As I watched the footage from Charlottesville, my heart broke and I felt betrayed and denied. Betrayed by a city that at one time was ranked the number one place to live in the US. Betrayed because the man Charlottesville chose as their vice-mayor was a man who between 2009 and 2014 tweeted numerous racist, sexist, and gay slurs, and also lewd comments about female genitalia[i]. (But I guess those kinds of tweets are popular these days—Republican and Democrat.) Betrayed by a city that I love, that permitted protests like those on August 12 to happen, without providing enough police presence to keep the violence from taking place. Watching the footage, I said to myself, “My kids and I played in that park. We ate ice cream cones there at the Downtown Mall,” where a white-supremacist car smashed into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 19 and killing one. To see such violence in a place of such peace makes me say as Caesar did, “Et tu, Charlottesville?”
This all took place in the city of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Yes, Jefferson’s town allowed this—denying the very truths written by its founding father. In the shadow of Monticello, people who deny that all people are created equal assaulted and slew others who stood in protest against the notion that some are better than others. Yes—I feel stabbed in the back. All Virginians should feel stabbed in the back that in what’s probably the most educated, forward-thinking town in our Commonwealth, such a thing could take place.
Perhaps you have been betrayed like this as well—stabbed in the back, not with literal knives but with words and deeds of people who profess to love you. John 13:18-38 tells the story of two disciples who stab Jesus in the back, before He is ever pierced by nails. In these verses, Jesus predicts that Judas will betray Him, and that Peter will deny Him. Understanding these two characters will help us come to terms with the people whose emotional daggers pierce our own hearts.
Many people vilify the character of Judas, double-damning him both for the sin of betraying Christ, and for the unforgivable sin (according to Catholic tradition) of suicide. In retribution for their crimes, Dante’s Inferno has the trio of Caesars assassins Brutus and Cassius, along with Judas eternally devoured by the devil in the lowest level of hell.
In contrast, recent scholarship has been asking whether Judas might have gotten a bum rap. Certainly, saying “it was all part of God’s plan” does not excuse Judas, but at the same time, Jesus chose him as a disciple with complete foreknowledge of what he would do. There seems to be an intimate friendship between Judas and Jesus. In the fourth century Gospel of Judas (which we recognize as non-canonical), the Lord asks Judas to perform this difficult task of betrayal. While I personally don’t believe this to be fact, it is evidence that a certain community within the fourth century believed that Judas had been wrongfully blamed. Alternately, many scholars regard Judas as a patriot who did not intend to betray Jesus, but merely wanted to force the Messiah to reveal Himself and save the nation. However we understand Judas, we must recognize that the narrative reports that he hanged himself, indicating his remorse.
Though Judas’ suicide is probably the worst thing he can do to express his repentance, it does indicate the severity of his contrition. Perhaps he can’t imagine how to face the disciples, or maybe he can’t bear to live with himself after what he’s done. Judas becomes his own judge, jury, and executioner, and creates a permanent solution to a temporary problem. How different would the story have been if he had only, like Peter, only gone away, “weeping bitterly (Matthew 26:74; Luke 22:62)”? Peter similarly regrets his denial of Jesus, but he takes no rash action like Judas, and so gets to witness the resurrection three days later. How much better if Judas had likewise waited—he would no doubt have been restored even as Peter was. In John 21:15-17, Jesus forgives and restores Peter three times—once for each time the disciple denied Him. Surely the Master who taught us to forgive our enemies would have done the same with Judas!
So here are these two characters, Peter and Jesus. We like to exonerate one and damn the other. We like to declare who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are in any story. Because, by doing so, we make ourselves superior and able to judge both. But sandwiched in between these two narratives of Jesus predicting Judas’ betrayal, and Jesus forecasting Peter’s denial, we find Jesus’ words of hope for both situations. In John 13:34-35, Jesus says, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” Jesus reminds them to love unconditionally, even as He loves without reservation. Though Peter denied Him, Jesus restored. And He would have restored Judas, too, had that disciple not taken his own life. Because “God does not play favorites (Romans 2:11).” And neither should we. So we should love Peter—but we should love Judas, too.
Keep in mind that if someone has betrayed, denied, and stabbed you in the back, that doesn’t mean you need to remain in a vulnerable position of trust—but it does mean you should get yourself to a safe place, and from that position of safety, learn to forgive. Loving and forgiving your enemies doesn’t mean you become their victim over and over. It simply means you choose to trust God for your healing, and that you also trust God to deal with that person instead of you. So whether that person is an abusive spouse, malicious co-worker, or vocal bigot, the love of Jesus should overflow from Christians onto others who are hard to love.
So often, we choose to give Peter grace for his sin, yet condemn Judas for his crime. God, on the other hand, is not as fickle or capricious as we are. God loves us absolutely, and calls us to do the same. Have you been betrayed by one you love? Denied by one who is close to you? Have you ever received bigoted and hateful language from people who don’t even know you? Have you been tempted to return wound for wound, hatred for hatred? Instead, do as Jesus did—love without condition. Receive the Judas kiss—and even give love in return. Love—and forgive—as Jesus does, for your love will prove to the world that you are His disciples.
When the torch smoke clears from Charlottesville, it will be self-evident who acted with hatred in their hearts, asserting that some people are better than others—and who gathered to insist on equality for all. It will also be proven who violated the law, and who did not. But let’s be careful that we don’t do what we do so often, and that we don’t label some human beings as evil and others as righteous. The same Jesus died for them all, and the same Jesus calls us to love our enemies as well as our friends. Jesus gives a new command to every Christian who follows Him. “Love each other.” Now let’s see if we can do just that.
[i]Higgins,Anna and Dodson, Tim. “Homophobic, sexist, anti-white language abundant in Charlottesville vice mayor's tweetsThe Cavalier Daily.:” November 28, 2016. http://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2016/11/wes-bellamy-charlottesville-twitter. August 12, 2017.
Suarez, Chris. “Tweets from Charlottesville councilman cause some to call for his removal. “ Richmond Times-Dispatch. November 28, 2016. http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/tweets-from-charlottesville-councilman-cause-some-to-call-for-his/article_9e478187-2938-5603-9186-a05ac15e6c6a.html. August 12.