Early in the baseball season last year, I heard a curious commercial on the radio. It was talking about a man rejected by his friends and suddenly ended with “He Gets Us. All of Us.” A few more airings and I realized it was a series of ads about Jesus, describing how his experiences on earth were like our own. Like Jesus Himself, the ads have managed to anger a wide variety of different folks. Jesus gets us, but once again, we struggle to get Him.
I found the ads immediately intriguing, myself. Unlike many efforts by ministries to talk about Jesus, He Gets Us, avoided what we in ministry sometimes like to call “Christianese.” Jesus spoke to average people in their own language, not religious buzzwords. These ads seek to do the same, sounding quite different from normal “religious ads.”
After enduring years of both the political Right and Left attempting to co-opt Jesus into their own image, this campaign explicitly states it wants to reintroduce people to Him as He is. The campaign explains itself this way: “How might we all rediscover the promise of the love his story represents? Those are the questions at the heart of He Gets Us.”
The ads I heard during a baseball game were hardly isolated, with He Gets Us appearing all over major sporting events. In-stadium ads, radio spots, TV commercials — the works. Perhaps it was only natural then that it would make one of its biggest appearances at the Super Bowl, where not one but two ads ran this week.
Jesus frustrated the religious ruling parties of first century Palestine, because they wanted him to neatly fit into one of the boxes human powerbrokers had established. Jesus refused; he called everyone towards God’s box instead.
The He Gets Us Ads have been provocative to our culture because we want to hang onto our political and religious boxes just as much now as then. The simple truth is, Jesus wouldn’t have much good to say about the Republican or the Democratic Parties, but He does love the people who align themselves with those parties and those who don’t. He would turn over an awful lot of tables in churches today, but not to say church is bad, but so important we ought to do it God’s way.
The longer, more powerful Super Bowl commercial beautifully tackles our present, cable TV inspired shouting match of boxes. In a carefully orchestrated set of black-and-white photos, it visualizes the polarization of recent years. People angry at those working at a restaurant. Political protests of different socio-economic classes. Anger. Rage.
That’s where the fireworks have really begun.
The ad is a convicting scene for pretty much anyone who watches it. In taking care to leave out signs or such that would identify a particular side’s cause or protest, the message is clear: we’re angry regardless of our political allegiances. Whatever causes take us into the streets, we sure do build up an awful lot of hate for those who are “on the other side.”
No wonder both Left and Right, either of which’s protest movements could easily be depicted in the commercial, have agreed on one thing: He Gets Us must have sold out to the other guys, the ones that are the bad guys. In other words, the ad works, because both sides feel like it is showing their own hatred in a negative light, something that could surely only happen if He Gets Us was a partisan of the opposite persuasion.
Days before they even aired, a bunch of the mainstream media felt itself obliged to trot out explanatory pieces, hand wringing that some of the known donors to this explicitly and painstakingly non-partisan campaign happen to be known politically right-aligned Christians like the owner of Hobby Lobby. After all the anger from the intelligentsia (some of it justified) over the religious right politicizing Jesus for their own power advantage, one might hope for a celebration that some of “those” folks are putting out ads that are at least as convicting to their own side as anyone else.
Instead, these pieces suggested some sort of shadowy far-right conspiracy. “How dare you politicize Jesus as if He were a Republican” suddenly turned into “How dare you try to portray Jesus outside of a political agenda, we all know you have one!”
Likewise, many on the Right have been angered that the He Gets Us campaign suggests that Jesus might care about the marginalized and the religiously rejected. (*cough* Read John 4. *cough*) Instead of being excited that those with a great deal of wealth have decided to use their financial means to help an increasingly secular society revisit Jesus, they fret that ads mentioning things Jesus actually did speak caringly about imply He’s gone “woke.”
The ads hit our political tender spots and show, well, exactly what they’re intended to show: we divide and fight and hate. We need Jesus.
Our modus operandi is to pick a side and want a Jesus who sees our side is “better” and so He — and so we — should be much harder on “the others.” A Jesus who cares about respecting officials and caring for the oppressed, a Jesus who cares for the unborn and the immigrant… that breaks down our boxes and we don’t want that.
Jesus didn’t hold back on the Pharisees, the religious elites of the time, because they were “better” than the Samaritans, the marginalized religious outcasts. Nor did He say, “Samaritans, I love you how you are, so just stay that way.” Jesus called both to quit conforming to their part of the world and feeding their particular sins and to turn to Him.
If pressing our political buttons and convicting us all wasn’t enough, the campaign has also angered another group in a way that I find more surprising and saddening, but also telling. Of course, the political world doesn’t like being convicted, but I have also seen a lot of those who care about evangelism joining the critical chorale. Yes, evangelism, as in those who want to share their faith in Jesus. Isn’t that exactly what this campaign is doing?
Well, during His time on earth, political toes weren’t the only ones Jesus stepped on. The religious establishment didn’t like how He did ministry in ways that weren’t their way of doing ministry. Parts of the same aren’t so fond of He Gets Us today. Sure, the Super Bowl ad might be right that He loves us and we need to quit hating, but they argue that the whole campaign is just drawing a nice, loving Jesus who tells everyone He understands and, maybe, they should be nicer people like Him. A Jesus who is a good teacher, but not God come into the world.
