The Common Good

Between Repression and Freedom

I stopped drinking Coca Cola years ago — not in protest but in a bid for health. But I want to applaud their presenting "America the Beautiful" sung in seven languages.

In a 60-second Super Bowl ad, and now a 90-second version at the bizarre Sochi Winter Olympics, the soft drink company showed people of different ethnic backgrounds singing in English and six other languages.

I found it charming and warming. It spoke eloquently to the America that I know today — and the America that my ancestors knew when they arrived many years ago speaking German and Norwegian.

Yes, most immigrants eventually learn English. My wife teaches English to immigrants who travel an hour or more to class. She is awed by their zeal.

But many don’t learn English. Whether or not they "speak American," as the right-wing bigots demand, they are part of this amazing polyglot land.

When bigots attacked Coca Cola after the Super Bowl airing, the company could have backed down. But they did the better thing: repeating the ad and making it 50 percent longer.

Good for them.

Video courtesy of Coca-Cola via YouTube

NBC, of course, took the safe route and cut away when a U.S. Olympics official pointedly criticized Russia for its anti-gay laws. The network made a similar bad choice at the 2012 Summer Games when they cut away during a moving dance commemorating victims of a subway bombing — the very heart of London’s opening ceremony.

Showing the pluck of Coca Cola, open-minded athletes from many nations are showing their rainbow colors and their support for tolerance.

I read about one athlete’s awareness that, given Russia’s repressive regime, standing for freedom could be dangerous. I applaud the gay athletes from outside Russia who have declared their identity, in the face of repression.

As I read about the Putin regime’s intolerance and its spying on citizens and foreigners alike, I am mindful how far down that very road we have gone in the U.S. If we wonder what our "surveillance state" might come to be, we can examine Russian snooping into every corner.

And if we wonder how spying in service of intolerance masquerading as morality might play out, we can examine the fears of Russia’s own athletes and citizens.

On the other hand, the American athlete who posted a racist image of President Obama should appreciate the freedom of speech that allows him to do so. How many nations would allow such disrespect of their top leaders?

Whatever happens in the medal count, I think the Sochi Games will be remembered as a tense confrontation between repression and freedom. That confrontation is happening around the world, much of it focused on gays (as in Nigeria’s harsh anti-gay laws), but also on women’s rights, freedom of speech, political dissidents, and religious minorities, as a recent massacre of female Christian ministers in the South Sudan has shown.

Thanks to the enormous publicity accompanying the games, Russia is showing us the face of repression: the smug and thuggish arrogance of those claiming the right to diminish others, and the fear that then instills in far too many. Yet there are also glistening images of courage, like the Ukrainian Orthodox clergy who stood in silent vigil against armed forces backing Russian President Putin’s anti-Western intervention.

I think we Americans should take notice. The time to take a stand against homegrown bigots and oppressors is now, before they get too deeply ensconced.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.

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