Rebel Jesus is a rarity in the Jackson Browne catalogue, hidden away on a The Chieftains' album Bells Of Dublin and then as one of the obligatory extra tracks on Browne's compilation album The Next Voice You Hear. It is however, as potent a Christmas song as you'll ever hear.
On the genesis of the song Browne has shared that he was very much looking forward to singing a traditional carol on that particular Chieftains’ album but could not find one to fit. A Mayan Indian friend suggested he wrote his own. On a Christmas radio special, hosted by Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn in the 1993, Browne explained a little more of the song’s birth, “We had also been talking about Christianity and the impact of Christianity on the Mayan people and somehow the two things got combined into this Christmas song. I didn’t really mean to but it came out as an indictment of Christianity. I just want everyone to know you can indict whatever major religion you feel like indicting on this song here. I didn’t mean to lay it all at the feet of Christianity so I hope you take it in the spirit of which it is intended.”
After Browne has played the song and they are tuning up for the next one, you hear Bruce Cockburn say, "I think Christianity can take an indictment like that anytime, speaking as a Christian.” The two songwriters then go on to discuss, with some humour, Salman Rushdie and those religious fanatics who are not so keen on indictment.
The song itself is a gem and does what Browne explained it would. It indicts the dubious practices of those who claim to follow Jesus while seemingly contradiction his revolution. Browne uses the story of Christ over turning the tables in the temple to indict those who would abuse God’s Creation for selfish materialist wealth and throws in the “pride and gold” of Churches in the same verse!
In another verse the poor are ignored but might be thrown a token gesture in our Christmas generosity. The irony of the poor being ignored on Christmas Day when the baby celebrated was without a bed or food is the crux of the hypocrisy. How have we shut the door to the marginalised for a warm romanticised day of decadence is the question posed?
Browne then paraphrases Helder Camara’s quote, “If I feed the poor they call me a saint but if I ask why the poor are poor they call me a communist,” to powerful effect. If we decided to turn the world on its head by seeking social and economic justice for
the oppressed we would get the same as The Rebel Jesus. In conclusion the Mayan Indian, whose views Browne is singing, claims he is a pagan and a heathen BUT on the side of The Rebel Jesus. Are those who claim the season so keen on the rebellious life birthed in a Bethlehem back alley to a young girl of no reputation?
Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1, about the baby in her womb, is a song about a Rebel who will restore balance to the social, political and economic order of things. When the angels sing to the shepherds of that baby’s birth there is a sense of world shalom and peace for
humanity. When that baby grows up and stands up in his home synagogue to declares his mission, by reading from an Old Testamentprophet, he is speaking of a rebellion to put all the world’s bad news right and bring good news to all those suffering the injustice of the world so messed up by the fall of humanity but now being put right by the Saviour of the World. Written all over this nativity scene is the word REBEL!