Jesus will be making an appearance during the Super Bowl thanks to He Gets Us, an ad campaign promising to reintroduce people to the “authentic Jesus of the Bible.” I think the “authentic Jesus” would feel rather unsettled by all the advertising hubbub. From my perspective, you can only discern the “authentic Jesus” by recognizing his political priorities. But He Gets Us argues that Jesus’ message is, in fact, not political at all.
When I first noticed the ads on TV last March, I was cautiously optimistic. Each ad features an array of black-and-white photos with people in contemporary settings followed by a simple, relatable slogan on a plain black screen: “Jesus was wrongly judged,” “Jesus suffered anxiety, too,” “Jesus struggled to make ends meet, too;” each ad ends with the campaign’s tagline, “He get us. All of us.”
But one of the ads I saw made me want to know more about who was behind the campaign. The voiceover in this particular ad describes Jesus as “an influencer who became insanely popular,” which led to everybody following him, until “one day he stood up for something he believed in.” At this moment, an image of a Black person and a police officer embracing takes center frame. The ad eventually concludes with the following slogan: “Jesus was canceled.”
“But Jesus wasn’t canceled,” I thought to myself when the ad ended. “He was crucified.”
When it comes to crucifixion and “cancel culture,” I don’t see much to compare. In On Repentance and Repair, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg explains that “cancel culture,” which is better named “callout culture,” is an attempt by those who have been harmed to address injustice by calling out the person or people who originally caused the harm. But whether that person or group ever apologizes or experiences consequences post-callout is typically a moot point, since their advantageous status in society offers them resources beyond “cancelation.” The vast chasm between cancelation and crucifixion is this: On one side, people are coming to terms with their lives after experiencing consequences; on the other, people are being executed because of their low standing in society.
An apolitical Jesus?
The campaign’s ads were made under the direction of Haven, a Michigan-based marketing, messaging, and branding firm. Through Maria Baer’s reporting for Christianity Today, I learned that Haven plans to spend $100 million on the current ad campaign which was funded by mostly anonymous donors. In January, Bob Smietana reported for Religion News Service that the billionaire and cofounder of Hobby Lobby, David Green, is one of the donors behind the ads. Haven’s founder, Bill McKendry, has previously run campaigns for Focus on the Family and Alliance Defending Freedom, two organizations that have worked to oppose LGBTQ rights. I take these actions to be political insofar as they revolve around the allocation of resources, human rights, and the prioritization of specific people’s interests. All this led me to question just how it is that the campaign can seriously emphasize Jesus’ work to mend social divisions.
So, I took my questions to Jason Vanderground, Haven’s president and the primary spokesperson for He Gets Us. On a phone call in January, Vanderground told me that the campaign aimed to “raise the respect and personal relevancy of Jesus in our culture” because Christian hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and discrimination have reflected poorly on Jesus.
Here the campaign makes a good point: Christians, myself included, have certainly done a poor job of representing Jesus. This has resulted in Christianity becoming particularly odious to younger generations who were already fairly suspicious of religion. The American Survey Center reports that Generation Z is the “least religious generation yet,” and drawing on research done by Pew Research Center in 2019, FiveThirtyEight notes that despite it seeming like millennials who left the church would return to a traditional religious life, they may actually be “leaving religion for good.” Hence the reason one of the campaign’s goals is to connect with Gen Z and millennials, two groups long considered to be staunchly progressive, generally supportive of the Democratic Party (though there’s some evidence that support is waning), and increasingly less interested in institutional religion.
The campaign’s website avoids traditional religious language and opts, instead, to tag multiple posts with hashtags like “activist,” “justice,” or “inclusive” to make Jesus more appealing to younger generations who resonate with popular jargon like “centering the marginalized.” In a recent post on the site, the campaign said that its main agenda was to help people “rediscover the life and teachings of Jesus, the world’s most radical love activist.”
But while the campaign encourages Christians to reflect Jesus’ love in their private and public lives, Vanderground told me they do not encourage individual Christians or ministries partnering with the campaign to engage in political activism, nor do they see a political dimension to Jesus’ gospel. Instead, the campaign promotes what Vanderground called a “third way.”
This “third way,” he explained, transcends politics, and turns the focus on Jesus’ “unconditional love that sought to heal and unite.” Vanderground told me that they were “hoping to start a movement,” but when I asked what that movement entailed, all he could say was that it was about “put[ting] the Jesus of the Bible front and center [in] our culture.” Vanderground insisted that this “third way” has “nothing to do with politics.” This answer was consistent with the campaign’s “about us” page, which states that they are not “‘left’ or ‘right’ or a political organization of any kind.”
But the idea that Jesus’ gospel and the campaign’s “third way” approach are apolitical strikes me as naïve. For example, if the campaign and the gospel don’t have anything to do with politics, then terms like “marginalized,” “activism,” “canceled,” and “movement” should be avoided; highlighting the plight of teen moms and refugees makes little sense; and exhorting Christians to love their neighbors has little meaning. The campaign may want to advocate for apoliticism, but whether they recognize or admit it, it is practically impossible to be apolitical when it comes to the issues referenced on their site. Furthermore, imagining Jesus as apolitical is itself a political decision — and it is a decision that aligns with politically and financially powerful interests.
Jesus’ politics, which challenged Rome’s politically and financially powerful interests, guaranteed his death. The message of the Roman Empire should sound familiar to those of us who live in the American Empire: The more resources and power you can attain, the better off you’ll be. Of course, Jesus sought to bring about a kingdom, that is a political domain, where the exact opposite was held to be true: The poor and the powerless will inherit the kingdom, but the powerful will be kicked off their thrones and the wealthy will be sent away empty.
