From the Book of Genesis:
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 22:15-18 (NRSV) – February 5, 2014.)
During the Super Bowl broadcast last Sunday Coca-Cola offered an advertisement featuring several people of differing ethnicities singing in a variety of languages a rendition of the song America the Beautiful. Almost immediately, the twitterverse was flooded with tweets of outrage demanding that the Coca-Cola singers “speak American,” condemning the singing of “our national anthem” in any language other than English, and threatening a boycott of Coke. (As much as I might want to, I’m not going to address the ignorance of referring to the English language as “American” or of not knowing what the national anthem of the United States actually is.)
That little tempest in a tea pot came to mind when I read God’s promise to Abraham that “by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves.” This is the mission of God’s People. Isaiah prophesied that “in days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” (Isa. 2:2) Psalm 72 includes the prayer for the king of Israel, “May all nations be blessed in him” (v. 17) and Psalm 87 proclaims that God will say of all people from every nation that “this one was born” in Zion (v. 6). Ben Sira refers to the promise to Abraham when he writes, “To Isaac also he gave the same assurance for the sake of his father Abraham. The blessing of all people and the covenant he made to rest on the head of Jacob.” (Ecclus. 44:22-23)
As we were reminded on Sunday morning, this mission was inherited by Christ and his church, the new Israel (as St. Paul said). Old Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms and proclaimed that he was to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Lk 2:32) As an adult rabbi, Jesus would instruct his disciples to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16) having commissioned them to be “the light of the world,” and reminding them that “a city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (v. 14)
The Puritan preacher John Winthrop took up that image when, preaching to the Massachusetts Bay colonists aboard the vessel Arbella in 1630, he admonished them to set an example of righteousness to the world. Presidents Kennedy and Reagan made use of the “shining city on the hill” metaphor in their inaugural addresses.
So I am puzzled why people who claim to be conservative, Christian, free market Americans would be upset with a successful American corporation advertising its product in a commercial in which people from all over the world extol the beauty of America . . . . the only explanation is a misunderstanding of unity and a misapprehension that uniformity of language promotes that unity. And, indeed, that is the tenor of many conversations I’ve seen on Facebook and Twitter since the Super Bowl advertisement was aired. In many of those conversations, the old image of America as a “melting pot” has been invoked.
Although many of us may remember that image from grade school civics lessons, I remember a junior high school civics and history instructor who sought to disabuse us of the notion. Our society is not and never has been a melting pot, he told us. If we had been, there wouldn’t be barrios, black ghettos, Little Italies, Chinatowns, Levittowns, lace-curtain Irish neighborhoods, and all the other ethnic enclaves that have existed for decades and even centuries. We’re not a melting pot, said my civics teacher, we are a tossed salad. It is our diversity that makes us exciting and makes us strong, unity in diversity, not uniformity, which is what a melting pot creates, which is what an enforced uniformity of language would promote.
Ethnic diversity, in fact, is the biblical model. All the nations of the world receive a blessing through Abraham and his descendents, but they do not become Israel; they do not become Jews. Even as God enrolls the nations in Psalm 87 declaring their birth in Zion, they remain Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, and all the other nations of the world. As immigrants come to be part of America, even as they may become naturalized citizens, they retain their histories and identities as Moroccan, Thai, Xosa, French, Maori, and all the rest, with cultural heritages to be honored, languages to be spoken and sung, and diversity to be celebrated. The shining city on the hill shines with diversity!
So, bravo, Coca-Cola, bravo!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.