Woody Guthrie vs. Joseph Ratzinger ;-)

Communist Liberation TheologianOver at Vox Nova, Henry Karlson draws our attention to a video of Bono, expounding on why U2 felt compelled to cover Woody Guthrie’s song “Jesus Christ”. In short, “it’s more relevant today than when he wrote it.”

But why is it more relevant? — For Bono, “we decided to do it because of the line, “the bankers and the preachers, they nailed him in the air.”

Curiousity provoked, I took a look at the complete lyrics:

Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land
A hard-working man and brave
He said to the rich, “Give your money to the poor,”
But they laid Jesus Christ in His graveJesus was a man, a carpenter by hand
His followers true and brave
One dirty little coward called Judas Iscariot
Has laid Jesus Christ in His Grave

He went to the preacher, He went to the sheriff
He told them all the same
“Sell all of your jewelry and give it to the poor,”
And they laid Jesus Christ in His grave.

When Jesus come to town, all the working folks around
Believed what he did say
But the bankers and the preachers, they nailed Him on the cross,
And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

And the people held their breath when they heard about his death
Everybody wondered why
It was the big landlord and the soldiers that they hired
To nail Jesus Christ in the sky

This song was written in New York City
Of rich man, preacher, and slave
If Jesus was to preach what He preached in Galilee,
They would lay poor Jesus in His grave.

. . . and I couldn’t help but think to myself:

  • the reduction of Christ’s message to “give your money to the poor”;
  • the promotion of class warfare (“working folks” vs. “the bankers, the preachers, the landlord”);
  • not to mention the complete absence of the culminating event of Jesus’ life among men: namely his resurrection and ascension

… all of which amounts to an immensely disappointing reduction of the gospel. (Howebeit none too surprising, given the source).

Ultimately, this vapid gospel of a celebrated liberation theologian Communist folk singer called to mind a far meatier passage from then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger — which I will offer as some food for thought 😉

… It is not only earlier interpretations of the history of Jesus which have given generally negative images to Pharisees, priests and Jews. Indeed, crass contrasts have become a cliché in modern and liberal descriptions where Pharisees and priests are portrayed as the representatives of a hardened legalism, as representatives of the eternal law of the establishment presided over by religious and political authorities who hinder freedom and live from the oppression of others. In light of these interpretations one sides with Jesus, fights his fight, by coming out against the power of priests in the church and against law and order in the state. The images of the enemy in contemporary liberation struggles fuse with those of Jesus’ history, which is reduced to a struggle against religiously veiled domination of man by man, the inauguration of that revolution in which Jesus is to be sure the underdog but precisely by his defeat establishes a first step which will necessarily lead to definitive victory. If Jesus is seen thus, if his death must be conceived in terms of this constellation of antitheses, his message cannot be one of reconciliation

Ratzinger adds: “It goes without saying that the Catechism does not share this outlook.”

20 Responses to Woody Guthrie vs. Joseph Ratzinger ;-)

  1. Christopher

    Key word, “reduced.” One song does not prove a “reduction,” as much as just one part of the overall picture. The only reduction here is from you.

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “You will find that a good many Christian-political writers think that Christianity began going wrong, and departing from the doctrine of its Founder, at a very early stage. Now, this idea must be used by us to encourage once again the conception of a “historical Jesus” to be found by clearing away later “accretions and perversions” and then to be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition. In the last generation we promoted the construction of such a “historical Jesus” on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new “historical Jesus” on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines. The advantages of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifold.

    In the first place they all tend to direct men’s devotion to something which does not exist, for each “historical Jesus” is unhistorical. The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new “historical Jesus” therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life, but which is enough to produce a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares, and new Swifts in every publisher’s autumn list. In the second place, all such constructions place the importance of their “historical Jesus” in some peculiar theory He is supposed to have promulgated. he has to be a “great man” in the modern sense of the world – one standing at the terminus of some centrifugal and unbalanced line of thought – a crank vending a panacea. We thus distract men’s minds from Who He is, and what He did. We first make Him solely a teacher, and then conceal the very substantial agreement between His teachings and those of all other great moral teachers. For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy, not to inform men, but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them. We make the Sophists: He raises up a Socrates to answer them.

