Kiss of Judas (1304-06), fresco painting, 200 cm x 185 cm by Giotto di Bondone at the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy
Thich Nhat Hahn is a Vietnamese monk and poet, whom Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. During the Vietnamese refugee crisis he and his fellow monks were deeply troubled by the story of a 12-year old girl, one of the boat people, who committed suicide by throwing herself into the sea after being raped by a Thai pirate. It is easy to identify with the victim, hard to identify with the rapist. Still, if we look deep inside ourselves, we will see the scary truth that, given the right circumstances, we could be just as evil as the man who violently assaulted that little girl. Nhat Hahn explored this idea in a poem he wrote titled “Please Call Me By My True Names.” Here are two of its verses:
I am the twelve year old girl, refugee / on a small boat, / who throws herself in the ocean after / being raped by a sea pirate, / and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable/ of seeing and loving. . . . Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up./ So the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.
It takes some difficult soul-searching to identify with the perpetrator, not just the victim. But as Nhat Hahn points out, we cannot show true compassion for others as long as we think we are superior to them.
Last Sunday I heard a pastor retell the story of the Last Supper at which Jesus dropped the bombshell that one of his disciples would betray him. Instead of looking around in righteous indignation, each asked the Master “with great sorrow” and perhaps with trembling lips, “Lord, Is it I?” (Matt. 26:22). All the disciples knew in their hearts that they had the ability to betray him. Although Judas turned out to be the betrayer, there’s plenty of blame to go around. If we could examine the hammer that drove the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, we would each find our own fingerprints on the instrument of his death.
As we move into Holy Week and hear the stories of Jesus’ last days, try to identify with Judas, who betrayed Jesus with a kiss; the angry mob that shouted, “Crucify him!”; Pontius Pilate, who washed his hands as he passed the death sentence; and the Roman soldiers, who mocked and beat Jesus before nailing him to the cross.