The Burning of Judas and the Problem of Evil

Janet C. Phelan
Activist Post

Last night, the people of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas gathered in the town square to witness the traditional burning of Judas. The burning of Judas in effigy is a local custom taking place at the end of Holy Week (“Semana Santa”). The square behind the Palacio Municipal was packed with thousands of locals, who climbed onto stairways and shimmied up columns in order to get a better look at the symbolic end of evil.

Earlier in the day, ten large plastic sculptures by local artists, depicting perpetrators of social and political injustice, were placed on display in the square. The theme for this year’s depiction of our current Judases was “Mistreatment of babies.” Not to be harnessed by literal constraints, the artwork depicted a wide range of perpetrators of harm and injustice, including Uncle Sam, a bankster holding aloft a large bag of money and a reptilian sort of dragon which seemed intent on global domination.

At the stroke of ten, the burnings commenced. One by one, each piece of art was pyrotechnically exploded into flames, while pinwheels of fireworks arched up into the sky above the square. The crowd itself exploded into applause, while depictions of oppression and corporate greed transmogrified into ten pyres of burning annihilation.

One of the art works was apparently seeded too heavily with explosives and at the time of detonation, huge sparks rained down on the crowd. A stampede ensued, as the crowd rushed for the cover of the Palacio Municipal. There were no reports of injuries sustained.

Symbolically, the destruction of evil and the triumph of good laces all our myths, our religious texts and our modern day political constructs, not to mention the celluloid outspewings of Hollywood. The thirst for justice and the conquest of evil seems basic to the human story. In the United States, this thirst for justice has assumed again a nearly mythic stature, as our populace is waking up to history: Our history, the truth behind the dream of America, the truth of imperial greed and slaughter, the killing of the indigenous, the enslavement of people of color, of wars based on lies and contempt for human life and the mockery of justice which is now taking place every day in our halls of justice.

But behind this thirst for justice lies a deeply disturbing question. How does one conquer evil
without oneself using the tools and methods of evil? Does a guillotine chopping off the head of a king or prince actually end the reign of corruption or does it simply confirm and perpetuate violence as a means of asserting self- will? And —this question cuts to the core–does the one manning the guillotine soon use this power to become the very oppressor he sought to defeat?

In a recent interview, Howard Nema and I discussed the burning of Judas and also some recent revelations of corruption in a county in Southern California, as well as the apparently successful intimidation of a brave and beloved San Bernardino county activist by . . . well, those manning the guillotine. These days, one sees lights being extinguished, dampened and diminished everywhere one looks. Telling the truth and acting upon that knowledge of right vs. wrong is becoming an increasingly perilous endeavor.

The light we should seek and applaud is not, to my way of thinking, the pyre of a burning Judas. The flames that should be drawing us into town squares, into virtual meeting places on the web, into our spiritual sacred spaces and into our political meeting halls are the lights carried by each and every one of us who still knows wrong from right and has the courage to speak out. These are the sparks of the Divine flame which need to be honored and these are the lights which will be passed and carried through the generations.

Fear has a way of darkening the light. If it is any comfort, no one gets out of here alive. Not a Judas, not a Christ, and certainly not you or me. What will remain behind us is our light and what we have done during our brief tenure on this embattled planet. Whether this legacy pushes back the darkness or, out of fear and a sense of self preservation instead solidifies and strengthens the darkness is entirely up to us.

Yes, there is indeed a battle going on and the battlefield is in the hearts and minds of every one of us. As the old Indian legend tells it, each of us contains two wolves—the good wolf and the bad wolf. Which wolf gains ascendancy depends on which one we feed. The Judas burning last night in the central square may have been the externalization of the Judas that lurks in each of us. It may be time to confront him, face to face and without illusions.

Janet Phelan is an investigative journalist whose articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The San Bernardino County Sentinel, The Santa Monica Daily Press, The Long Beach Press Telegram, Oui Magazine and other regional and national publications. Janet specializes in issues pertaining to legal corruption and addresses the heated subject of adult conservatorship, revealing shocking information about the relationships between courts and shady financial consultants. She also covers issues relating to international bioweapons treaties. Her poetry has been published in Gambit, Libera, Applezaba Review, Nausea One and other magazines. Her first book, The Hitler Poems, was published in 2005. She currently resides abroad.  You may browse through her articles (and poetry) at

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