But the He Gets Us campaign rejects the authentic, political Jesus. As a result, they become unwilling to name Rome’s historical responsibility for executing Jesus. “The way Jesus responded in the face of injustice suggests we’re asking the wrong question when we ask who to blame,” reads a line from a He Gets Us post titled “Who was responsible for Jesus’ death?” When I asked Vanderground to answer that question — who was responsible for Jesus’ death? — he responded by saying: “There’s plenty of blame to go around. But I think, in some ways as human beings, we probably all bear a little bit of the responsibility for how we’ve responded to Jesus.”
Vanderground seemed to be offering a spiritualized response to the question. So, I clarified with him that I was asking who, in the historical context, should bear primary responsibility for sentencing Jesus to death. “I think fundamentally, the way people answer those questions tends to pit people against each other,” Vanderground offered. Ultimately, Vanderground pointed me back to the aforementioned post and an ad titled “That Day,” to explain why He Gets Us believes no one party is primarily responsible for Jesus’ execution.
Yet, in a post titled “Jesus was fed up with politics, too,” the campaign argues that the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots all collaborated “to have [Jesus] killed.” Historical inaccuracy notwithstanding, this is a troublesome accusation. As the late New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn emphasized in Jesus Remembered, antisemitic tropes like these buttress the myths around what he called the “exaggerated” emphasis of “Jewish responsibility” in Jesus’ death.
Ignoring Rome’s primary responsibility in executing Jesus obscures the historical and biblical record, particularly Rome’s political domination over Israel. Rome relied on the cross to exterminate Jewish, political miscreants — Jesus being but one example. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, was the only one who could have sentenced Jesus to death and did so to mock the messianic hope within Judaism while also ridding himself of a political nuisance (John 19:19). If Jesus’ gospel is to be proclaimed, then the political circumstances surrounding his death must take center stage.
Of course, Jesus’ gospel is compelling for reasons beyond him being crucified for it. His gospel is ultimately compelling because it radically favored poor people, those living under political oppression, and the cross carriers (Matthew 10:34-36, 16:24-26, 25:31-46, 26:11; Luke 4:16-21, 6:24-36, 16:19-31).
In an English translation of his 1978 essay “The Crucified People,” Spanish-Salvadoran Jesuit, philosopher, and theologian Ignacio Ellacuría describes this class of people as the poor of the world who owe their “situation of crucifixion to the way society is organized and maintained by a minority that exercises its dominion through a series of factors, which taken together and given their concrete impact within history, must be regarded as sin.” Ellacuría’s socio-religious context was the Salvadoran Civil War where he saw a military minority — funded by U.S. citizens’ tax dollars — exercising dominion over El Salvador’s masses. U.S. politicians deemed it necessary to offer military aid to the Salvadoran army to guarantee that the world’s economy would continue to be maintained by and organized around the U.S.
Still today, U.S. citizens’ tax dollars sponsor wars around the world. Although many of us know that paying for war is wrong, we are often unsure of what the alternatives are because those controlling our country have convinced us that this is the necessary system for guaranteeing our way of life. In this way, we are enticed into participating in the sin of death (Luke 17:1-4; Romans 3:23, 6:23). Ellacuría would understand this as evidence of the individual and systemic sin that catalyzed Jesus’ crucifixion and continues to crucify the poor today. Jesus’ crucifixion not only demonstrates his political alignment with this crucified people, but it also condemns “the reign of sin that continues to crucify most of humankind.”
If Ellacuría would have internalized a “third way” approach, he would not have gotten involved in seeking a peaceful end to the war for the sake of El Salvador’s poorest citizens. But because he understood the authentic Jesus of the Bible, because he was unsettled by the Salvadoran army’s massacring of campesinos, Ellacuría took sides with the crucified people.
As a result, early in the morning on Nov. 16, 1989, Ellacuría was one of the eight people executed at Central American University (UCA) by soldiers from Atlácatl Battalion, an elite counter-insurgency unit of the Salvadoran army created, trained, and equipped by the United States. The Salvadoran army considered UCA to be a refuge for its political opponents and had long wished to eliminate Ellacuría because of his alignment with the crucified people of El Salvador.
Ellacuría and those executed with him were not canceled; they were crucified.
I write all this to say that while I find Jesus’ politics to be self-evident, I’m certainly far from perfect when it comes to following his example. In fact, at one point in my conversation with Vanderground, he inadvertently reminded me of this thorny truth. Referencing a passage found in Mathew 25 where Jesus talks about sheep being separated from goats, Vanderground paraphrased this unsettling scripture: “He called us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the prisoners and welcome the strangers. And that whenever we do that,” he continued, “we, in a way, are doing it to him.”
Whenever I encounter this passage, it always makes me reflect on how shoddily I follow Jesus. I often kiss Jesus’ cheeks to save mine. If it lets me backslide into my old fishnets, dodge unclean people, or escape Rome unscathed, I’ll give Jesus a smooch to avoid life’s crossways. I’m a big coward, so there’ve been countless times when I’ve packed my portmanteaux and left Rome. Hauling my burdens on the dark edge of town, I meet a homeless veteran, a sex worker, a bartender, a church mother, a child, a martyr, a sinner, and I’m surprised to be reminded that Jesus is alive. Dumbfounded, I ask the first thing that comes to mind, “Where you headed?” I shouldn’t have asked. An “X” haunts the locale. I resist but am convinced to follow them toward the hell hill. I follow because they insist our burdens can be carried together.
Update: An earlier version of this article said that Haven’s previous clients included Focus on the Family and Alliance Defending Freedom. Haven president and spokesperson Jason Vanderground did not refute the connection in his January interview with Sojourners. After this article was published, however, Haven clarified that its founder — but not Haven itself — had worked with those organizations. This article was updated on Feb. 14, 2023 to reflect those changes.