Does “He Gets Us” Get Him?

Does “He Gets Us” Get Him? February 15, 2024

Jesus in a recliner reading a newspaper
He Gets Us

Super Bowl LVIII just finished about an hour ago—a phenomenal matchup between two very talented teams, and one of those games where it was a shame that someone had to lose.

I’m not writing about the game, though.

What I am writing about are the two He Gets Us ads that ran during the broadcast. In case you didn’t watch the game or missed the ads, the first was a sixty second commercial featuring a series of pictures. In each scene, people who one would possibly consider to be on opposite sides of an issue or belief system were washing each other’s feet. The message was that Jesus was a uniter, someone who brought people together, someone who created a peace that transcended political or social boundaries.

The second ad asked the question “Who is my neighbor?” and reminded us that according to Jesus, it is the person we don’t notice, value, or welcome.

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

However, there are a couple of gigantic problems with this ad campaign. Three problems, actually.

Problem #1: It Cost HOW Much?

With a seven million dollar fee for running a thirty-second ad during this year’s Super Bowl, industry website Adweekestimated that the He Gets Us ads cost 17.5 million dollars.

Let that sit for a moment. Seventeen and a half million dollars.

That could have paid for an initial deposit and monthly rent on a $1000 per month apartment, along with $150 per month in utility costs and $500 per month for groceries for every single unhoused person in my hometown of Lincoln Nebraska.

For two full years.

It could have bought and paid off literally hundreds of millions of dollars of medical debt for those whose healthcare has buried them.

At three dollars per lunch, it could have paid for over 5.8 million school lunches.

Do the Work

The only limit for the good this money would have done, for actually showing how “He Gets Us” to those most in need, is one’s imagination. Jesus healed the sick, advocated for the poor, brought those who were considered outsiders back into community. How great would it have been for the money spent on seventy-five seconds of airtime to actually do the work to which Jesus has called us?

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not against a church spending money. It takes money to keep the lights on, to keep buildings maintained, to pay church workers a living wage, and to create transcendent spaces and experiences. And telling the Jesus story is important, if we truly believe that his life, death, and resurrection are good news for humanity.

But there’s a line beyond which we end up undermining the story. It may not always be easy to define where that line is, and the line itself may shift depending on the circumstances involved.

Wherever that line may be, the He Gets Us ads haven’t just crossed it, they have used it as the starting line on a marathon of misguided excess.

Alabaster Jars

As I typed those last few paragraphs, it occurred to me how much my objections sounded like the objections in Matthew 26 when not long before Jesus’s arrest, a woman comes into the room where Jesus and his disciples were eating. She has an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume which in an act of devotion she pours over Jesus’s head, anointing him as one would a king. Those gathered are indignant—their argument is that the oil was expensive, and instead of pouring it on Jesus it could’ve been sold and the money given to help the poor.

But Jesus rebukes them, telling them that what the woman has done is a beautiful gesture which will always be remembered.

Extravagance spent on Jesus instead of doing the work of Jesus—isn’t that the objection I just made? Does that put me in the place of those Jesus rebukes in the story?

Maybe. But I don’t think so, because of Problem #2 and Problem #3:

2) Jesus doesn’t need rebranding.

3) The ads are a classic “bait-and-switch.”

Problem #2: Jesus Doesn’t Need Rebranding

Jon Lee, from the agency that created the ads, said in an interview, “We’re seeing really significant increases in people’s interest, relevance and curiosity of Jesus.”

That may very well be the case, no matter how jarring it may feel to have the gospel reduced to advertising metrics.

But it’s not Jesus who needs the public relations campaign.

It’s the church.

Jesus’s reputation in the United States is generally a good one, even with those who don’t believe in his divinity. Atheists, agnostics, those of other faiths—it’s pretty well accepted that Jesus was a cool cat. All the stuff that the commercials say about Jesus is stuff that the intended audience by and large already knows:

  • He told us to love our enemies
  • He was a servant leader
  • He welcomed all people, particularly those who society had cast out
  • He healed people without any requirements
  • He commanded care for the poor, and did not command that we make sure they were worthy of help
  • He didn’t tell us to lock criminals up and throw away the key, but to visit those in prison
  • When unjustly arrested, he rebuked Peter for responding with violence
  • He lived a life of love

They Get Jesus Better Than We Do

Non-Christians know this stuff. Many times, they know it better than we do. They’re the ones constantly calling out Christians for our hypocrisy in claiming to follow this guy who said and did and taught these things when we aren’t saying and doing and teaching these things ourselves.

