There’s a Christmas song that makes me really uncomfortable. It makes me think about things I’d rather not – especially this time of year.
And as a Christian, it makes me feel ashamed.
It’s not Santa Baby, with its creepy sexualization of old Kris Kringle.
It’s not even Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ “I Believe in Santa Claus”, which – while starting out promisingly enough – ends up pulling a lyrical switcheroo at the end that (unintentionally) completely undermines the song’s meaning:
I believe that everything in life is what it’s supposed to be
I believe that there is a God out there although He’s hard to see
And I believe I am and I believe that you are too
And all our better angels will help us make it through
I believe there’s always love when all seems lost
And I believe in Santa Claus
No – it’s not one of these three songs. Instead, it’s a quiet, folk-style song, sung in a clear, sincere voice. There are no sleigh bells. There’s no Santa. There’s no sex – or even snuggling by the fire.
The song is Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus.”
The song starts out innocently enough. It’s just another sentimental holiday song, it seems:
All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around their hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God’s graces
Until the provocative last line:
And the birth of the rebel Jesus
This surprising lyric sends us directly into the second verse. We soon learn that this is not a feel-good Christmas ditty, but rather a powerful and discomfiting song that calls out us Christians for our hypocrisy: for what we have done to the world while claiming to follow Jesus:
And they call Him by the “Prince Of Peace”
And they call Him by “The Saviour”
And they pray to Him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavour
And they fill His churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in Him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus
What would Jesus do? Judging by the acts of those who claim to model themselves after Jesus, he would exploit the natural world, indigenous peoples, and the poor in search of bigger and bigger profits.
But Browne knows better. He knows that the Jesus who helps Western Christendom justify its assault on Creation is not the real Jesus. He knows that the real Jesus was a rebel who spoke truth to power, speaking up for a people who were being exploited for financial gain by the Roman Empire. The real Jesus – the rebel Jesus –stood in solidarity with the poor religious minorities whom the Romans tossed aside as they sought world domination.
There’s more in the next verse:
We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if anyone of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus
What would Jesus do? According to His followers, he would create an economic system that protects the rich and ensure that the poor stay outside in the cold. A world in which the haves have more and the have-nots have less – and that’s the way it should stay.
Once again, it would be easy for Jackson Browne just to castigate Christians and move on. But he doesn’t. Though he isn’t a Christian, he knows enough about Jesus to remind us that the real Jesus was a rebel who believed the poor had as much value as the rich.
Perhaps Jackson Browne met some Christians in his travels who showed him the real Jesus. Or maybe he just knows that Jesus was poor himself. In either case, in this verse Browne connects the dots between Christmas and the Crucifixion in ways that make me squirm every time I hear it.
I am guilty – like all Christians – of an inadequate response to the cries for justice emanating from the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. So what if I give a little extra this time of year? While it may help, it does nothing to change the structure of the world—a world based on values that Jesus died challenging.
Giving to charity doesn’t make me a rebel. I’d have to do a lot more to really follow in Jesus’s footsteps. But I won’t. I’m not a Crucifixion Christian, but simply a Christmas Christian. Give me chestnuts roasting on an open fire, not Christ on the cross.
Except we Christians can’t have Christmas without Holy Week. We know that the Incarnation leads to the Crucifixion. We know that the little baby Jesus grows up to be a fiery preacher who speaks truth to power – and who pays the ultimate price for being a rebel. Crucifixion was, after all, a means of execution that served as a public warning that the state would not tolerate rebels.
This is an especially uncomfortable song for us Christians because it comes to us from an outsider. And this just amplifies the shame I feel when I hear it. We Christians shouldn’t need someone else to call us out. After all, we are the religious insiders, the ones with a direct line to God! But we know from the Old and the New Testament that prophets don’t come from the inside, but rather from outside: a place that we consider the “wilderness”, but which is really the place where God’s voice is heard the clearest. Just ask Jacob, Moses, or John the Baptist.
This song is a prophetic voice crying out in the wilderness for us to prepare the way of the Lord. It demands that we consider anew what our religion means. It calls us toward repentance, to turn around and re-orient ourselves toward the real Jesus: the rebel Jesus.
But repentance requires first acknowledging that we are heading in the wrong direction. And that realization doesn’t come easy. For some, all it takes a preacher shouting at us through a megaphone. But for most of us, it requires a change in heart that only happens through quiet reflection and honest self-evaluation. And that only happens when we encounter a message in a way that invites us into a relationship with it: for example, in a quiet and beautiful song like “The Rebel Jesus.”
In fact, it is the song’s musical and lyrical gracefulness that gives it the power to lead us toward repentance. The music is beautiful and easy to sing: a modern hymn which could easily find its way into our church services this time of year. As we listen, and even sing along, the song enters into our body and then our soul. It becomes part of us. Then – and only then – do we have a chance at taking it seriously. And that can lead to repentance.
It helps that – unlike many pop songs that address social issues – its lyrical tone is neither angry nor judgmental. Here’s the last verse:
But pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There’s a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus
This song’s quiet grace invites us into a dialogue with its message, allowing us the opportunity to (prayerfully, perhaps) consider what it has to say to us.
And what it has to say to us is not just that we have sinned, but that there is hope for us. Its beauty reminds us of the possibility that we Christians can change our ways. It reminds us that that there is still time left for us to turn around.
That’s a message we need to hear – though it’s one we ought not to need an outsider to tell us. For we are not just Crucifixion Christians, but Resurrection Christians. We are people who know the power of Jesus to convict us and help us repent. We are not alone; we have the Jesus by our side – the rebel Jesus.
“The Rebel Jesus” is a prophetic song that we Christians should listen to all year round – not just at Christmas. But it’s more than that. It’s also a model of the way in which we Christians should talk to others about our faith. If we want to spread the Jesus’s good news about hope, peace, love, forgiveness, and justice, let’s tell others about it the way Jackson Browne does: with gentleness and kindness, patience and grace, humility and empathy. And then let’s take up our mats and follow Jesus. It is only by doing both that the world will believe the truth of the Christian message – especially at Christmas.
For a different perspective on this song, check out the article “The Rebel Jesus – The Worst Christmas Song Ever” from Network, here.