    Our third aim is, by these constructions, to destroy the devotional life. For the real presence of the Enemy, otherwise experienced by men in prayer and sacrament, we substitute a merely probable, remote, shadowy, and uncouth figure, one who spoke a strange language and died a long time ago. Such an object cannot in fact be worshipped. Instead of the Creator adored by its creature, you soon have merely a leader acclaimed by a partisan, and finally a distinguished charcter approved by a judicious historian.

    And fourthly, besides being unhistorical in the Jesus it depicts, religion of this kind is false to history in another sense. No nation, and few individuals, are really brought into the Enemy’s camp by the historical study of the biography of Jesus, simply as biography. Indeed, materials for a full biography have been withheld from men. The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had – and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a “great man,” but against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The “Gospels” come later, and were written, not to make Christians, but to edify Christians already made.”

    CS Lewis, Screwtape Letters, number 23

  3. Jasper says:

    I heard that Arlo Guthrie made a 180 and is now a Republican…

  4. RL says:

    “If Jesus is seen thus, if his death must be conceived in terms of this constellation of antitheses, his message cannot be one of reconciliation.”


    Need to read the Screwtape Letters again. A great work with a lasting effect, but refreshers would be useful.

  5. T. Shaw says:

    Mr. McClarey: 100% correct!

    Mr. Bono: Infallible ignorance.

    I’ve been thinking (no, really!) about Lazarus and the rich man. Do theologians “think” Lazarus would rest in the “bossom of Abraham” if he envied and hated that rich man?

  6. T. Shaw says:

    He does not envy or hate the “preachers and bankers” that crucified Him. Jesus is true God and true man, like us in all ways except sin. To equate His sacrifice (the Crucifixion was the most disobedient, ignorant, vicious and unjust sin in the history of mankind) to man’s fallen condition is simply WRONG.

    Jesus loved us so much and was so desirous of redeeming and saving us that His Sacred Heart was filled even more with love for us in His three hours of agony on His Holy Cross; and He asked God the Father Almighty to forgive us because we didn’t know what we were doing.

  7. Elaine Krewer says:

    “I heard that Arlo Guthrie made a 180 and is now a Republican”

    I didn’t believe it at first, Jasper, but apparently it’s true; this is from Wikipedia’s entry on Arlo’s politics:

    “Guthrie endorsed Texas Congressman Ron Paul for the 2008 Republican Party nomination. He said, “I love this guy. Dr. Paul is the only candidate I know of who would have signed the Constitution of the United States had he been there. I’m with him, because he seems to be the only candidate who actually believes it has as much relevance today as it did a couple of hundred years ago. I look forward to the day when we can work out the differences we have with the same revolutionary vision and enthusiasm that is our American legacy.” He told the New York Times Magazine that he is a Republican because, “We had enough good Democrats. We needed a few more good Republicans. We needed a loyal opposition.”

  8. Tito Edwards says:

    Sounds as if this rediscovering of the ‘historical Jesus’ is the 21st century version of gnosticism.

  9. Donna V says:

    For Bono, “we decided to do it because of the line, “the bankers and the preachers, they nailed him in the air.”

    Bono’s rather an ingrate. What would U2 and all the other lefty multi-millionaire rock stars do without bankers advising them on tax shelters? U2 was widely criticized a few years back when they moved their business operations to the Netherlands, cutting their corporate tax bill considerably.

    This was around the time when Bono was standing on stage telling his fans (you know, the ones who made him and his fellow band members fabulously rich) that they – the little people – should pay more in taxes.

    As I recall, Our Lord also had a few things to say on the subject of hypocrites.

  10. cminor says:

    I’d be wary of putting too much stock in Arlo’s “conversion”–Libertarianism and Republicanism are not interchangeable and his remarks sound pretty noncommittal to me.

