Judas is the biblical figure, one of Jesus’ own disciples, who is said to have betrayed Jesus with a kiss, identifying him to the soldiers who have come to arrest him. (Mark 14:43-45). Judas is called “the betrayer” in that text, and his name has come to mean the ultimate betrayer, the trusted companion who turns on you.
The term “Judas” is being used in American politics today to describe perceptions of betrayal and counter-betrayal.
It may be more of a “betrayal” than conservatives originally believed, in fact, as the Roberts’ Court decision on the ACA may also prevent future conservative majorities from defunding Planned Parenthood
Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has promised to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood. The ACA Supreme Court decision thus can simultaneously be seen as a further betrayal to conservatives who wish to defund Planned Parenthood, while it can be salvation for poor women who rely on these services for cancer screening and affordable contraception.
Betrayal is complex. A common thread, however, is that betrayal involves a previous relationship of trust that somehow gets broken. Trust is such an emotional issue for people that to break trust can elicit great anger. This leads to blame. Thus, one of its most important aspects of the “Judas impulse” is to blame somebody when things don’t go your way.
Indeed, “leaks” from Supreme Court justices or their clerks, or some combination of these, seem this kind of blaming response. The motivation (though not specifically known) could well be anger at Roberts’ seeming “betrayal” of conservative values that in turn produces betrayal of the confidentiality of the court’s deliberations.
It gets worse. The impulse to break trust does not result in renewed trust, but greater alienation.
This kind of visceral rage can seem so extreme it backfires, making those who retaliate with rage at a felt betrayal seem less than rational. Federal Judge Richard Posner, a conservative appointed to the appeals court by President Ronald Reagan, indicated to NPR that these leaks, along with other right-wing moves, have made him less conservative. His view is that the leaks, apparently designed to discredit Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion upholding the law, would backfire.
“I think these right-wingers who are blasting Roberts are making a very serious mistake,” he said. This might work to drive Roberts away from the conservative block. “I mean, what would you do if you were Roberts? All the sudden you find out that the people you thought were your friends have turned against you, they despise you, they mistreat you, they leak to the press. What do you do? Do you become more conservative? Or do you say, ‘What am I doing with this crowd of lunatics?’ Right? Maybe you have to re-examine your position.’”
Overall, this episode shows how the health care issue for this country has taken a very high toll when it comes to trust.
There is also the kind of self-betrayal in which Mitt Romney engages. Romney has good record of achievement in Massachusetts in his health care plan, a health reform, that, as Paul Krugman points out, “was identical in all important respects to the health reform enacted by President Obama. By the way, the Massachusetts reform is working pretty well and has overwhelming popular support.”
The New England Journal of Medicine reports that Massachusetts only has about 5 percent uninsured among adults aged 18 to 64, while areas in Texas have 50 percent uninsured, the highest rates in the country of uninsured residents. You can find your state on the journal’s interactive map.
The low rate of uninsured Americans in Massachusetts is arguably Mitt Romney’s greatest credential for becoming president, yet he runs from his health care achievement as governor as though the Devil himself were chasing him. He can’t even seem to decide if it is a tax or a penalty, when it is plainly a tax cut for millions of families because it gives them tax credits to make health care more affordable. In short, it’s a great idea and a great benefit to American health.
Why wouldn’t Mitt Romney be proud of the fact that Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of uninsured folks in the country? Instead, he betrays that achievement and would proudly deny it to Americans in all other states. Why?
The history of the impulse to betray in all its variations can explain this.
Biblical commentators such as Bishop John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal bishop, have noted all the biblical inconsistencies that surround the figure of Judas. Indeed, a reading of the New Testament does reveal that the act of betrayal recorded in the Gospels and attributed to Jesus’ disciple Judas does not match the role of Judas in the earlier texts of the New Testament, the Epistles. Instead, the theory is that Judas is a figure lifted from specific texts of the Hebrew Bible to deflect attention away from the fact that Jesus was arrested and killed by the Romans. The other Gospel writers, who use Mark as a source, followed suit.
Why? The reason is, in fact, political turmoil. The political climate at the time of the composition of the Gospels was very dangerous. There had been a Jewish rebellion, and the Romans had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Nascent Christian communities were under pressure because of this rebellion. If the early Christians had blamed the Romans outright for the death of Jesus, it would not have been safe. It was, therefore, politically expedient to place the blame for betrayal on one of the Jewish followers of Jesus.
Yes, this is a controversial thesis about Judas, and one that we can hardly prove. That’s not the point. What is important is the idea that Judas as a biblical figure was developed to have somebody to blame other than the Romans. It gives further insight into why political pressure makes betrayal, even self-betrayal, more likely. It can look like a shrewd political move in a highly contested political climate.
Betrayal happens, both in the first century and in the twenty-first century. It comes from the sense of outrage that develops when someone who thought you knew doesn’t act like you hoped. You are furious, and you retaliate. Anger produces betrayal when the trust in a community is broken by leaks. When political pressure is on, you can be moved to betray yourself and what you know to be true.
Doesn’t make it right, and it usually backfires.
Instead, I suggest our most urgent need as a country is restore some sense of trust in our political life and institutions. Doesn’t history teach us that the “Judas impulse” never works out well?