The song in part works as a dramatic monologue, in this case comprising the thoughts, rather than the spoken words, of the narrator. The narrator would appear to be a contemporary of Jesus, and the person being addressed Jesus himself. By way of his thoughts, the narrator unintentionally gives us a deeper insight into his character than the surface meaning allows. In addition, we’re presented with two different outlooks – Jesus’ and the narrator’s – and of how disastrous consequences can result from the failure of one (of each, perhaps) to accommodate the other. As such the song’s subject matter will be just as relevant here and now as to those living in the first century middle east. That it is applicable today as a warning to those in single-minded pursuit of their ends, perhaps political ends, is reinforced by the use of modern idioms throughout.
From the start the narrator makes it clear he’s dissatisfied with his lot. He’s merely grinding his life out, and he’s oppressed – ‘nothing more wretched than what I must endure’. Since from the use of the present tense we can judge him to be, on one level at least, a contemporary of Jesus, the perceived cause of his oppression, those who ‘strip your useless hopes away’, would presumably be the Roman occupiers. And from his claim to be ‘circling around the southern zone’ he would seem to be an inhabitant of Judea, the southern part of this Roman province where Jesus was crucified – Galilee being the northern part. The narrator’s complaint about his treatment continues throughout the song, so that he comes across as excessively self-pitying. In fact, his cry of ‘Hear me holler’ seems to exemplify the principle that empty vessels make most sound, especially given the similarity in sound between ‘holler’ and ‘hollow’.
In addition to being self-pitying, the narrator comes over as thoroughly vicious. He continually threatens violence – ‘I could stone you to death’, ‘I’ll put you in a chain’, ‘I’ve got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim’. One might expect him to have it in for the Romans, but his threats seem to be directed at Jesus. The reason seems to be that he sees Jesus as a traitor to the cause of political autonomy – ‘Our country must be saved and freed’. In the light of this, the violence he threatens ‘for the wrongs that you’ve done’ would seem to be because he sees Jesus as actively working against the cause. This interpretation would seem corroborated if in the fourth verse it’s Jesus the narrator is castigating as ‘another politician pumping out the piss’, and himself he’s describing as ‘another ragged beggar blowing you a kiss’. The tone is bitter. He sees himself as put down, and in thrall to a politician he doesn’t respect. In both cases the obvious exaggeration seems in character for someone we’ve already seen to be exaggeratedly self-pitying.
The moral failings of this narrator make an unenviable list. He’s disparaging – ‘You gulped it down’; he’s dismissive – ‘Another politician…’; and he’s passive in the sense that he relies on exploiting others’ mistakes. It’s clear that he objects to Jesus in part because he sees him as one of the ‘rising’ men (i.e. increasingly successful men) – thereby missing the more literal, theological sense in which Jesus rises. In bragging that he’s ‘been out and around with the rising men’ the narrator makes it clear that he regrets that this is as far as he ever got; to be out and around with them is not the same as being one of them. His enmity towards Jesus is therefore fuelled by envy of someone he sees as being on the rise, making progress. Rather than taking steps to be successful himself, however, he sulks. He blames unspecified others – ‘They strip your useless hopes away’, and he blames fate – ‘Low cards’. He seems to exult in pessimism; not only are his hopes taken from him, he tells us, but they were useless anyway!
Despite this litany of failings, he tries to present himself positively. He informs us that he’s both hard-headed – ‘My head’s so hard, must be made of stone’ – and brave – ‘You could put me out in front of a firing squad’. Ironies abound with this character. It’s this very hard-headedness – what he sees as a no-nonsense attitude – which causes his violent opposition to Jesus and which is presumably instrumental in bringing about Jesus’ death. His head, made of stone, – i.e. his uncompromising attitude – is the stone which metaphorically he uses to stone Jesus to death.
It’s ironic too, from a Christian perspective, that the revenge he has in mind is stoning, given Jesus’ using the occasion of such a stoning to condemn hypocrisy – ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ (John 7.53-8). Since the narrator’s attitude to Jesus is no less oppressive that that of the Roman occupiers to the narrator, the narrator is condemning himself out of his own mouth as a hypocrite.