    What I find interesting is that it appears Woody borrowed stylistically from a popular ballad about Jesse James–one that cast the outlaw as a “friend to the poor” who’d “never see a man suffer pain” (never mind that the James gang occasionally shot unarmed bystanders in the course of their robberies and weren’t known for their charitable work.) The meter and the repetition of the adjective “brave” and the line “laid…in his grave” are right out of it. Was his intention to cast the Son of God as a Robin Hood-ized folk hero in the fashion of James? If so, he sold God short–and the U2 guys ought to know better.

  11. Ivan says:

    The U2 sound became repetitive, the lyrics trite and ridiculous but instead of fading away quitely as other better bands such as Steely Dan and Dire Straits have done, our friend Bono would rather ride out a little bit more on the name of Jesus.

  12. … nstead of fading away quitely as other better bands such as Steely Dan and Dire Straits have done, our friend Bono would rather ride out a little bit more on the name of Jesus.

    Actually, U2’s cover of “Jesus Christ” was over a decade ago, on the Folkways Woody Guthrie Tribute — I’m actually a fan of their music, if not Bono’s pontificating. =)

  13. Linus says:

    Republicanism and libertarianism might not be interchangeable, but neither are they incommensurable.

    Also the Greek of Matthew 19:21 does not translate to “give your money to the poor.” It can be roughly, but more accurately, translated as “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” As always with Koine Greek there is wide room for interpreting the wording in American. The phrase lacks the linguistic articles common to ancient Greek that would specifically denote apposition, yet there are undeniably two clauses separated by a conjunction. So it is misleading to state that Jesus was commanding the young gentleman to sell everything he had in order to give the receipts to the poor. Rather, it sounds to me like Jesus was offering simple, practical advice on how to be His contemporaneous disciple, something that clearly involved a lot of travel and study and would therefore be difficult if one were the landlord of a large estate and concerned with maintaining many material possessions.

    U2 makes terrible music. Bono should stick to working on that.

  14. Nate Wildermuth says:

    I challenge the rich to prove their detachment to wealth by giving it away.

  15. Tito Edwards says:


    I like the way you think!

    There are some rich people that do donate their money to Catholic charities, but it can be said that more money by much more well-to-do should be giving their wealth away willingly.

  16. Tito Edwards says:

    …it is the Feast Day of Saint Francis. The very saint that gave away his tremendous wealth for a life of poverty. He was justly rewarded by God with an enriching life of harvesting many souls!

  17. Phillip says:


    I would agree that the rich can give more. Though the rich man may in fact be more detached from his goods than a poor person. St. Josemaria Escriva used to tell a story of a noblewoman who had great wealth. She paid her servents well and was quite giving. He contrasted her to a poor man he saw in a soup kitchen who had one possession in his life – a spoon. That man he noted greedily held onto that one good and was quite attached to it. That person St. Josemaria noted was not living the virtue of detachment.

    I also recall in our area about two years ago a very rich family’s home burnt down. It turns out the family’s six year old with Down’s Syndrome accidentally set fire to the house. The father said that he loved his son even more after this. This was true detachment.

    I would also add that a rich person may donate more of his time and talent that he could otherwise use for himself. Donations that are not seen and that in their own way “cost” significantly.

  18. Linus says:

    Wealth today facilitates travel, which facilitates the continuance of the mission of Christ and His church. During the age in which our Lord lived on this earth, all the money in the world dcouldn’t buy a plane, train, or bus ticket. Back then, wealth surely encouraged people to be sedentary, or at the least immobile. I again maintain that the scripture (Matthew 19:21) has nothing to do with choosing to be willfully impoverished as a way to salvation.

  19. Christine says:

    What kind of commentary did you expect from a man who gave only 1.24% of his charity’s money to the poor? I also think he has a tax and wife problem in Ireland.

    And the born agains use U-2’s music in worship services… We truly live in strange times.

  20. eric says:

    Guthrie was the scion of one of the wealthiest families in one of the wealthiest states in America. He adopted an offensive and false hillbilly persona and a BS story about “ridin’ the rails” and was flown out to California and given a coast-to-coast radio show with support from the Governor, a US Senator, and LA’s fanciest folks. After he retired from mass media he spent the rest of his career working for the US Government.
    Enough of this hagiography already!

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