On this Thanksgiving weekend just past, I was aware of two Americas. Interspersed among the segments of Macy’s parade and the Disney Holiday celebration was a reminder that in our country not all the pleasures of life are simple or ordinary. A particular television commercial, rerun several times Thanksgiving Day, pointed this out clearly.
Perhaps you’ve seen it: the GMC marketing tribute to the Christmas season, introduced in November 2019 and now airing again. It represents our Divided States.
A woman comes into a professionally decorated room where her husband sits at a counter drinking coffee. “I did some early shopping this year,” she says, laying two jewelry store wrist watches on the bar. “One for you, one for me.”
“I love it,” he smiles. “I got us a little something too.” “Yeah?” she asks, expectantly. “Yeah,” he responds. They emerge together from the front door of their million-dollar home to the driveway, where there are parked two new GMC vehicles — a red SUV and a blue pickup truck.
“I love it,” she exults, rushing to the truck. “Oh, actually, that one’s supposed to be for me,” he protests. “I love it,” she repeats, employing coyness and sexuality to get what she wants, following a routine that characterizes their relationship.
“I like red,” he says, surrendering once more in the competition they enact again in the unrealistic scenario some advertising guru thought was humorous and representative. Then the voice-over summarizes just how affordable it is to lease or buy similar vehicles to make your family merry during this Christmas season of giving.
This commercial absolutely makes me despair for our collective souls, because the scenario it poses is so foolish and unrealistic for the majority of Americans.
“How unaware of the circumstances of the vast majority of us can a company like GMC really be?”
How unaware of the circumstances of the vast majority of us can a company like GMC really be? Are the corporate decision makers so out of touch with most people’s reality that they think everyone watching television is like this fictitious yuppie couple who can afford to purchase two new vehicles for Christmas?
Indeed, the ad might amuse the corporate heads of General Motors. In 2019, when this bit of fiction was proposed, approved and produced, CEO Mary Barra earned $21,327,881. Mark Reuss, the company president, netted $7,931,759. Dhivya Suryadevara, executive vice president and CFO, grossed $6,764,667. The other three members of the executive team each received between $4,100,00 and $5,900,000. So perhaps it is understandable, though not excusable, that to these six multi-millionaires such a casual nod to self-indulgent pleasure seemed like a good idea.
But that was pre-COVID. Before the pandemic in the United States infected 12.8 million people. Before job losses rose to almost 15% of the work force, more than at any time since the Great Depression. Before one of every six adults with children had to admit that they lacked enough food to feed their families each day of the previous week. Before frazzled parents and their often-disengaged children struggled to maintain multiple levels of schooling at home. Before doctors, nurses and other medical professionals reached the point of exhaustion and despair as they daily fought an invisible enemy. Before there were 262,000 empty chairs around Thanksgiving tables.
“We are an America of the rich and the poor, the privileged and the disadvantaged, the top 1% and the rest of us.”
We are an America of the rich and the poor, the privileged and the disadvantaged, the top 1% and the rest of us. And on Thanksgiving Eve, our nation’s elected leader was a perfect example of the disparity. As New York journalist Jill Filipovic wrote, concerning the stark contrast: “The president doesn’t seem too worried — and neither does Wall Street. The Dow went above 30,000 on Tuesday, and then Trump popped out before the cameras to crow about the market’s success. It was brief — just one minute — but obscene. There is perhaps no greater example of the distortions wrought by the president’s reliance on the markets as indicators for American financial well-being than this: A record-high Dow, while record numbers of Americans are hungry.”
Trump praised the 30,000 points which the Dow Jones Industrial Average surpassed as a number never before broken, despite the national pandemic. “That’s a sacred number, 30,000,” he said, demonstrating just how out of touch he is with the people of our nation who find it difficult this year to be thankful for the illness, pain, loss, uncertainty, hunger and desperate need they and their families are experiencing.
The Dow Jones number is a fluctuating indicator of monetary stability for the minority of Americans who can actually afford to trust the stock market for their futures. To call it “sacred” is misguided and sacrilegious. But for Trump, one might surmise, the choice of words is not accidental, because it describes what he worships: money. An end-of-year profit, a burgeoning portfolio, is the golden calf around which he and other millionaires, billionaires and would-be wealthy tribespeople dance in the desert. It is a false god that Jesus explained is impossible to set over against the authentic God. (See Matthew 6:24.)
“Although a retired senior citizen on a fixed income, I am nonetheless wealthy by comparison to my more than 40 million fellow Americans who are poor.”
Sitting in my home office — surrounded by thousands of books purchased a few at a time over a decades-long teaching career, listening to some favorite orchestral music as I write — I know I am privileged and undeserving. Although a retired senior citizen on a fixed income, I am nonetheless wealthy by comparison to my more than 40 million fellow Americans who are poor — those who live on the streets or move each night from shelter to shelter; those who carry their belongings in plastic garbage bags or guard them in discarded grocery carts; those who sleep in torn tents or cardboard refrigerator boxes beneath the freeways, who raise their families in dangerous buildings of the inner city, cold pueblos on reservations in the Four Corners, drafty farmhouses in the Delta or hovels without plumbing or electricity in hard-to-reach valleys of Appalachia; and those who are addicted to drugs, trapped in sex slavery or forced to work three minimum-wage jobs as they chase “the American Dream.”
The prophet Micah delivered God’s judgment on his rich neighbors who ignored the poor, saying: “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths. Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them.”
These words from Micah 3:5-6 remind me of the poignant, powerful verse from Paul Simon’s 1964 megahit:
“And the people bowed and prayed,
To the neon god they made.
And the sign flashed out its warning,
In the words that it was forming.
And the sign said:
‘The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls,
And whispered in the sound of silence.’”
In the 56 years since “The Sound of Silence” challenged my college freshman sensibilities, the gap between those who have and those who do not have has grown even wider.
So when my Thanksgiving celebration is interrupted by the commercial from GMC, I think about the guilt I feel at my being so undeservedly blessed, and I grow angry at the injustice this ridiculous ad represents. That some in our nation can contemplate surprising their partners with not one, but two, new vehicles collectively costing almost $100,000. That the Dow Jones index number is “sacred.” That we are the richest country in the world and we waste the most and pollute the worst. That we have so much for which to be thankful yet some of us never seem to have enough while so many struggle for their daily bread.
“I got us a little something too,” the fictional husband teases. What a travesty!
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is the immediate past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.