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Jesus Christ - U2

Easter Sunday has become the day of Easter Eggs, neatly incorporating the resurrection of the Christian Son of God with older rituals surrounding the arrival of Spring, not to mention the Jewish Passover (see last post).

Guthrie's take on Jesus Christ was that he was the most important humanist philosopher, preaching a socialist message of equality and love for fellow man and woman.

When I was a child, I visited what was then known as "the holy land" for a short holiday with my parents. We went to Bethlehem, and saw the actual spot, marked by a gold star as I recall, although my memory may be wrong here, where Christ was supposedly born. We also stayed in a hotel in Jerusalem, strolled in the Garden of Gethsemane, walked the route of the stages of the cross, where Christ and the two other crucifyees carried the means of their own executions on that fateful Friday, finishing up at Calvary, the site of the crucifixion. On a pleasanter note, we earlier climbed the Mount of Olives, where there was a footprint in the rock which we were informed was the imprint of Christ's foot itself and into which we each reverently inserted our own right foot (I think it was the right). We also visited the Dome of the Rock, site of a major Jewish Temple which was destroyed in the first century by the invading Romans, and is now one of the world's most important Islamic shrines, built in the eleventh century. We also swam in the Dead Sea, at least one member of our busload performing the obligatory reading of his daily newspaper as he lay back in the buoyant water.

At one point, I in my short pants and with my tiny Instamatic camera at the end of a strap around my shoulder, walked toward an imposing wall of barbed wire, only to be stopped by a loud shout in Arabic and turned back by a soldier who was pointing a machine gun at me. We were on holiday in Jordan, and I'd unwittingly walked toward the border that separated the Jordanian old Jerusalem from the Israeli half of the city. Only a few years later, much of what we had visited, was occupied by Israel in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem in their entirety. Nowadays, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim Jerusalem as their capital, and although the city of Bethlehem is ostensibly run by the Palestinian Authority, more and more Palestinian Christians and Arabs are having their homes bulldozed and their lands appropriated to make way for incoming Israeli settlers.

In the song, Jesus Christ, Woody Guthrie suggests that Jesus, a working class man, would meet the same fate in modern times were he to "preach what he preached in Galilee".

U2 hail from Dublin, which has its own reasons for remembering Easter, also to do with occupying powers. Over the Easter holiday in 1916, Irish republicans tried to seize power from the British. The insurrection failed, resulting in the deaths of 485 people from both sides, including the execution of 16 Republicans, which set the tone for and provided so-called justification of, the pattern of executions on both Unionist and Republican sides throughout the ensuing years of "the troubles". Needless to say, the Republican side was, and is, mainly Catholic, and the Unionist predominantly Protestant, both Christian.

The Irish poet W.B Yeats was a Republican and a Protestant. He commemorated the Easter Rising in his poem "Easter 1916, with it's famous refrain:

".... a terrible beauty is born".

Like Yeats, Woody Guthrie saw himself as a poet of the people, and it is significant that he set the words of "Jesus Christ" to the tune of American folk song "Jesse James", about the folk-hero outlaw who, in the words of the song

"stole from the rich and .... gave to the poor"

and had

"a hand and a heart and a brain".

In Guthrie's eyes Jesse James, like Jesus, was a hero of the people who became a martyr, emphasised by the use of practically the same refrain in both songs; similarities abound, as both were betrayed by one close to them, Robert Ford and Judas Iscariot, respectively as they:

"laid poor Jesse in his grave".

For Guthrie, the resurrection of Christ is significant only in that his words and his ideas lived on after him, although, as his song suggests, their meaning is continually misinterpreted, perverted and suppressed by those with property, power and wealth. Guthrie's words, here rendered and adapted by U2, speak for themselves:

"Jesus was a man who travelled through the land, a hard working man and brave well he said to the rich, "Give your money to the poor." but they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

Hallé, hallelujah, hallé, hallelujah, hallé, hallelujah,

well they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

Well he went to the preacher, he went to the law, he told them all the same: he said sell all of your jewellery and give it to the poor, but they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

Hallé, hallelujah, hallé, hallelujah, hallé, hallelujah,

well they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

When Jesus came to town, all the working folks around, believed what he did say; well the bankers and the preachers they nailed him on a cross, and they laid Jesus Christ in his grave, and poor working people, they followed him around, they sung and shouted gay; well the cops and the soldiers, they nailed him in the air, and they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

Hallé, hallelujah, hallé, hallelujah, hallé, hallelujah,

well they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

Well, this song was written in New York City of rich men, preachers and slaves;

well, if Jesus was to preach what he preached in Galilee, they would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.

Hallé, hallelujah, hallé, hallelujah, hallé, hallelujah,

well they laid Jesus Christ in his grave."


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