The first time Lynne and I traveled overseas, we went to Poland which at the time was still in the grip of the Communist regime. Out in the beautiful mountains and forests of southern Poland, away from the prying eyes of state officials, we spent a summer teaching the Bible and Christian Life to hundreds of Polish, Czech and Slovakian college students. In spite of their challenges and sufferings (which were harsh and constant) they had incredible faith and irrepressible joy. And they loved to sing. They sang, Spievac Alleluia Panu (“Sing Alleluia to The Lord”), Krolje Bog (“God Reigns”), and many more. Every time we heard recognizable praise songs sung with unrecognizable lyrics, we were a bit overcome. We were experiencing God’s big, colorful and diverse family. We sang in English and then, over time, picked up the Polish. Those moments jolted us into seeing the world through His eyes. And we haven’t stopped.
These times came to my mind when I watched Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl commercial montage of America the Beautiful sung in different languages. But not everyone had the same response.
It’s been over a week but the outrage that exploded still continues. Coke’s Facebook page is slammed with accusations and complaints; websites documented a simultaneous “Twitter Rage” (why does that phrase just sound funny?). Rather than warming hearts in celebration of the diversity of American citizens, many were offended that foreign tongues and alternative lifestyles would sully a patriotic musical treasure. See for yourself if you haven’t already:
Coke was accused of blatantly shoving a multi-cultural agenda into America’s face. Many disliked the non-English portions of the song and some particularly objected to the usage of Arabic:
“The song is in a language of people who want to destroy America” one poster opined.
And Coca-Cola probably lost a few customers:
“Buh Bye, Coke. I don’t buy any products from any company that goes against my beliefs in Americanism.”
For a moment, let’s set aside all the kerfuffle surrounding the commercial and look at the underlying reality that makes it strike such a sensitive nerve. Americans may be divided over words and images, but, like it or not, the commercial describes modern day American culture. How are we, as Christians, supposed to view the challenges and opportunities around us? The world is coming to us, as it always has. Not long ago, if you wanted to interact with Hindus, you would travel to India. Now, a Hindu may be your roommate in college. The same can be said for Asians, Africans and Latin Americans. They bring more than their obvious ethnic differences but their religious and worldview distinctions as well.
What incredible openings this provides for us to live and explain the ways of God to the world.
This has always been the privilege of Christians over the centuries as the peoples of the world migrate and move. Think of how much the world has changed since the time of Christ. Almost all of the cities of the early church are Islamic: Antioch, where the followers of Christ were first called Christians; the seven churches of Revelation; the great centers of the early church fathers (with the exception of Rome), and on and on. Islam now grows rapidly in Europe (some estimate about 10 per cent of the population). The center of Christianity first shifted west to Europe, then to the United States and now splits among Africa, Latin America and Asia.
As the movement continues, the changes are not unplanned or unexpected. Paul told a skeptical crowd of intellectuals in Athens that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children’”(Acts 17:26-28).
As Christians, we must be careful not to divide where God does not divide. Our world is fractured and in despair and we must be the first to acknowledge this unity of our creation and work to communicate our Father’s good news in Christ.
The idea that the song is diminished by the different tongues never really came to my mind as I watched the commercial. I am surprised at the Christians who objected so violently to the Arabic portion of the song. Arab may be the language of some terrorists but it is also the language of Arab Christians who are teaching the gospel of Christ and seeing thousands of Muslim come to Him every day, including here in the US.
The reaction reminds me of a scene from a television drama I saw several years ago. It was in the 1930’s and the residents of a small American town had turned against the local German immigrants because of the reports of Nazi atrocities in Europe. The anti-German sentiment was toxic and they gathered all of the German language books they could find and threw them into a pile in the square to burn. Before they lit the books, one man walked forward, reached into the pile and drew out a book. He opened it and slowly read the first line:
“Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde;”
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
He closed it reverently and replaced the Bible in the pile. The crowd stood in silence and then slowly melted away.
I am blessed to live in America and to sing, “God shed His grace on thee.” I love my country. I would die for my country. But my primary citizenship is in heaven. The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gave himself for me.
One day, after nations fall, governments fail, and ideologies crumble, we will see what God had in mind all along:
“And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 5:13).
“I saw a great multitude that no one could count from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne . . . “(Rev. 7:9).