Not only that, but it tends to be Christians who actively oppose the saying and doing and teaching of these things.

And especially since the rise of Trump, it tends to be Christians who actively support ideas, movements, and people that work against Jesus’s mission.

No, the audience outside the church that needs to be persuaded that Jesus “knows us” is relatively small, especially compared to those outside the church who need to be persuaded that the church knows Jesus.

Problem #3: Bait and Switch

The worst part about the ad and the money and the waste is that in the end, it’s a gigantic bait and switch. The people and organizations who are behind the campaign simply don’t believe the things that the ads say, or if they do, it doesn’t come out in the way they act. Red flag #1 is how difficult their website makes it to discover any information whatsoever about who the funders are, if there’s a specific “flavor” of Christian belief system underpinning the venture, or really anything else about the organization behind the campaign. This ends up being significant because of red flag #2: Hobby Lobby CEO David Green is a major benefactor. He has been caught smuggling antiquities out of the Middle East, he supports anti-LGBTQ+ causes and anti-women’s rights groups, and he spearheaded a court case to give employers the right to deny birth control coverage for employees and won after it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Matthew 23 Gets Us

Have you ever read Matthew 23? Pretty much the entire chapter consists of Jesus chewing out the scribes and Pharisees.

Before I continue, a quick aside—it’s important here to keep in mind that Jesus’s harsh words are not directed at the Jewish people as a whole, nor even at the Pharisee movement within Judaism as a whole. If you read chapter 22, you see that a crowd has gathered around Jesus, and twice a group of Pharisees ask him questions to try to trick him into either losing the crowd’s support or blasphemy. Jesus foils their plans with brilliant answers, and as they leave with their tails between their legs Jesus goes off on them. Chapter 23 is a direct response to a specific situation in chapter 22.

Jesus Chews Them Out

But what Jesus has to say about those who were trying to trick him definitely has bearing here. Among other things, he tells the crowd:

  • “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (verse 4)
  • “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in you stop them.” (verse 13)
  • “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” (verse 23)

Who in the American church lays heavy burdens on the shoulders of others? Who acts as heaven’s gatekeepers, locking out those they choose? Who is worried more about small issues of personal morality to the exclusion of the larger matters of mercy and justice?

That’s right—it’s fundamentalist evangelicals like those who fund and operate the He Gets Us campaign.

Criticizing the money spent on these commercials isn’t like criticizing the woman who washed Jesus’s feet with expensive oil. Rather, it’s like pointing out that the ones doing the washing are the “scribes and Pharisees” who had attempted to undermine Jesus in Matthew chapter 22.

I don’t trust ‘em any further than I can throw ‘em. And I’m kind of a weakling.

Too Many Have Already Been Hurt

My neighbors who are people of color, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ+ or LGBTQ+ affirming, women, prisoners, people of other faiths or of no faith, and on and on and on…too many of them have been too hurt by the church for me to just tell myself to leave it alone and let it be, that He Gets Us does get some stuff right about Jesus. It’s true that they do affirm some very good qualities of Jesus. However, at the same time, they’re not telling the full story of what they believe. Behind each of their affirmations is a silent caveat.

The caveat may be unspoken in the ads, but it’s one that’s all-too-familiar: Jesus loves the sinner, but hates the sin. You know, the sin of living authentically as LGBTQ+, the sin of being a woman called to ministry or who rejects patriarchal systems, the sin of unbelief, the sin of whatever got you locked up and deserving of punishment up to and including the death penalty, the sin of trying to remind America that the lives of people of color really do matter as much as everybody else’s.

Those sorts of sins.

Bottom line: He Gets Us is a wolf in sheep’s clothing with a spending problem.

About Matt Schur
After graduating with a B.A. in English from Truman State and an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Luther Seminary, Matt Schur spent years wandering in a vocational wilderness before finally discovering his calling— assisting and advocating for the marginalized and vulnerable. He currently lives out that call as a case manager and housing specialist for people experiencing homelessness. He also serves an ELCA campus ministry part-time as its music director and pianist, and has published two books of progressive Christian poetry: “Cross Sections” (2021) and “Imperfectly Perfect” (2023). His writing has been featured in “Valiant Scribe Literary Journal,” “Unlikely Stories,” and “Cathexis Northwest Press.” You can read more about the author here.

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