Bruce Springsteen’s call to unity is a call to repentance

Super Bowl ads speak to us in a way they think we’ll listen

I like watching Super Bowl ads because they reflect to us what corporations want us to hear, or better yet, think we’ll listen to. I used to cynically avoid them so as not to make myself impure by watching consumeristic propaganda, or something, but after moving beyond that rather puritanical take I see something in them.

I was moved by Bruce Springsteen’s ad, which has generated some commentary on its own (Washington Post, Pitchfork, New York Times). One reason it generated so much is that the Boss has never starred in a corporate ad. Fit for his populist lyrics, the artist has generally tried to identify with ordinary people and seemed less interested in celebrity attention. But I think Springsteen was moved to say something on a big platform after one of the worst years in American history, following one of the worst Presidential administrations in history. The country is polarized and divided not as a result of partisanship, but as a result of the wickedness of Donald Trump (and Bruce Springsteen agrees). The evil that he made manifest, that we saw on Jan 6, that we saw in Charlottesville, in his rallies, in his racist and sexist rhetoric, was so manifest, many couldn’t bear to tolerate it whatsoever. I think rampant white supremacy, that even returned to scientific racism and eugenics, is worthy of that sort of rejection and disdain. There is no such thing as unity with white supremacists without repentance. The calls to unity without repentance, like many formerly loyal-to-Trump folks are calling for (see, for example, the Republicans in Congress who will not vote to convict him this week) are like how Jeremiah describes his leaders after they fraternize with God’s enemy, the Babylonians, and allow Israel to be sacked and taken over:

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not ashamed,
they did not know how to blush.

Does the Boss really want us to meet in the middle?

But many of the critics of Jeep’s ad with Springsteen in it claim that he is also calling for a fake peace. (And, of course, some others thought it was ridiculous to get a known Trump critic to tell Trumpers to unify.) The ad brings the criticism onto itself because it is supposed to be set in Lebanon, Kansas, the middle of the United States. It shows us a chapel in Kansas that has a cross in the middle of an image of a starred-and-striped United States. And that’s not the end of the religious imagery; one scene shows three crosses, as if they were on Golgotha. Some of that religious alnguage is indicative of creeping civil religion (which seems to be how opponents of Christian Nationalism are answering it). I think it showcases a desire for a spiritual hope, and I think that appealing to the “other side,” so to speak, using Christian imagery makes sense politically. Even if I find it distasteful as a Christian, it didn’t feel like an abuse to me. The reconciliation and harmony that’s evident in the ad is authored by the One who killed on that cross. In fact, the ad may be implying that (white Evangelical) Christians are largely responsible for the division in this country, and they can make things right by actually following the Gospel, instead of protecting their power.

The ad calls us to meet in their middle, at the chapel that never closes, where everyone is welcome. “Between red and blue. Between servant and citizen.” I think that for many people the pain they experienced in our divided times is just too raw to all of a sudden reach for reconciliation, especially reconciliation without repentance. But I don’t think that’s what was ultimately conveyed in the ad. And I think critiquing it for that misses its point. The Boss will go on to say “between our freedom and our fear.” He names fear as not the best of who we are, and freedom as something for us all. “Whoever you are, wherever you’re from.” To me, that statement is not one of moderation, but rather hospitality. And for me, after hearing that I don’t belong, and I should be sent back to the country where I came from, this message resonates.

Bruce talks about crossing the divide, tells us that “our light has always found its way toward darkness. And there’s hope on the road up ahead.” It ends with the phrase “To the ReUnited States.”

Calls for true unity are calls for repentance

At first glance, for me the ad is a flagrant display of civil religion and American Christian syncretism, so I guess you could throw it out. But cynicism is cheap, and it sure as hell isn’t prophecy. As I said, it could be a call for fake peace, or meeting white supremacists in the middle, in which case, fine throw it out. But there’s something more to it. The inclusion of everyone, at no one’s expense, allowing light to break through darkness, the idea of hope on the road “up ahead.” These are statements that at least imply a reckoning and a repentance. They advocate for a new way, instead of the old way. And I think it burdens the dividers with this.

