an environment that forms them, and it does not take much to warp them to do terrible things; and what must be scrutinised is why the environment is doctored, who is benefiting, who is loosing out. Simply punishing people for their actions does not benefit humanity, yes there must be justice but there must also be understanding.

People know why the poor man steals, so why is he hated and not those who deny him charity, and why should anyone have to expect hate due to their circumstance? Why should Judas be hated by Christians if he is, within the Bible, acting on behalf of God to ensure the foundation of Christianity? Then again, why should be the Devil be hated for offering Knowledge, why should the Devil be hated because he lost favour? Why should any circumstances of victimisation go unheeded; the scapegoats so eagerly sacrificed?