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Joe Hoover, S.J.February 13, 2024
This image provided by He Gets Us LLC shows a scene from “Foot Washing," the 60-second commercial from "He Gets Us" that debuted at the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024. (Julia Fullerton-Batten and Scott Mayo/He Gets Us LLC via AP)

The photographs are stylized, a bit weird and about as subtle as a freight train. A Latino cop washes the feet of a young Black man on a metal milk crate in a sinister alleyway. A woman washes a girl’s feet outside an abortion clinic. A rancher-type washes the feet of an elderly Native American man. An oilman washes the feet of a girl protesting on behalf of the environment at his oil field.

These photos and others appeared in a one-minute ad in the “He Gets Us” campaign that appeared for the second straight year during the first quarter of the Super Bowl telecast on Sunday. At the end of the string of photos are the words: “Jesus Didn’t Teach Hate. He Washed Feet. He Gets Us. All of Us.”

The campaign also featured a 30-second ad, “Who Is My Neighbor?” showing pictures of people from all walks of life and at the end asking “Who is my neighbor? The one you don’t notice, value, welcome.”

Full disclosure: I only found out about the ads the morning after the Super Bowl. Why? Because I didn’t watch the game, because the Super Bowl is a billion-dollar bread-and-circuses fantasyland.

Nevertheless. Even there at the Super Bowl is Jesus.

The foot-washing commercial directly addresses issues like immigration, abortion, addiction and campus free speech debates and puts Jesus right in the center of them. It tells us, essentially, that Jesus transcends these issues. He loves both sides and has mercy on both sides. Jesus is not “political,” though his message and his actions do have political consequences. He is smack in the center of human conflict. He is where Christians should be, at the places where it counts.

Are these ads demanding we do anything, join any church, give any money, assent to any creed, say any prayer, enter any cult, disown any parent, abscond from any sense or reason? No.

Along with a fantastic rendition of the INXS song “Never Tear Us Apart,” the campaign “He Gets Us” offers a simple non-denominational message meant to surprise the culture with the ways Jesus simply…is with us. It counters a notion that Jesus can be used for hate and division, as a weapon to lash out at one’s enemies.

Are these ads demanding we do anything, join any church, give any money, assent to any creed, say any prayer, enter any cult, disown any parent, abscond from any sense or reason? No.

Nevertheless!

Even as I look at the images in the foot-washing ad, I note that several of them feature white Christians washing the feet of people of color—a priest washing the feet of a young gay Black man; a suburban mother washing the feet of a migrant who has just gotten off a bus. It feels patronizing, self-congratulatory: The white people performing humility as a sly power move to cement their authority in this situation.

As charitable as I try to be in watching something like this, I cannot help but wonder if this isn’t a Protestant evangelical sneak attack of some kind. A slick ad that somehow lays down groundfire for something more proselytizing to come in and penetrate our very brains.

So the temptation is to take our eyes off the lovely ad itself and focus on searching for whatever distasteful aspect we might find within the ad. (The millions of dollars it cost to air, for instance.) Or the political stances we may disagree with of those helping to fund the ad. For instance, some have pointed out that a large portion of the money behind the organization that began the “He Gets Us” campaign, The Signatry, came from the founder of Hobby Lobby, David Green. Hobby Lobby has been attacked for fighting the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive funding requirement, as well as its poor track record on L.G.B.T. issues.

On the other side of the political aisle, people have complained that the ads depict hot-button topics to appeal to a “woke” crowd. But they do so in ways that are not clearly condemnatory of abortion or “open borders” or homosexuality.

And so there we are, caught up in the mind and not noticing the display of mercy that these ads are. In operating from a posture of skepticism, obsessing with the “issue behind the ad,” we are behaving not unlike the man gravely wounded by a poisoned arrow in one of the great parables of the Buddha:

His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me...until I know his home village, town, or city...until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow.

“All this would still not be known to that man,” said the Buddha, “and he would die.”

The wounded man needed to interrogate the very why and what and how; would seek to rationally understand precisely what was going on, who was behind it and what kind of people they were—all while heading to his own death.

Maybe the real message of this ad should be not that “God Gets Us” but that “We Don’t Get God.” 

We too can hyper-analyze anything to death and, in the meantime, miss what good thing is happening in front of our very eyes. Wherever the money came from for those ads, the campaign is putting the Jesus of mercy right into the world. The Jesus who healed, forgave, crossed borders, built bridges, went to the most surprising of places. If money for the ad comes from someone who opposes L.G.B.T. rights, the ad that person paid for is creating a culture that agitates against that very stance.

I once had my feet washed by a woman in a small village in the northeast of India. I had ridden to her village with two other Jesuits in a jeep over dangerous roads in belligerent heat wearing a thin orange button-down from a Target in Chicago to go to a weekday service in their small cement church.

They sat us down on plastic chairs in front of the church, and three women sat before us with a cloth and a bucket of water and proceeded to wipe down our feet. As it happened to me, I was silent, still, not breathing. It was time—30 seconds? a minute?—that was simply swallowed up. If I did think of anything, it was this: My feet are being washed. My feet were hot and dirty, and now they are being washed. How is this so, that my Lord should come to me in this way?

This is just to say: Having your feet washed is a thing that sticks with you. It does something to you. It’s hard to argue with the washing of the feet.

And I would imagine, in one sense, that once you wash someone’s feet, it’s much harder to see that person as a mere “issue.” To see that human as “one side of an argument” to be vanquished. Washing feet, and these ads themselves, are an invitation for us to get over ourselves and give praise and glory to the God who is over all of us.

Maybe the real message of this ad should be not that “God Gets Us” but that “We Don’t Get God.” Namely, we don’t get to fix God into a space that makes us comfortable; a space where we have God figured out; where we are certain of how God operates and how God does not operate; a space where the message of Christ can only flow from the channels pre-approved by the engineering commision of our minds. We don’t get—how often we do not get!—that God operates however God will for the salvation of the world through the mercy God has on every one of us.

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