It breaks my heart

At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples– the one whom Jesus loved– was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

John 13:21-30

That’s got to be in the top five questions of all time on Christian Jeopardy. Who was the historical Jesus being number one and what did the first Eucharists look like being second. So, maybe number three. “I’ll take the motivations of Judas for 800, Alex.” Maybe it was his upbringing. A therapist friend of mine is fond of saying, “if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.” Perhaps he learned an avoidant attachment style from his primary caregiver.

Theories also run to Judas’s integrity. He might have thought he understood the project Jesus was trying to put together, and that project was supposed to be an armed rebellion against their imperial overlords vis-a-vis the Maccabee brothers1. Seeing what he perceived as a deviation from the plan, perhaps Judas was trying to force the issue by getting Jesus to resist arrest. Or maybe Judas was just plain ol’ possessed by the devil.

I don’t go much for demon possession. Given that it’s all over the place in scripture, I won’t rule it out entirely, but I think we need to give that potentiality with a very wide berth. There is so much cultural baggage in the time of the scriptures and our own related to the subject that getting down to what it really means might qualify it as a question for Christian Jeopardy.2 How else, though, are the disciples supposed to explain why Judas has done what he has done, not just to Jesus but also to them?

The disciples, after all, are a team. There’s an understanding between them like the understanding of the Fellowship of the Rings, the Super Friends, and even the citizens of a purportedly democratic state. John Locke’s Social Contract theory holds that people who live together in community make certain implicit promises to one another. If a leader in that society decides, for instance, to hold off on making an important decision about, say, appointing a person to the judiciary because the executive in charge of nominating that person to that position is nearing the end of his term, the members of society should reasonably expect the leader to apply the same principle if a similar situation comes up a second time. In this purely hypothetical scenario, the people might properly feel betrayed if the leader acted in an inconsistent manner.

Judas, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the disciples’ circle, is acting in a way which is inconsistent with the reasonable expectations of his fellows. The destruction of that trust which has built up in their midst is inconceivable, and maybe the only way to try to wrap their heads around it is to call Judas possessed. It’s certainly broken their hearts, because they all thought they loved the same person in the same way. Maybe the shared illusion needed to be shattered?

I don’t know if all rock and rollers share the illusion that their guitars can change the world. Jimi Hendrix’s Telecaster arguably did. Pete Townshend may have imagined that his Rickenbacker did, but that is debatable. In either case, other members of the fraternity3 of guitarists might look at the destruction of one of these instruments as a desecration of the thing they thought they all loved in the same way.

John Hiatt opined that there ought to be a law against such things. He wrote a song to that effect anyway. The New York Times took the ball and ran with the idea that this was somehow a feud between Hiatt and Townshend. Hiatt himself demurs, as he did in the face of a friend of mine who, having offered an elaborate analysis of one of Hiatt’s songs, was invited to “stop thinking so much, college boy.” Still, that sense of betrayal, not just of an individual person or ideal, but of a whole community resonates throughout “Perfectly Good Guitar.”

And yet there is a sense in which the song itself is something of a betrayal. If you know John Hiatt’s music at all, you’re likely to know him as the songwriter’s songwriter who occupies a place somewhere between Townes Van Zandt and James Taylor, and to whom Jason Isbell is a worthy successor. So imagine, if you will, coming to hear Hiatt play the dulcet tones of Have A Little Faith in Me at Austin City Limits, only to be confronted with the back of Michael Ward’s bald ass head and wave after wave of feedback from his amplifier.4

As Hiatt’s frenemy Pete Townshend will tell you, feedback hurts. Endure it long enough and you’ll go deaf. Then again, you may not want to hear it from Judas anymore. It’s too heartbreaking, as is the truth that, late at night, at the end of the road, Judas probably wishes he hadn’t destroyed the one thing that gave him hope. Us too, brother, us too.

  1. The Maccabean Rebellion in the 160s BCE, having overthrown the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, restored worship in the Temple. Despite a lack of oil, the lamps in the restored Temple burned brightly for eight nights, giving the Jewish people the celebration of Hannukah. ↩︎
  2. I’m not saying that the ancients were superstitious and we’re so much more enlightened because SCIENCE! That’s an insult to the ancients and an act of hubris on our part. I’m just saying it’s complicated.*
    *Also, having discovered the footnote function in WordPress, I recognize that I’m in real danger of becoming the David Foster Wallace of Holy Week bloggers. Perhaps I am, in fact, possessed by the ghost of DFW. ↩︎
  3. This is the third time in four days that I’ve used this word, and I guess I have to own that this is not an accident or somehow a quirk of predestination. The gatherings I have imagined so far have been largely male and the artists I have included have all been male (and white to boot). I hope this lack of creativity on my part will be redeemed in the coming days. ↩︎
  4. Asked once if he planned to implement mosh pits at his shows, Hiatt responded that he intended to institute a nosh pit instead, complete with brisket, bagels, and lox. ↩︎