Delores Williams is associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. She is known especially for her articulation of womanist theology, a perspective defined in relationship with but differently from feminist and black theologies.
This article appeared in the Christian Century ,October 24, 1990. p 963, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Some of my African-American slave ancestors tried to leave me and my people a message about compassion that defies what many of us want to hear. We do not want judgment to equal compassion and compassion to equal judgment in our relation to those who have so seriously sinned against us.
While researching the spiritual songs of African-American slaves I was surprised to come upon a line that commanded: "When you get to heaven, rub poor lil’ Judas’s head." Most Christian teaching casts Judas into hell as an unforgiven sinner. Never had I heard a kind word about Judas. What is going on here? Is this an instance of what black statesmen and scholars like Frederick Douglass and John Lovell called the masked language of the spiritual songs? Since the songs are thought to have been created by the entire community rather than by one person, was the slave community trying to pass along some message that white masters would forbid?
I have never settled this matter. But the sentence has communicated some important messages. To me, "When you get to heaven, rub poor lil’ Judas’s head" speaks of victory, forgiveness, judgment, blessing and expectation of a great new dispensation.
Of course, the great new dispensation will occur in that fabulous place imaged in the spiritual songs as "heaven" where God reigns supremely and with justice. I always thought Revelation 21:10-11 imaged this place as the slave might have: "And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal."
The holy city is where all needs are supplied (as in the line from one song: "All God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven goin’ta put on shoes and walk all over God’s heaven") For the slave, it was a place like John the Revelator saw -- a place where "night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 22:5)
The sentence about rubbing Judas’s head suggests that in this new place people relinquish grudges and hostilities they have held for generations. So much mercy abounds that the most dastardly and cruel deeds are forgiven. Judgment is replaced by compassion. Rubbing the head suggests sympathy and blessing rather than curses.
Discovering this reference to Judas made by slaves caused me to look at the Beatitudes again, for this was the model of blessing from God with which I was familiar. I said to myself: It is indeed wonderful for Jesus to pronounce blessings upon the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness and the peacemakers. But where does he pronounce blessings upon and promise rewards (heaven) to the betrayer of God? Judas is forgiven by God?
Within the theology of the spirituals, that would be the only way Judas could get into heaven. Perhaps the song is also suggesting that the reason he is forgiven is because his act of betrayal fits into God’s plan for the way in which Jesus would redeem humankind.
Whatever the case, the line about rubbing Judas’s head takes judgment out of the range of human response. In the song, humans express only compassion for another human. Maybe the song also suggests that sin is the terrible force that shrinks the distances and heights we try to put between ourselves and others. No one is without sin and error. Compassion is what we offer others in light of our own sin.
The line triggers in my imagination the fierce struggle we undergo in our souls in our efforts to forgive those who have inflicted deep and serious wounds. Beyond forgiveness comes the compassion the victim has for the perpetrator. There is, of course, the intimation that heaven is the reward for such experiences, and that God plays an important role in this final victim-perpetrator relation. But human compassion evidences the victory. In our world it is not easy to see this kind of compassion as anything other than foolishness or weakness. In terms of social existence, haven’t people in power always expected their victims to forgive them? Doesn’t this kind of compassion for perpetrators of wounds and victimization cause the perpetrators to believe they can always get away with their crimes? Doesn’t "rub poor lil’ Judas’s head" get in the way of justice being done in the earthly communities where people live their daily lives? Are oppressed people ever going to be able to affirm judgment like Isaiah did when he declared: "For behold, the Lord is coming forth out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity and the earth will disclose the blood shed upon her, and will no more cover her slain" (26:21) ?
Even though this is an eschatological expectation on Isaiah’s part, it still speaks of justice rather than compassion. Isn’t that fair? Were the African-American slaves suggesting that the kind of compassion that it took to rub Judas’s head could happen only in heaven and not on earth? Scholars have often disagreed about the reality to which the word "heaven" pointed in the spiritual songs. So the word might not have eschatological significance here.
One thing is clear. Some of my African-American slave ancestors tried to leave me and my people a message about compassion that defies what many of us want to hear. We do not want judgment to equal compassion and compassion to equal judgment in our relation to those who have so seriously sinned against us. Shouldn’t there be a place for the cosmic scream of oppressed people? Shouldn’t there be a dispensation on earth where justice happens in ways we can affirm? Shouldn’t our suffering be vindicated on the old earth? Do we have to wait for a new heaven and a new earth when the old earth has passed away?
Sentences out of context and out of joint with the times can leave us confounded. Research into the past can lead us to ancient ideas that shake us to the very core of our being. Sometimes we are made to realize that the ancestors in their great inscrutableness refuse to be less than major voices.