In other words, calls for unity are also calls for repentance. And yes, the most prophetic enough will not have our desire for truth and justice satisfied by a homily like Bruce’s. But I don’t think their point is to be prophetic alone, but to showcase an idea for a country that is united for the common good—as the Boss said, that stands on “common ground.” I think it is understandable to be deeply skeptical of calls to unity because there is a real fear that there will not be a reckoning and a repentance, and the victims of the worst oppression will merely be traumatized again. But I think the messenger matters, and Springsteen is known for his own unwavering convictions. Or as one that one YouTube commentator describe as “never in the Middle.”

But casting a vision for what could be ahead, the hope that’s before us, is a prophetic vision, in its own right, and a call to repentance and reconciliation. The truth calls for belonging for all people, no matter who they are or where they’re from. They are not calls for unity with oppressors, but rather repentance from oppression. I appreciated the way Springsteen thread the needle, and I intend to model it, not as a citizen of the United States but as a citizen of the Body of Christ.

United in mission, diversity in approach

The truth is we can be pastoral and prophetic. We can be invitational and incisive. Did Springsteen perfectly do that? No, I don’t think so. I would have avoided an explicit partisan framing (“between red and blue”) and I probably wouldn’t set the thing in Kansas. But calls for unity can include prophetic calls for repentance as well. They are not fundamentally acquiescent, and we should look for examples of leadership that showcase that, because they can indeed lead to a real peace and a real unity. The truth in any body, but especially the church. We don’t all belong until all belong.

But we should also herald the voices of those of us who have a different role in the body. Those of us who need more prophetic fire like Jeremiah, and create space for them. The tension held here is an important part of dialogue of love. If all of our voices were ones like Springsteen’s, I’m not sure they would make a lot of progress. But if all we did was prophecy in order to satiate our desire for justice, we might never taste justice. Speaking justice isn’t the same thing as enacting justice. But never speaking of it is likely never to enact it.

In order for a Body to be Unified, though, to meet as a cohesive whole, we must be committed to transformation, and not condemnation. There is no unity without repentance. There is no unity without transformation. The invitation of Jesus to us, the gift of the Cross, is that we can repent of our sins and live to see another day. That is what no condemnation in Christ means. It doesn’t mean freedom from repentance, it means freedom to repent. I think that’s what the pastoral message is here. When we are trying to overcome our polarized and divided times, the key isn’t just to have a false unity, but rather a unity that results from a common mission, a common good. The question for leaders is how do we achieve that? I think that the best way to do it is speak the truth in love. No doubt none of us will perfectly thread the needle of truth and love (and maybe the Boss erred too much on the side of “love” in the above ad), but a body can. And so for us, that means holding the tension of our different approaches to speaking up and speaking out, without allowing those unique approaches to compromise our common mission and our common convictions.

Today, Bruce Springsteen reminded this fiery prophet that full blast heat isn’t always the way to go in terms of healing. That I can use a different voice for a different occasion. Or I can understand why someone might use a different post. That I can be both pastoral and prophetic. That others are given to be prophets, and others pastors.

Dialogue after:

My thoughtful friend said:
I appreciate your charitable read of this ad. I think I made a cynical joke about it when I watched it.
In reflection, I think what strikes me as hollow about it is that our notion of ‘unity’ IS rather hollow. I often hear recourse to unity as indication that we are not really sure what the foundation of that unity is. The common good or common ground upon which such unity rests is precisely what is obscured by the politicization of American life.
So I suppose my question is not so much how can we evidence greater unity but what sort of life is required in order to be able to see the common good upon which that unity rests?
I respond:
Springsteen, nor Jeep, offers no answers to that question, obviously. For them, it seems to me some odd amalgamation of small town pastoralism, American ideals, fused with Christianity in some way. Obviously that notion leaves a lot of people out of the picture. How can you name unity for Americans on top of stolen land, for example? But nevertheless, I appreciated the spirit of the ad.
You and I share the answer for your question. It is a life that is based in a cruciform witness, it is a self-emptying life. It is a life that let’s our former selves be crucified with Christ, and allow Christ to live within us. This is precisely why unity requires repentance. The beauty of Christian table fellowship is that everyone is welcome, but much is asked. The grace of Jesus invites us all to the table, but grace, the gift of Christ, is more effectual than the law in transformation, because it offers us a chance to repent without condemnation. It is freely given.

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