Have you ever been betrayed? I would guess many of you have in one way or another. Someone you loved pulled out a knife when you weren’t looking and stabbed you in the back. Betrayal rips apart your heart like nothing else, as anger and grief course through you, leaving you feeling used, cheated, and helpless. As Shakespeare wrote, it’s “the most unkindest cut of all.”
Whether it’s a spouse having an affair, a friend spilling your secrets, or a confidante at work sabotaging you or ruining your reputation, betrayal is one of the worst things you can do to someone. It’s so bad Dante put it as the lowest level of hell in his “Inferno.”
In the dark frozen lake of hell’s ninth circle, traitors of friends, family, guests, and nation are all trapped, each alone, in an icy cage alongside the greatest traitor of them all—Satan. There, in this nightmare of darkness and ice, Satan beats his wings in rage, sending cold winds across the lake, whipping through the multitude of traitorous souls and refreezing it over and over again, as his “tears gushed together with a bloody froth.” In his mouth, he endlessly chews the greatest traitors in human history.
Why did Dante make betrayal (treachery) the worst sin, surpassing even rape, theft, and murder? We don’t know exactly, but one reason had to have been that betrayal is the intentional defilement of the greatest gift God has given to us, the telos of human existence, and the very essence of God’s nature: Love. It is only fitting, therefore, that those who betray love are condemned to the realm farthest from it where they keep company with the greatest traitor of all.
The Iconic Power of Betrayal
So powerful is betrayal that it’s one of the dominant themes in religion, myth, and literature throughout human history—alongside love, of course, because you can’t have betrayal if you don’t have love. The most-hated character is often not the primary antagonist who is usually some generic form of evil driven by a desire to create chaos or enslave others to his will. That character is most feared. But the most despised character is the sniveling traitor, like Wormtongue and Gollum, those dehumanized creatures twisted by their own treachery. Their names live in infamy.
No matter where you turn in literature, you find a traitor motivated by jealousy, pride, or fear. Edmund in The Chronicles of Narnia betrays his family to the White Witch, not just because he’s tempted by the sweetness of Turkish delight, but because he is jealous of his brother. He hates that Peter, the eldest, is stronger, smarter, and more accomplished than him. The White Witch’s offer to make Edmund her heir (and provide an endless supply of Turkish delight) is just the motivation he needs to reach toward making himself more powerful than his brother.
In Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Iago betrays Othello because he is consumed with jealousy, not just because he lusts after Desdemona and suspects Othello of sleeping with his wife, but because Iago doesn’t receive a promotion he thought he deserved. He was slighted, and his pride and jealousy drive him to betray not only Othello, but many characters. He is a villainous character who manipulates those he pretends to befriend because he imagines he has been unjustly treated and deserves power.
We see this lust for power, authority, and recognition in Fredo Corleone when he betrayed his family in “The Godfather II” by passing information to their enemy. He was the son of Vito and the older brother of Michael, but hadn’t received the respect he thought he deserved. His pride took hold, and it festered. He hated that he was relegated to doing small jobs instead of having a higher place in the family business. “I can handle things!” he told his brother. “I’m smart! Not like everybody says … like dumb … I’m smart and I want respect!”
When respect is seen as an entitlement and a person doesn’t get what she thinks she deserves, pride can worm its way into her heart until she’s willing betray her closest friend, even her family. “I work hard, so I deserve recognition.” “I’m smarter and more talented than her, why does she get promoted?” “I’m destined to be great, and I’m going to prove it.” This love of oneself will eventually diminish any other love and lead to the most heartbreaking betrayals.
Betrayal Is The Inversion of Love
Some think pride was at the root of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. He put his own status and love of money above Jesus’ life. Judas wasn’t simply a follower of Jesus; he was his friend. Maybe Judas really did love Jesus at one point—we don’t know. We do know he put his own self-interest over that of his lord’s life, and he received 30 pieces of silver for his treachery. In the end, he killed himself. Dante depicts Judas as being one of the three traitors whom Satan eternally mauls (the other two are Brutus and Cassius).
This theme is repeated throughout literature, from King Lear’s children plotting take his land and money to Cypher in “The Matrix” betraying his friends on the Nebuchadnezzar so he can leave his life of drudgery in the real world and return to the illusive luxury of the Matrix, preferably as someone famous. Cypher was willing to lay down the life of his friends for the comfort of his own. This inversion of love is the very essence of betrayal.
Fear is often the motivating factor in such betrayals. We see this in the Harry Potter series when Peter Pettigrew betrays Harry’s parents to the Dark Lord. He put more value on his own life than that of his friends:
‘What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed?’ said Black, with a terrible fury in his face. ‘Only innocent lives, Peter!’
‘You don’t understand!’ whined Pettigrew. ‘He would have killed me, Sirius!’
‘Then you should have died!’ roared Black. ‘Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!’
As Shakespeare said in Macbeth, “Our fears do make us traitors.” That’s certainly true of Winston Smith in “1984,” who at the end of the book cries out under torture, “Do it to Julia!” With this, he gives up the woman he loves to be mauled by rats. Consumed by fear, he decides in that moment that his life, not hers, is more valuable. Of course, we can sympathize with Winston, given the torture he was under, but it’s significant that he lost his last shred of humanity with an act of betrayal. Fear drove out love, resulting in his dehumanization and enslavement to the totalitarian state.
Betrayal undermines the bonds of love and trust that hold relationships and societies together. When trust is lost, when those we love turn against us, husband against wife, friend against friend, children against parents, we are dehumanized. We have lost the key component besides rationality that makes us most like God: the ability to love. And what is the human story but, as Pope Benedict XVI said, “the struggle between love and the inability to love.”
The pain of betrayal is a dark thread running through all of human history, as unfaithful friends and lovers break promises, reveal confidences, and sacrifice love on the altar of vainglory. It’s an ugly depiction of human nature, as the weakest among us choose to defile God’s greatest gift instead of honoring it. They choose the inability to love over love. They choose hell over heaven.
What to Do With a Traitor
What should our response be, then, when we’re betrayed? How do we keep from allowing the pain to rob us of our ability to love and to trust? The only answer, I believe, is to forgive. Even if the traitor doesn’t ask for our forgiveness, it is the greatest gift we can give ourselves: “Mercy is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that receives.” If we don’t show mercy and forgiveness, bitterness can take hold, and we’ll risk losing our capacity to love.
One of the most beautiful scenes in literature is when Aslan forgives Edmund. Trembling with shame and still unaware of the extent of his crime and the damage he had done, Edmund humbled himself before his family. They forgave him, and most importantly, Aslan forgave him. Then, in the ultimate act of love, Aslan went alone to the Stone Table, where he died a terrible death to pay for Edmund’s crime of treachery.
“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” John writes. Do you see how this is the opposite of betrayal? This is what love looks like. This is how you treat a friend. It’s putting another’s life and needs before yourself, your own pride, your own petty jealousies, and even your own fears.
I realize many in this world reject such altruism, such sacrificial love. Some even think it’s a myth, that no one can truly love this way. But it’s real. Mothers and fathers sacrifice for their children. Husbands sacrifice for their wives and vice versa. Friends give up their wants, their needs, for those they love. Soldiers sacrifice for their nation, their home. And, in Christianity, Christ sacrificed himself for the world.
This is what love looks like. Don’t let pride, jealousy, and fear betray that love. If you do, you will ultimately be alone, and when you’re alone there is nothing left to love or betray, nothing, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “to escape from and nothing to escape to. One is always alone.”