"Did You have a Good Friday? Judas Didn't!"
A snippet from last year's Good Friday homily as the preacher warmed to the popular theme of "let's all beat up on Judas":
"Of all the people in the bible, I can’t think of too many people who have a worse name than Judas Iscariot: have you ever known anybody named Judas? What do you think would happen if you called someone a Judas? He has gone down in history as one of the worst betrayers in all the bible. Oh, there are other bad guys of the bible: Pharaoh, Pilate, Ahab, Herod ... all come to mind. But I don’t think any can beat ol’ Judas for sheer detestability. After all, you sort of expected all of them to be wicked: all of them were corrupt rulers, but Judas takes the cake because not only was he bad, but he betrayed a friend ..."
And so say all of us, I suspect?
Do those gleeful chants of "Judas dai don tidey, wi go berram tumara ...!" still ring out in the Freetown byways as they did when I was a boy growing up in the "Isten"?
I’m kinda assuming here that everyone’s familiar with the phenomena of "Judas Beatings” but just in case you’re not, you can choose between googling P.E.H. Hair’s scholarly account ("Beating Judas in Freetown") or settling for this extract from a travel blog I stumbled on recently:
“Early in the morning on Goodfriday, kids throughout the city gather Johnks (used clothes, "deadman's clothes) and stuff them with straw, creating a scarecrow - with pipe, hat, sunglasses and scarf - to resemble Judas.
Then they wait for the church bell to signal the end of the morning mass.
As soon as the first bell is beaten, kids all over the Freetown peninsula start the annual "Flogging of Judas", which means:
They drag the scarecrows along the streets, beating and bashing them with sticks, kicking them, drowning them in the open sewers and literally slaughter them.
-Dis is so he must to know that he did badd to the Jissus! I was told by a group of kids as they dragged what was left of Judas - a torn and soaked sweater - out of the water at Mama Beach.”
Participating in that Good Friday ritual of beating Judas was one of the annual highpoints of my childhood, although I will freely admit that I had no strong views about the guy Judas at the time and in fact I had a very ulterior, irreligious reason for joining in so enthusiastically: it was the closest thing to dancing “kaka debul” in the street that I could get involved in without getting my behind walloped by my granny for “consorting with street boys”, so I made the most of my couple of “control-free” hours.
And yet, even then, what pleasure I derived from being part of that enterprise was usually modulated by a certain discomfort at the idea that so much of that energy was being expended on a beating. As I grew older I began to doubt more and more just how much folks like Judas, guys who had been caught stealing chickens and children who got the recitation of their multiplication tables wrong deserved the beatings they inevitably got in our part of the world. I also became somewhat convinced that beating-up-on-Judas was an almost inevitable consequence of the neo-Victorian "beating-up-on-people industry" which was the accompanying backdrop to my childhood in Freetown.
It’s a conviction that does depend on some blurring of historical timelines, of course, and the effortless linkage of all these aforementioned disparate constituencies (Messiah-betrayer, poultry-pilferer and mathematical-malcontent alike) in a common victimhood does require some imaginative plot-mapping, but the more I thought of it the clearer the connections seemed to be.
I’m sticking with the Judas and Jesus story just for the moment, and might return to the chickens and the “times tables” another time (hopefully before the cock’s crowed three times). Let’s remind ourselves why me and my childhood pals beat up on the Judas guy (and there’s no reason, surely, to doubt the authoritative testimony of the beaters themselves); it was:
… so he must to know that he did badd to the Jissus!
There is certainly that general perception, even among people who aren’t christians, that Judas is a traitor who deserves to be despised and hence to be both literally and figuratively beaten up on. The expression “give a dog a bad name and hang him for it” takes on a whole new significance where Judas is concerned, especially if we believe St Matthew’s version of the betrayal story (which has the wretched fellow returning the bribe he’d accepted and then hanging himself). As the preacher’s words quoted above make plain, my nan could certainly have done much worse than calling her dog “Sidom Luk”; she could have called him “Judas” and watched him being kicked, stoned and clubbed to death by the “street children” in the space of a week.
There is, though--as one would expect in this bipolar world of ours--another branch of Judas Studies which sees him as a guy “more sinned against than sinning”. The best rendition of this alternative “Justice for Judas” appeal I have read is, admittedly, from a work of fiction, but it is both an impressive and persuasive read nevertheless. I’m referring here to “The Last Temptation of Christ” (the novel, not Scorcese’s eponymous film, which, I confess, I have never seen because I seriously believe the Pope wasn’t kidding when he said I will go to hell if I do) and to the presentation in that work of Judas’s motives as foregrounded in a knowledge that Jesus wanted to be betrayed so that the scriptures would be fulfilled; to the claim that Judas was the only one of his friends/disciples with the dedication and belief in Christ’s destiny to assist him in fulfilling that destiny.
But the balance of evidence, history and popular opinion is very much against Judas; he is therefore fated to be beaten up on in our writings for all eternity, and although there is no biblical “authority” for the beatings I participated in so enthusiastically in Freetown, they are likely to continue for just as long. Interestingly, a number of orthodox and catholic churches/communities in Europe and South America have “Judas Burning” rituals which usually involve hanging an effigy of the “traitor” on Good Friday then setting it/him alight on Easter Sunday night. But beating Judas is a rather unique variation on the theme which Freetown’s christian communities are known to share with a certain South American nation: Brazil (in parts of Brazil, the saturday between Good friday and Easter is called “Hallelujah Saturday” and that’s the day when neighbourhood kids take to the street on their Judas-beating excursions). The fascinating criss-cross of cultural influences consequent on the transatlantic slave trade are clearly in evidence yet again here.
But for a really bizarre (and eminently practical) variation on the “Beating-up-on-people” theme, look no further than the Wan Chai province of China, from where this South China Morning Post account comes:
Shouted curses and the sound of shoes banging on cement echoed around Wan Chai yesterday as crowds gathered for the traditional practice of "beating the devil" to take revenge on their enemies.
For $50 a pop, ritual performers battered paper effigies of workplace enemies while shouting appropriate imprecations. While the practice appeals to older women, growing numbers of young people have adopted it in recent years.
Among the queues that snaked around Canal Road was a Mr Yeung, 24, who went with his girlfriend to deal a blow to "kings and queens of gossip" in her workplace. "Though I am only 24, I am quite superstitious and I believe in the practice of beating the devil. I think it really works," he said.
"My girlfriend has had some trouble at work in the past two years. She's been dragged into gossip by vicious colleagues, so we came to beat them."
Another young pair was Mr Yip, 26, and his friend, Ms Ho.
"Hateful colleagues are everywhere. Many friends want to come too, but they have to work. I'm off today, so I'll help them beat those they dislike at work," Mr Yip said.
They almost lost count as they asked a ritual performer to curse numerous coworkers for themselves and their friends - at $50 per enemy.
© MMVIII Kayode Adesimi
Previously published on the Visit Sierra Leone blog, March 2008