The URL for the “He Gets Us” campaign is seen on a display in Las Vegas ahead of Super Bowl LVIII (OSV News photo/He Gets Us).

On Sunday a Super Bowl ad titled “Foot Washing” showed people in various configurations, often from disparate racial or social groups, washing one another’s feet. Toward the end of the ad, words flashed across a black screen: “JESUS DIDN’T TEACH HATE. HE WASHED FEET. HE GETS US. ALL OF US.” In the final two sentences, the syllable “us” is highlighted in yellow, and that same highlighting persists as the name “JESUS” is shown on the same black background. The ad is part of a long-running campaign called “He Gets Us,” funded by the Servant Foundation. The stated goal of the campaign is to “reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible.” The aesthetics of these ads are pointedly apolitical: they do not display the rough whittling of so much amateur church media but are sanded and varnished, lest anyone should come away from them with any kind of cut or splinter.

Perhaps it’s just my own bias, but I find myself instinctively suspicious of any kind of religious discourse or media that lacks rough edges. Ads like this one have the air of a traveling salesman. Indeed, it is no accident that the lone man walking into town, a central figure of the American imaginary, is often a salesman or a preacher or something of both, and even he may not know which he really is. But what the phony salesman and the phony preacher have in common is their assurance that what they offer will enhance your life without rupture or ruin: it will fit smoothly and easily into the grooves of everyday living, integrating with and enhancing everything we already want. They come that we might have life, and have it more efficiently.

This is the vein in which this campaign pitches itself: deliberately inoffensive, appealing to the dim embers of values the American people still share. Not hating people is good; doing nice things for them is good; being a sign of harmony in the midst of conflict is good. None of these things, however, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are, as one of the twentieth century’s great Thomists might have put it, insufficiently revolutionary, because they are in perfect continuity with the way we live now and the values we hold in a world that we know to be fallen. These values find easy expression in the language of corporate consulting, because cheap social harmony is entirely in line with the values that sustain our regime of exploitation, extraction, and murder. When Church of England bishops provided religious cover for British soldiers committing massacres in India and Ireland and elsewhere, they too adopted a smooth and bureaucratized language. Catholic bishops did much the same when they sought to justify their complicity in concealing and perpetuating the abuse of children by priests known to be dangerous. Christians must speak the language of the times, but we should always be wary of speaking it like natives: an inoffensive and well-integrated Christianity is a perfect cover for monstrous evil.

This is the vein in which this campaign pitches itself: deliberately inoffensive, appealing to the dim embers of values the American people still share.

Now it is also true that the Servant Foundation, the entity that sponsors this ad campaign, is a revolting specimen in its own right. It is funded primarily by anonymous donors and operates as a donor-advised fund. This is a tax lawyer’s way of saying that it allows its donors to give their money to entities whose agendas they support but whose close association would be inconvenient for their public images. One of the publicly known donors is David Green, the founder of Hobby Lobby, whose life in the public eye began with a Supreme Court decision holding that for-profit corporations can have religious beliefs and culminated in his “Museum of the Bible” trafficking in forged artifacts and outright stolen antiquities. One of the major beneficiaries of the Servant Foundation’s largesse has been the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal-advocacy organization whose opposition to LGBTQ rights has been so vicious that it has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Others may draw different conclusions, but to me this is sufficient evidence that this group of donors does not have the best interests of the American polity at heart.

But what makes the “He Gets Us” campaign bad is not that the people bankrolling it are wicked sinners: doubtless they consider me the same, and if we are honest Christians this fact—that we are indeed wicked sinners—is the first thing we will concede about ourselves. No, what makes this a defective campaign is precisely that it fails to wound us. The rupture and ruin that characterize the life of a Christian—the breaking of friendships, the alienation from family and neighbor, the persecution we are destined to face for renouncing the sin of the world—are necessary parts of how we attempt to live. They are necessary not in the sense of being prerequisites for heaven, a kind of divine hazing operation, but in the way that Christ’s suffering was necessary: because the way we are called to live, the way Christ lived, does not fit the world. And so the world inflicts wounds on us, wounds that may even kill us. This is the part of Christianity that cannot be smoothed over and one we are called to preach: that in order to start living, we must start dying.

It is not only right-wing churches and nonprofits that need reminding of this; indeed, the “He Gets Us” campaign ought to provoke serious soul-searching among progressive Christians too. Its iconography of racial harmony could just as easily have come from a left-leaning mainline church. But aspiring to gestures of harmony is not enough and never will be. Jesus did not proclaim a harmonious multiethnic liberal democracy, but something far stranger and more unsettling: he proclaimed the advent of the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life. These, too, are a poor fit for a world in which we are asked to consume more ethically, to purchase with our right hand forgiveness for the sins we commit with our left. Ethical consumption is, it seems to me, a poor substitute for loving our enemies and giving freely to those that ask of us. It lets us go on living as before. But Christians of all people ought to remember that to go on living, even to go on living forever, is a far different thing from everlasting life.

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theater, and the Michigan Wolverines.

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