To be sure, the campaign hasn’t led with a “repent and trust in Jesus to be saved” type message you might see in a pamphlet left on your door by some church in the past. The religious critics are right that there has been repeated trends in the history of the Church, and in our society right now, to remove the complication of Jesus doing miracles and being the Savior of the World and caring about wrongdoing and just make Him a really, really nice person.
If He Gets Us stopped at, “Hey, Jesus is cool and understands you, have a great life!” these particular critics might have a point. Jesus did call people to follow Him as the one who saves us from our all of our faults and foibles, not to nominate Him for a Nobel Peace Prize.
There’s an old saying “abuse does not cancel use,” and it is apropos to this objection. Yes, sometimes people focus so much on Jesus as a human, they forget (or actively reject) that He wasn’t just a great human. However, we can also focus so much on fighting that impulse we forget to share that Jesus isn’t just God, but also experienced a fully human life. Both parts are utterly necessary to the Christian message.
A friend musing with me on the vitriol directed at He Gets Us for showing Jesus’s humanness messaged me Heb. 4:15, which says Jesus is one “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” So often today, the Church gives the impression Jesus is very much not like us — or at least not like those who don’t already follow Him. The Bible tells a different story: He understood what it was like to be rejected, to live as an outcast, to have people hate Him. He felt the things we feel. Precisely because of this, the author of Hebrews goes on in the next verse to say we can trust Him to save us.
To paraphrase: He gets us.
When Jesus ministered to people, He didn’t always start the same way. He started by speaking to the struggles and questions swirling around in the heart of the person He was speaking to. Jesus was and is patient.
Part of loving people is not to force them into a one size fits all container, but to actually know them and speak to them. Sometimes He confronted someone right upfront with their sins and called them to repent, but sometimes He knew the person needed to be understood first or needed to be invited to just “come and see” (John 1:46) and then still to be invited to keep seeing for a long time (John 1:50). Arguably, for much (if not all) of Jesus’s earthly ministry, His disciples didn’t get Him and didn’t have a genuine conversion. Jesus let them see He got them and kept working with them until eventually all but Judas got Jesus.
When I first became curious about what the He Gets Us campaign was doing, I went and checked out their advertised web site. Much of it spends time simply introducing people to Jesus and how He does get us. How He is awfully different from stereotypical “religious” people. The thing an awful lot of people don’t think of Jesus today and I pray they will come to think.
But, the critics need to go deeper before criticizing the project. It doesn’t stop at just making Jesus seem more inviting to those not already in the club. It invites people into Bible reading plans to learn more about Jesus, to confront who it is that He says He is and wrestle with what we need to do to follow Him.
The campaign’s web site also invites people to “take action” by connecting with someone from a local church. My church took up the invitation and now receives prayer requests from people trying to sort out if Jesus gets them every single week. Unlike so many ministries that run eerily like corporations, He Gets Us just wants to connect people who would like to learn more about Jesus with people willing to help them do that. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the program wanted a church like mine to pay to get to connect with those people writing in — it would be quite normal for them to ask for payment in the world of ministry projects like this — but the donors paying for the ads have also picked up the tab for the infrastructure to help connect people to churches for prayer and encouragement.
He Gets Us is very much pointing people to their full need of Jesus, it just does so with a patience and care for those encountering the campaign we too often fail to demonstrate. We want immediate results so we can tick off our successes at bringing people to know Him. Jesus doesn’t work that way and He is at work, even when it takes much time and many different people sharing bits of the Savior for someone to really know Him.
The campaign is counterintuitive to our sensibilities, but good ministry almost always is.
(Even the “merch” — hats and shirts and the like — is different here. While selling gear can be a potential moneymaker in many ministries, just like in the secular world, He Gets Us doesn’t go that route. They refuse to take money on their “store,” instead having costs like “loving an enemy” or “helping someone who is hurting” as the assigned price.)
In all this there is something of an irony.
The politically minded critics — both red and blue — argue that He Gets Us doesn’t get Jesus because the campaign doesn’t understand how the people we hate should be outcast, it is they who need to quit being so hateful. The religiously minded critics want a Jesus who gives out twentieth century Gospel pamphlets that assume people already like Jesus and just need to know how to commit their lives to Him. All of this sounds rather familiar: like the critiques from those who criticized Jesus two millennia ago.
The Savior doesn’t work the way we often want Him to. Quite frankly, it is we who do not get Him. And when we realize Jesus doesn’t fit our comfortable box for Him, it makes us awfully squirmy.
While no ad campaign could perfectly capture Jesus, I think the way this one is criticized shows just how well it has represented Him. It pricks our individual tender spots with a dose of Jesus-as-He-is and makes us squirm as it does.
That’s nothing new. He saw it as He walked the roads of Palestine and loved those squeamish people anyway. He loves you and me, too. We don’t get Him, but He gets us.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.
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