After read­ing Jeff’s Playlist yes­ter­day, and lis­ten­ing to his rec­om­mend­ed song, I not­ed he called it his favorite Christmas record­ing. It made me pause to think whether I have a favorite. 

I grew up lis­ten­ing to my par­ents’ Christmas albums from the 1960s and ear­li­er. And I am prone to wax nos­tal­gic. So it’s not a shock­er that among my all-time favorites are such clas­sics as Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song.” Other favorites include the entire Vince Guaraldi sound­track to A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Barenaked Ladies med­ley of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings,” “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon, et. al., and “Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy” by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. Also on heavy rota­tion in my house at this time of year is the album When My Heart Finds Christmas by Harry Connick, Jr. and his smok­ing jazz band. 

But if I had to pick just one favorite Christmas song, it might be a lit­tle-known 1991 record­ing by Jackson Browne and the Irish band The Chieftains. From the album The Bells of Dublin, the song writ­ten and sung by Browne, is called “The Rebel Jesus.”

“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 any one of us should inter­fere
In the busi­ness of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus”

Jackson Browne, “The Rebel Jesus”

Lots of Christians speak of hav­ing a “per­son­al rela­tion­ship with Jesus.” So did I, for most of my life. At some point, I came to the con­clu­sion that who­ev­er the man Jesus of Nazareth was, he was not a god and he is no longer liv­ing in the sense we usu­al­ly mean. 

But even an agnos­tic such as I can­not deny that there is a sense in which the mor­tal Jesus is in fact immor­tal. Nearly 2,000 years since his death, his name is known to bil­lions of humans. There is no deny­ing that his impact on much of human­i­ty is greater today than it’s ever been or ever could have been dur­ing his brief life on Earth. 

And in a way, I still have a rela­tion­ship with Jesus. As the kids say these days, my rela­tion­ship with Jesus is… complicated.

As I said, I once called him Lord and Savior. I no longer do that, but my respect for him as a sage has not dimin­ished. If any­thing, see­ing him as “mere­ly” human has increased my respect and admiration. 

But I’ve spent far too much time and ener­gy try­ing to fig­ure out who Jesus the human real­ly was. Lately, I’ve giv­en up on this task and set­tled on a new paradigm. 

I believe it is impos­si­ble to know for sure what he taught and what he did. There just isn’t any sol­id his­tor­i­cal data to sup­port most of what is writ­ten about him in Biblical and extra-Biblical writ­ings. And even what is writ­ten in the canon­i­cal gospels and epis­tles of the New Testament is self-con­tra­dic­to­ry about many facets of his life and teachings. 

It’s been my obser­va­tion that most peo­ple tend to believe in a Jesus made in their own image. And I’ve final­ly decid­ed that there’s noth­ing wrong with that, as long as we are hon­est about it. So I ful­ly admit that the Jesus I believe in is my own pur­pose-built construct. 

I believe in the Rebel Jesus. 

The Rebel Jesus is more inter­est­ed in how we treat each oth­er than what we pro­fess to believe. 

The Rebel Jesus would rather hang out with poor, dirty, mis­cre­ants than self-right­eous bigots. 

The Rebel Jesus ques­tions author­i­ty, tra­di­tion, and ensconced insti­tu­tions of pow­er — and clings to that which is hum­ble and authentic. 

The Rebel Jesus would not be wel­come in most churches. 

The Rebel Jesus does­n’t care as much about your per­son­al lib­er­ty as much as your humil­i­ty and your com­pas­sion for oth­er humans.

The Rebel Jesus appre­ci­ates those who give to the poor, but he also wants them to ques­tion why pover­ty exists. 

The Rebel Jesus is a heal­er and can’t under­stand why heal­ing is not avail­able to all. 

The Rebel Jesus under­stands that every human life has val­ue: he cares not about your age, gen­der, race, eth­nic­i­ty, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, reli­gion, nation­al­i­ty, wealth, or social sta­tus. He loves you where you are and as you are.

The Rebel Jesus knows that it’s not enough to be “col­or blind.” We must acknowl­edge and cel­e­brate our diver­si­ty — and work to ensure that every­one is giv­en equal access to the bless­ings of life. We must iden­ti­fy and elim­i­nate all bar­ri­ers to achiev­ing that lofty goal. 

In short, the Rebel Jesus is a social jus­tice warrior.

But back to the song.

Its seri­ous, haunt­ing Irish melody and instru­men­ta­tion is a per­fect match for Browne’s poignant lyrics. He describes a Jesus that close­ly resem­bles my own image of the Rebel Jesus. And it adds a stern crit­i­cism of some of those who claim his name but miss his mark. 

Yet, Browne ends the song with a gen­er­ous clos­ing that acknowl­edges the human­i­ty even of those he dis­agrees with. 

But par­don me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judg­ment
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

Jackson Browne, “The Rebel Jesus”

I echo Jackson Browne’s sen­ti­ments. On this Christmas Eve, I bid you peace, joy, con­tent­ment, and much hap­pi­ness — no mat­ter what your beliefs are. 

  • Pete Koutoulas

    Pete is an IT pro­fes­sion­al work­ing in Lexington. Formerly of Campton, he and his wife have lived in Winchester since 2015. Pete is a for­mer week­ly news­pa­per pub­lish­er and for­mer colum­nist for the Winchester Sun. These days, when not work­ing he can often be found on his back porch read­ing or writ­ing, in the back­yard tend­ing to his toma­to plants, or put­ter­ing around in his garage or work­shop. Reach Pete at pete@wincitynews.org.