There has always been controversy concerning the definition of “traitor.” From Edward Snowden, who raided our government’s top secret larder to feed the appetite of the press, to numbers of corporate whistle-blowers who betray the corrupt bosses who pay their salaries, the word traitor is said more loudly by the betrayed than by those who value the truth.
Betrayal can result in secrets revealed, and in death, as well. Mainstream history suggests presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were killed by traitors to our country — but then, could the United States itself be called a traitor to rulers such as Manuel Noriega or Saddam Hussein for taking them down after we had supported their dictatorships for so many years? Is betrayal defined by vows broken, or can the moral implications be justified by our changing political goals?
Betraying God is a somewhat different matter. You can justify betraying the bad behavior of governments and corporations, but by definition, God is good personified, so to betray God must be a wrongful act — or at least you’d think. The angel Lucifer justified his rebellion against God by believing God betrayed his love for angels with his love for the creation. Blame crazy angelic jealousy if you want, but many a marriage has crashed and burned over similar betrayals.
There’s another problem, as well. Many a religion has demoralized its members by proclaiming it speaks for the will of God, and members who do not do what they are told are, like Lucifer, guilty of betraying God. From the Pharisees of Jesus’ time to the dictates of ISIS, God’s will is misrepresented over and over by religious leaders who want to exert absolute power over their people. Betray their rules, they say, and you betray God.
And then there’s Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities — with a public kiss, no less, to indicate which one they should arrest. And if, as the Bible tells us, Judas actually understood who Jesus was, then Judas was playing the part of Lucifer all over again. In fact, John’s gospel explains Judas’ betrayal by saying that at the communion of the Last Supper, Judas received the bread and Satan entered into him at the same time.
But what does that imply? Did Judas have free will in the matter, or was his judgment hopelessly clouded by a force beyond his control? Was he a traitor or a victim?
And there’s one other theory to consider. In the “Gospel of Judas,” written by Gnostics some 200 years after Jesus’ death, the suggestion was made by the first translation into English that Jesus and Judas had planned the whole thing, so that the prophecies concerning the Messiah could be fulfilled. Jesus and Judas were best buddies, it suggested, and hence no betrayal took place. And though a subsequent translation corrected that interpretation, the idea still raises the question — was Judas’ betrayal necessary to Jesus’ mission, and if so, can we blame Judas for what he had to do to fulfill God’s plan?
A fine point — an irrelevant point, you may say. The story played itself out regardless. But for me, the theological implications are enormous. First, if Lucifer and Judas can be so near to God, and yet so badly misunderstand the nature of Love, then what chance do any of us have? And if Satan can control us so easily, what does it mean that we claim to have free will? Are we lying to ourselves, or to God?
To examine some of these questions, Bangor’s Union Street Brick Church is presenting an off-Broadway play written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, titled “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” It is, believe it or not, a dark comedy (much like life on earth can be, generally speaking), and it is a play with intense language definitely not suited for children. It is written to make the point that after death, our deeds, our prejudices, our faults and aspirations travel with us, and that accounting for our behavior on earth is an ongoing process.
The play runs 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 26-27, and at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, June 28. The Union St. Brick Church is located in downtown Bangor, at the corner of Union and Main streets, and admission is free. For more information, call 945-9798.
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church, where plays exploring questions of a theological nature are produced three times per year.