Coca-Cola, America, & the Sermon on the Mount

CokeJesusAmericaMatthew 5:3-20 (NRSV)

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The passage above is a combination of the last two gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. The first (vv. 3-12), commonly known as the Beatitudes, was read and preached all over the world on Superbowl Sunday (Feb. 2, 2014).  The second (vv. 13-20) will be read and preached all over the world this Sunday (Feb. 9, 2014).  Between the first reading and the second, the Super Bowl aired and was watched by over 100M people, many of whom undoubtedly tuned in with the primary aim of consuming the always entertaining Super Bowl commercials.

By now, you have undoubtedly seen some of the media attention given to Coca-Cola’s #AmericaIsBeautiful ad and the critical response that it received from some American citizens.

Coke has not offered any response to the controversy that I am aware of (they’re probably too busy relishing all of the traffic their YouTube site is getting), but huge numbers of people have criticized the #boycottcoke and #speakamerican trend that has been sweeping twitter for the last 5 days.

In my view of things, it seems like Coke most likely set out to make this ad with a kind of multi-leveled awareness.  On the most basic level, the marketing person’s job is to sell more Coke by making the product appeal to as many potential consumers as possible.  In this case, Coke is appealing to the truth that American consumers come from hundreds of different backgrounds and speak hundreds of different languages.  Many of those people for whom English is a second or third or foreign language probably feel marginalized in a country where they cannot communicate verbally with the majority of their neighbors (in the broadest sense of the word).  At this level of awareness, the coke ad accomplishes a few things:

1. it shines light on the marginalized reality that many American citizens live every day of their lives, and

2. validates that reality, both by including that which is most noticeably “foreign” in a song that is quintessentially American, and by calling that reality#beautiful“.

There is nothing distinctive about Coke’s product in the ad, but there doesn’t need to be.  For a person on the margins of society (because of language, color of skin, sexual orientation, etc), anyone who recognizes you as a valid and beautiful member of the community is a friend, and people tend to be loyal to friends.  Coke, in this ad, made themselves a friend of America’s marginalized inhabitants, and very likely gained some loyal customers.

But Coke is also too savvy to have thought that that was all they were doing on Sunday.

The second level of awareness, which I assume was in the Atlanta-based company’s mind as the ad was conceived, is that there are a lot of people in this county who would prefer to keep the marginalized on the margins and who see the people featured in this ad as an unwelcome presence among us (see tweets above).  Their’s is a selectively-constructed reality in which “the real America” is straight, white, and English-speaking. There can be no doubt that this view of the United States is severely limited, but it is nevertheless a belief, which is held quite passionately by its advocates.

It is worth noting that Coke itself has, in the past, been accused of racially discriminatory practices. Undoubtedly, there is in Sunday’s ad an effort to make amends and heal public opinion. But more importantly, for people who would prefer to keep the United States #Speak[ing]American, this ad pulls the rug of selectively-constructed reality out from under us, and unashamedly shines light on the truth of this nation: we are diverse and we are #beautiful!

As it stands, Coke has likely lost a few customers, but I imagine that they have gained more than they have lost.

CokeJesusDespite the bad taste that is left in one’s mouth after comparing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to an ad designed to sell more sugary, southern goodness,  I want to turn now to Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:13-20.

In the beatitudes, Jesus presents a comprehensive-construction of reality, declaring that the marginalized citizens of humanity (who are likely among the crowd to whom he is speaking: Mt. 4:23-5:3) are truly and fully members of humanity, blessed by God with the gifts of life, and intellect, and creativity, and #beauty.  Most interpreters read the sermon on the mount as Jesus’ manifesto for the community of disciples, meaning that he is both defining God’s reality and inviting people to live into that reality.

Like the marketing people at Coke, Jesus is observant enough to know that what is true is not necessarily accepted as such, and so as he rounds out his list of the blessedly marginalized, he predicts the backlash that will certainly come in response to so comprehensive a proclamation:

10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”

“Silly Jesus!  OBVIOUSLY those people aren’t blessed; they’re marginalized.  And until they learn to assimilate to the majority opinion, they will stay at the margins, where they belong. How dare you validate their existence as equal to ours!”

The selective-construction of reality is bound to make its voice heard whenever its elite status as “real” or “true” or “successful” is threatened.  But the comprehensive-construction of reality will always threaten fixed social categories, and this is precisely what Jesus aims to do.

Not content to simply paint a picture, Jesus begins to establish a movement, empowering his listeners to be salt and light in a world of selectively-constructed perspectives.  Light is an obvious ingredient for any movement towards a comprehensive construction–it reveals what the majority would prefer to keep hidden in the shadows. The disciples–many of whom are themselves hidden in the shadows–are the light of Jesus’ mission, and they are here empowered to shine in all their marginalized glory: to continue participating in the worship service while struggling through a noisy-but-perfectly-normal seizure, or to sing America The Beautiful in a non-traditional-but-perfectly-valid human language!

The salt is less obvious, as it could (and probably should) be interpreted in a number of different ways.  Salt is a preservative and a condiment; it is a symbol for wisdom and an indicator of purity.  And the disciples are first commissioned to be salt.  If, for the time being, we look only at the flavoring quality of salt, we may read Jesus’ words as encouraging the disciples to resist the pressure to assimilate (“if the salt loses its saltiness …”),  and to maintain their own “flavor” as they participate in the melting pot of humanity (Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes the observation that salt can not become “not salt”; it can only remain salty or be destroyed: Discipleship, pp. 111-112).

If the disciples embrace and embody their commissioning to be salt and light, then all those whom they encounter will come to appreciate the Psalmist’s words, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” – Psalm 34:8

Finally, What I have long understood to be Jesus’ inexplicable non-sequiter (vv. 17-20), whereby he moves from salt and light to talking about the law, I now understand in light of the Coke-ad-phenomenon.  The assurance that Jesus has not come to abolish the law follows on the heals of his re-constructed (comprehensively-constructed) vision of truth, life, and humanity (vv. 3-12), and on the heals of his invitation to live by the values and laws of that reality (vv.13-16).  Jesus is preemptively answering the retort from the ultra-religious that will certainly be tweeted any minute now–that his vision “strays from, ignores, or abolishes the pure and clear message of the scriptures”.  Jesus’ preemptive response certainly comes as a shock to any who would have objected: “I haven’t come [and said all of this in order] to abolish the law [as you think], but to fulfill it.” While Jesus’ construction of reality does functionally abolish the status quo, it upholds and gives flesh to the “law and the prophets”, in the process, revealing the uncomfortable truth that the status quo is desperately out of sync with its claimed source of moral, ethical, and spiritual authority.

Jesus says, “I have come to shine light on all the places and people that have been left in the shadows, and to add flavor to all of the bland homogeneity that dominates a world of concentrated centers of power.  You who are marginalized and you who will be their advocates (“friends”) … you are the flavor and you are the light, which fill in God’s blessed reality.

Right in the middle of Jesus’ commissioning sermon, before the largest audience in American television history, a massive, multi-national corporation with a history of racial discrimination decided to (or unknowingly did) assume the commission.  Some American people responded just as everyone knew they would—with anger, fence building, and denial. But tens of millions of others tasted and saw the goodness of God’s creation. The light has been shown into the shadows of hoarded and concentrated power, and the truth that is revealed is utterly and comprehensively #beautiful.

#HumanityIsBeautiful #SpeakTruth #ImagineAnAlternative


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