One of the things I have had to unlearn from my childhood is how people were described when telling a story of something that happened. What was modeled for me was white people were simply described as people: a man, a woman. People of any other ethnic or racial background were given a qualifier: “I saw a woman drop her grocery bag in the parking lot and this nice black man stopped to help her pick them up.” I’ve never understood why it mattered what color the man was. Kindness is an intrinsic human trait.
When the Coke commercial ran last night, I found resonance in the pictures of inclusiveness. “Nice job, Coke,” I posted on my Facebook page, only to learn that the commercial was “controversial.” I still don’t understand. We could have filmed the whole commercial in my neighborhood of Old North Durham; this is the America I know and love. When the vitriol began, I thought of Ray Charles — specifically something I wrote about eight months ago at the beginning of the Moral Monday movement here in North Carolina:
When I was in high school, Ray Charles recorded a version of “America, the Beautiful” that remains my favorite version of the song. What I love most about it is he intentionally sang the verses out of traditional order. He began
O beautiful for heroes proved
in liberating strife,
who more than self their country loved,
and mercy more than life.
May God thy gold refine
till all success be nobleness,
and every gain divine.
Then he said, “When I was in school, we used it sing it something like this,” and then he began with what we all know as the first line: “O beautiful, for spacious skies . . . .” Before any purple mountain’s majesty or any fruited plain, the beautiful part of our story tells of those who valued community over self-promotion and, just like the song says, mercy more than life.
It’s no mistake that he begins with something other than the first verse because he did it more than once. He starts with the heart of the song — and with one of the verses we rarely sing. Notice the last line of each stanza:
mercy more than life
every gain divine
Before we start looking at purple mountains and amber waves, the call is to look at and for one another. The images in the commercial, and in the extended online version that tells the stories of those who are featured, embody the goodness in every gain. Why, then, are their successes and dreams not cause for all of us to celebrate?
When I was in college, I qualified to be a part of a national honor society my freshman year. The only significance of membership was it gave me something to put on my resume. When I went to the voting meeting my sophomore year, we found that every applicant met the requirements of membership. Even knowing that, the president asked us to vote. I was incredulous: “Why don’t we let them all in? They have all qualified.”
“If we did that, it wouldn’t be special,” he replied without irony. Someone needed to be left out in order for us to feel important. I left the meeting.
I am a straight, white, Christian, male. If I were wealthy, I would be five for five in the categories of privilege that have controlled our culture for most of it’s history. Coke’s little film is a beautiful reminder that, outside of the halls of Congress, America is choosing not to let the white guys run the joint — and that is a good thing. As we mature as a nation, we are being called to come to terms with the promises we made to ourselves and to one another to offer “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Though our founders meant “white guys with property” when they said “all men are created equal,” we know better: everyone . . .
todo el mundo
tout le monde
America is not, and was never intended to be, a Christian nation. However, as a Christian, I have been thinking about how my faith informs this discussion. As one who grew up in evangelical life, I don’t think my Calvinist influences help me grasp inclusiveness. The idea of the “elect” smacks, somewhat, of my college honor society experience. As one stanza in the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” states,
and we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he will not own
At the risk of getting into a scripture throwing contest, the verse that keeps grabbing me comes from Philippians 2, which says of Jesus,
though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.
Jesus was far less concerned with getting what was “rightfully his” than he was making sure those who were on the margins knew they were loved and wanted. When he spoke of what judgment might look like in Matthew 25 he said the ones who incarnated his love would be those freeing prisoners and feeding the hungry, those offering shelter and sustenance, those who welcomed strangers, those who help the invisible become visible. The posture he described is one free of fear. The paradox of power is those who have it live in fear that they are going to lose it. The power of love is it chases away fear. Go ahead. Cue Huey Lewis:
don’t need money
don’t need fame
don’t need no credit card to ride this train . . .
My prayer, then, is that we would choose to see with eyes of love rather than fear, in order that we might move beyond thinking “normal” means straight, white, and male; that we the changes in our country as expansive and creative, rather than threatening; that we could think in terms of “us,” rather than “us and them.” My prayer is also this post offers more than kindling for an already raging argument. I want to remind myself that love is stronger than fear. Any day. Any time. Anywhere.