This song is an elegy to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus Christ, who were all killed after leading lives of peace and service.
A US Army veteran, Kristofferson took a political turn on his 1986 album Repossessed, where he set out to "address issues that I think are important." He became staunch supported of liberal causes in his later years and openly opposed the Gulf Wars of 1990 and 2003. His positions put him at odds with many in the country music community.
They don't get a verse, but Kristofferson mentions the "brothers Kennedy" in the last line, a reference to John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, who were both assassinated.
Johnny Cash was the first to record this song, releasing it as the B-side of this "The Three Bells" single in 1984. He was accompanied by The Carter Family on his version. Cash and Kristofferson were good friends and were both members of The Highwaymen along with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Kristofferson wrote one of Cash's most famous songs: "Sunday Morning Coming Down."
Kristofferson performed the song at Farm Aid in 1985, introducing it by saying, "Here's one for the heroes."
A forebear to this song is Dion's 1968 hit "Abraham, Martin and John," which is about Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, all of whom were killed.
Bob Dylan recorded this song for his 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded.