TIME society

Selling Social Justice Short

What are we to do in a world where corporations have assumed the voice of social justice?

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This Super Bowl season we’ve learned that social justice is in fashion. It sells. It sells Coke, it sells cars, and it sells us short.

So it begins, imagine it with me. The loud roar of the ocean, waves crashing across the screen. Then the small child-like voice of an African American girl speaks. We see her awakening in her bed in the morning light, and she narrates to us the story of the little ones.

“The world is full of giants,” she begins, “they have always been here. We had to learn how to overcome them.” We see on the screen an inner city alley. We see mountains and we see a shadow fall across them. “As long as we keep our heads down. As long as we work hard. Trust what we feel in our guts, our hearts. Then we’re ready.” We see workers in steel mills, on boats, fighting fires, in wheat fields. A ballerina tying her shoe.

“We wait until they get sleepy. Wait until they get so big they can barely move.” We see Wall Street, we see skyscrapers, we see the center of finance. “Then we walk out of the shadows, quietly walk out of the dark, and strike.”

A roar fills the frame, giants fall, a system crashes, and our power becomes incarnate in… Fiat’s new Maserati Ghibli. For $67,000, it’s all yours.

The same day this Super Bowl ad premiered, the New York Times reported that since the recession “ended” in 2009, the top 5% of people in this country have increased their spending by almost 20%. The bottom 95% have found their role in the market flat or declining.

Bob Dylan, with his folk protest blues playing in the background — Bob Dylan! — tells us we should buy Chrysler. An interracial couple sits around a breakfast table with their biracial child, using Cheerios to tell her about a new baby on the way. Coca-Cola paints a picture of our nation with “America the Beautiful” so diverse, that some in the Tea Party are planning a boycott of Coke. Go Coke.

And finally, Morpheus from the Matrix, a revolutionary leader who resists the colonization of all thought by the oppressive machine of illusion and consumption asks us to choose the blue car keys or the red car keys. Luxury will never be the same.

If this year’s Super Bowl advertisements allow us to see what the brightest advertising minds in the world think will sell, then a progressive, diverse, revolutionary, little-ones-unite spirit is alive in our land. And it’s being used to sell the things that will make us free: Coke, cars, beer, nutritionally empty food, and more cars.

What are we to do in a world where corporations have assumed the voice of social justice? As a pastor and president of Union Theological Seminary, I worry that the voice of the liberating Jesus, the savior, the lover, the world-transforming vision-maker, the embracer of our world’s real little ones, has been co-opted by major corporations to sell us things. They have come in through the front gate and we are following them, not like those seeking life abundant, but as sheep led to the slaughter.

These commercials work because they paint existentially compelling pictures. They show us things that we really want, good things, connection and love and meaning and beauty. But they are tied to products, and we are led to believe that in buying them, we will feed our deepest selves.

But we know they won’t. There’s no pleasure in cars or sugar water or cereals like the pleasure that comes from true community. The joys of life abundant together. But at this time in history, when progressive possibilities are opening up before us, we need to look at our culture and our yearnings and discern even more deeply why meaningless things like soft drinks and cars have taken over the language of social justice and love.

What is it? We’re afraid of dying. We’re lonely. We’re desperate for a connection with people we love and, perhaps even more importantly, with people we don’t even like. We want that connection. We want a story that brings meaning to our lives, gives us purpose and direction. Not just an individual story, and not even just a tribal story, but a cosmic story. A cosmic story that makes our daily life shimmer with life. A story as beautiful as the one that fills these ads.

And at the end of the day, we want a story that reminds us that we seek love, that we want to be loved, that we want to love, that we have the power of love within us and the power of love around us. And we seek a grace that lets us go on the morning after the Super Bowl—even Broncos fans—and forgives us, embraces us, calls us to newness.

Historically at Union, as a Christian seminary, we’ve called this the story of Jesus. Sometimes we call it the Trinity, sometimes just God. But at this moment when the market is running away with all our cultural stories about justice and love, we don’t have to figure out “God’s” proper name. Too much is at stake to quibble. The struggle before us is to take those stories back. Claim the sounds and sights of a poetry that has long filled them. They are strong enough to actually hold our lives, to narrate our hopes.

Yes, it true, that more than any other social barometer, our advertisements illuminate the defining spirit of our moment. They tell us who we are. Right now, they are showing us that at one level, there is a progressive, loving spirit moving us toward greater things. It tells us: this is your moment. Awaken.

It tells, too, us that those who would steal the vision have gotten very big. And very beautiful.

And the real question is …how do we, the little ones, truly, strike back?

Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World.

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