There are numerous further ironies arising from the narrator’s choice of expression. If he is the beggar ‘blowing you a kiss’, he’s unconsciously condemning himself as a traitor to Jesus by associating himself with Judas’ mode of betraying Jesus to the authorities. And earlier he complains about being ‘drenched in the light that shines from the sun’. In addition to the surface meaning, that he is so drenched is true if ‘sun’ is read as ‘Son’, for Jesus saw himself as the ‘Son of Man’ whose God-given task was to free the chosen people from oppression (and of course Jesus is often taken to be the literal son of God). As an opponent of oppression, the narrator is, then, blindly criticising someone who’s on his side in being against oppression. Being drenched in a light cast by Jesus should give the narrator an advantage, but it’s one which he doesn’t appreciate. Instead he threatens to make Jesus’ ‘eyeballs swim’, thereby unconsciously using a similar image of water to express thoroughly anti-Christian, violent feelings. And any association of drenching and swimming with baptismal water has been lost on him.
Just as he associates himself with water, but in a way which misses the point, so he associates himself with the sun in a way which misses the point. While ‘circling around the southern zone’ can be interpreted as a reference to his own movements in Judea, it can also be taken as an unconscious identification of himself with the sun (son). The sun’s (apparent) rotation around the earth occurs in the southern part of the sky, and so over the southernmost part (zone) of the earth. The irony here is that someone who distances himself from Jesus should unwittingly seem to associate himself with him.
It’s perhaps worth noting that when the narrator is ‘circlin’ around’ the southern zone, he is made to sound like a bird of prey. Since he’s also been ‘around’ with the ‘risin’ men’, they too are perhaps to be seen as birds of prey. The image suggests that their success is pursued by way of exploiting others.
The narrator’s ironic application to himself of what applies so much more valuably to Jesus continues with his complaints about having suffered ‘so many blows’ and to having ‘been though Hell’. Jesus, of course, suffered actual blows – scourging – and quite literally, according to the ‘harrowing of Hell’ tradition, visited Hell immediately following his death, in order to free those who didn’t deserve to be there. The main effect of the narrator’s complaint about having ‘been through Hell’ is to point out how pathetically inconsequential his outlook is compared with Jesus’. Whereas he moans about his own situation, Jesus acts to improve the situation of others.
That there are these, albeit ironic, similarities between the narrator and Jesus makes it all the more tragic that the narrator opposes Jesus, for in opposing Jesus he is, by implication, opposing himself. To bring about the destruction of Jesus is to bring about his own destruction.
The ironies continue when the narrator declares ‘The more I die, the more I live’. Presumably he means his life is so bad, it’s a sort of living death – the only living he does is a matter of dying. In ironic contrast his opponent, Jesus, actually did die, as opposed to merely using the idea of dying as a self-pitying exaggeration of his unhappiness. Whereas the narrator is egotistically concerned only about himself – …’I die…’, ‘… I live…’ – Jesus made life (in the sense of eternal life) possible for everyone. The more he died, the more everyone else was able to live.
Further ironies occur in the fourth and fifth verses. Jesus is called as a ‘bastard’, and told ‘If only you could prove who your father was’. Since, according to the tradition, his father is God, the narrator seems to invite the response ‘If only you knew who his father was!’ Jesus is criticised for crossing the line – perhaps meaning going too far politically, or of being a turncoat. There’s irony in the word ‘crossed’ since it was by way of dying on the cross that Jesus was able to achieve what he did. The reference to a drug in his wine only serves to point to the blood Jesus shed for others which it represents . The narrator is derisively condemning those things of which he fails to see the value.
Perhaps the biggest irony of all is in the repeated line:
‘I pay in blood, but not my own’
The irony is two-fold, for in spite of both Jesus and the narrator making some sort of blood sacrifice, there is a crucial difference in the reason for making it and in the manner of its being made. Where Jesus was acting in the interests of mankind generally, the narrator is acting in his own political interests. And where Jesus paid in his own blood for the salvation of others, the narrator is adamant that it’s only the blood of others which will be spilt, presumably in the pursuit of his political ends. Despite his bragging about his bravery, when compared with Jesus the narrator comes across as pusillanimous – not prepared to put his life on the line for his beliefs. In this context the demand that Jesus ‘show me your moral virtues first’ comes across as a ridiculous case of the pot implying the kettle’s black. Ultimately, perhaps, he does in fact again end up paying with his own blood in that his negative outlook on life has made him self destructive. It’s plausible that he, like Judas with whom he unconsciously associates himself, will end up committing suicide.
The song works, then, equally as a condemnation of a narrow-minded, bigoted narrator out of his own mouth and as a warning about how the moral failings he exemplifies might continue to result in unnecessary suffering. At the same time it extols the moral virtues of self-sacrifice and, by implication, compassion. The association of these with Jesus perhaps implies that ultimately it’s these which will prevail.