Poem #16: The Feet of Judas by George Marion McClellan

Estimated Reading Time:  4.5  minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleThe Feet of Judas

Author: George Marion McClellan

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


Christ washed the feet of Judas!
The dark and evil passions of his soul,
His secret plot, and sordidness complete,
His hate, his purposing, Christ knew the whole,
And still in love he stooped and washed his feet.
Christ washed the feet of Judas!
Yet all his lurking sin was bare to him,
His bargain with the priest, and more than this,
In Olivet, beneath the moonlight dim,
Aforehand knew and felt his treacherous kiss.
Christ washed the feet of Judas!
And so ineffable his love ’twas meet,
That pity fill his great forgiving heart,
And tenderly to wash the traitor’s feet,
Who in his Lord had basely sold his part.
Christ washed the feet of Judas!
And thus a girded servant, self-abased,
Taught that no wrong this side the gate of heaven
Was ever too great to wholly be effaced,
And though unasked, in spirit be forgiven.
And so if we have ever felt the wrong
Of Trampled rights, of caste, it matters not,
What e’er the soul has felt or suffered long,
Oh, heart! this one thing should not be forgot:
Christ washed the feet of Judas.


I love that the first line ends in an exclamation point. It provides a strong instance of when is best to use them. You cannot re-read that sentence after finishing the sentence and not feel the sense of audacity and amazement of the speaker.  

Now, on the surface, the message comes across as pacifist and in someways, a willingness to accept things as they are and in the context of 19th century US, it could easily be seen as accepting the status quote of rampant racism McClellan and many other Black people (to say nothing of other People of Color) faced. But that's reading it in a way that reaffirms the status quo but not something that I think McClellan is aiming to do here.  

Instead, if we look to the phrase "And still in love he stooped and washed his feet.", I think we find something a bit more intriguing.  The love that he speaks of transcends the way we tend to think of love. It's a deeper kind of love that is invested in salvation and redemption; not a love that comes easy but a love that we must struggle to find in ourselves for the world around us and hold onto, despite our personal experiences.  

Each of the stanzas that starts with the phrase drives home the point of Jesus's love at this moment. Jesus knew every part of Judas' sin from conception to execution. Yet, it is Jesus who takes pity on Judas and forgave him without being asked.  

It's only in the final stanza that the reader gets the context of why it is important to remember, when the speaker talks of "trampled rights, of caste". Published in 1922, the poem speaks to the plight of Black Americans who are at the height of segregation and a series of lynchings, riots, and other systemic violence and disenfranchisements that while American culture had foisted upon them since the end of the Civil War.

That McClellan speaks of love despite this shows how deeply he understands the challenges at hand. This love is the kind of love that Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and many, many others will speak to in later decades that they look to in order to find a path towards peace in themselves and in white America, who are understood as so very broken as a result of the history of white supremacy and its violent effects on Black people and toxic effects on white people.  

So to see it here from someone writing in the late 19th and early 20th century is moving in that it shows the longevity of this idea and its richness.  (Inevitably, this idea was not new even then in terms of Jesus's forgiveness but it does not seem to be so readily connected to the hardships faced by Black people).  

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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