This year the BBC will celebrate Good Friday by broadcasting a documentary called ‘In the Footsteps of Judas’. It will be presented by a female Anglican vicar who stars in ‘Gogglebox’ which is a show based on the questionable but apparently winning premise that it would be immensely entertaining to be able to watch a variety of pub bores as they themselves watch television.
It is worth quoting the Reverend Kate Bottley at some length on what the programme seeks to do. The Telegraph reports her as saying: “I don’t think any of the other disciples were whiter than white – we just probably didn’t hear about it – because they were all human and we are all a bit messed up. Up until that moment of betrayal, Judas seems no better or worse than any of the other disciples. But he has been defined by the worst thing he did. What Judas did is not OK but I think he holds up a very important mirror to our own human condition.
“Jesus forgave people as they were putting the nails in to his hands and there is no reason why he would not have forgiven Judas but he just didn’t hear that.”
There are a number of things which strike me as worrying about this summary. They are worthy of debate because of the deep theological ignorance of modern Britain, the fact that its national broadcaster has chosen to use one of its few headline religious programmes in Holy Week to propagate this message, and because the Anglican communion, which abounds with clerics making statements such as the one above, is still the main conduit in this country through which the layman with no particular religious instruction encounters Christ.
Taken together these add up to at best a missed opportunity and at worst a perverse effort to muddy the waters around one of the pivotal events in human history.
In respect of not hearing about the misdeeds of other disciples, this is simply not true. One doesn’t have to look far – Luke 22:47 sees Jesus betrayed, but one verse earlier he can be found admonishing the disciples en masse for falling asleep rather than praying.
In short order afterwards Peter denies Jesus, and Thomas refuses to believe in the resurrection until he has physically touched the Risen Son.
The Gospels are full of disciples in venial sin, failing constantly in the outer reaches of their belief and sometimes in charity and humour but importantly never in the desire for faith or their loyalty, never deliberately and finally severing their ties with God. In this sense, Judas is unique.
Skipping ahead slightly, a related contention is the idea that “what Judas did is not OK”. I despise this ugly and cowardly phrase which flourishes in modern English usage like a weed. Instead of offering up a judgement as it appears to, it suggests almost complete moral equivocation.
A perfectly good word exists in the English language for Judas’ action: evil. Implying that betraying Christ, any innocent in fact, for some silver pieces is sort-of-not-alright, we diminish the gravity of the crime and find ourselves in the comforting mental world of shades of grey, some way removed from the Christian reality of black and white damnation or salvation (purgatory, although a state a long way short of Heaven is ultimately a mechanism for salvation and therefore stands opposite to Hell).
On the point that Judas is, until the betrayal, no worse than other disciples, I am not convinced. In John 12:1-8 we find him stealing from the poor whilst hypocritically declaring that the oil used to anoint Jesus in Lazarus’ household should be sold and the money given away.
This story ties to another pillar of Reverend Bottley’s programme which is the belief in some quarters that Judas was a disappointed political activist hoping to provoke a revolution by the arrest of Jesus. These seem to me neatly to underline the mischief inherent in the politics of those always claiming to be able to achieve the general good. Good must be particular and individual in the small things if it is to have any value at all, it. You may, like Jesus, pay for it with your own life, but it is a wicked thing to try to purchase it with someone elses.
Which leaves us with the question of Judas and forgiveness. There is a counterpoint which needs making to Reverend Bottley’s view that Judas may have been forgiven without his knowledge. This is that a prerequisite of forgiveness is repentance. We do not know whether Judas repented – Matthew 27:3-8 implies he did and was so overcome with guilt that he hung himself, Acts 1:16-19 implies that he did not and so was struck down while taking possession of the field he bought with blood money.
In either case, as none of us can possibly tell the inner workings of another soul, or fathom the mercy of God, to focus on this question is to miss the point of the Judas story which is the greatness of Christ’s love for mankind even at the point of its greatest brutality towards him.
None of this is to attack Reverend Bottley who has made a decision in taking Anglican orders to devote her life to the service of God. But it does remind me of why I despaired of the Anglican church. I vividly remember the first Catholic service I ever attended, hearing Fr Paul Hough at St Elphege’s in Wallington preaching a family service to a circle of children sitting around him and feeling awestruck at both the theological richness and spirit of kindness which infused the homily.
How I wish either this man or any of the dozens of brilliant, inspiring and clear sighted priests I have met since in the Catholic Church were able to address the millions who will be watching on Friday – it would certainly win more souls for Christ than this exercise in contrariness. Perhaps that is why the BBC, atheist to the core, would never countenance it.