Betrayal is anachronistic. It is all about lies, and yet at the heart of the moment lies a kind of truth. Whatever form betrayal takes, the person being betrayed experiences something like shame – naked exposure, perhaps. In the moment of betrayal that person is defenceless, without ‘cover’ of any kind. They look and feel foolish because they have trusted their betrayer. It is their own trust which makes them feel defenceless and ashamed as much as the act of betrayal itself.
The one betraying, whatever their reason for doing so, needs to justify the lies involved and the pain caused by more lies. They must justify it to themselves, so that the betrayal seems in some way ‘necessary’ and therefore not of their choosing. “I had to do it” they will say. “I had no choice”. Apart from justifying the moment, or the act, they must maintain their integrity, at least to themselves, by distancing themselves from any direct responsibility for the damage they have done, and thereby exonerating themselves from being held in any way accountable for it.
All of this is the stuff of politics, of international relations, of the life of the Church and of our own experiences of betrayal, as victim or perpetrator. One could say that it is a universal principle, but it is also complex. Take, for example, corruption or betrayal in institutions whose integrity we need to take for granted, we need to trust; the fiddling of party election expenses (and in some countries the election process itself), police pay-offs for saying nothing in the context of organised crime relating to the grooming of young people for sex, the treatment of people held in police custody (especially if they are black), the power games and personal betrayals (both public and private) of government, sexual exploitation and cover up by the institutional Church along with the countless glossed-over betrayals of loyal and faithful clergy who have served it in good faith, often for years.
Betrayal leaves us dealing with truths we would perhaps rather not face because in the moment of betrayal we see ourselves and others differently. Two such moments occur within a very short space of time in the final hours of the life of Jesus. Neither came as a surprise, but that did not make the betrayal easier to bear. The first took place in a garden at night where one of his own friends shopped him to the religious police. His friend identified him with a kiss.
Betrayal so often comes masquerading as love. ‘I did this or said that because I love you.’ Or ‘I behaved in that way, but you know I really love you.’ Both are lies, of course. We do not harm others because we love them, no matter how justifiable the action may seem to be at the time. We do not abuse trust by exposing another to pain.
Judas was trying to force Jesus’s hand politically. He was prepared to take the risk of his master’s suffering (which Judas may have imagined would somehow be averted at the last minute) to turn Jesus into what he ‘should’ have been. It was about control and manipulation.
The control or manipulation of others, especially those who trust us, is always betrayal. In the moment of the kiss Judas knows that Jesus also knows the truth of the situation, and the truth about Judas. Jesus has known it for a long time in allowing Judas to be what he was, a pilferer of the common purse who had got his priorities all wrong.
Then there was the incident in the courtyard later that night, or possibly early the next morning. Peter, nicknamed ‘the rock’, the one who could be trusted, denies ever having known his closest friend. This moment, held in the meeting of their eyes as the cockerel crowed for the third time, also held every lie that has ever been told for the sake of saving one’s own life or reputation at the expense of the life or reputation of another.
The two moments I have just described are seminal. They are the soil in which the reversal of all betrayals germinates and takes root. Both reveal divine love at its source. They also reveal what that love looks and feels like. It looks like vulnerability and trust. In these two moments Jesus invites us not to look away, not to hide from our betrayals, or from the lies we have lived with for years, but to look quietly and bravely into his eyes, not asking for anything, but simply allowing ourselves to be seen, forgiven and healed.