If your household is like mine, the commercials during the Super Bowl garner as much attention as the game itself, and this year one in particular caught my eye.
In the break between the third and fourth quarters, the NFL premiered “Inside these lines,” a commercial that shows the unifying power of football and how its values transcend the game. It opens with the words, “Inside these lines, we don’t have to come from the same place, to help each other reach the same destination. Inside these lines, we may have our differences, but recognize there is more that unites us.”
We see a crew preparing the field for the game, chalking and painting the end lines, sidelines, goal lines. We see images of players and fans overcoming differences, helping one another, coming together. The commercial closed with, “Inside these lines we can bring out the best in each other and live united,” and the image of a football field painted with the outline of the United States.
This beautiful, evocative ad offers football as a kind of civic religion with the power to bring diverse and disparate people together. In the span of just 60 seconds it faithfully expresses the traditional motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one.” It is aspirational in its attempt to bring us together in the midst of so many signs of discord and division.
Wrapped up in the challenges of our own times we may forget how conflicted and divided we have been from the start. In an October 2016 op-ed in the New York Times, Alan Taylor writes: “Instead of offering a single, cohesive and enduring vision for America, the founders were diverse and squabbling. They generated contradictory political principles that persist to our own day. Instead of offering an antidote to our divisions, those clashing founders created them.”
Nevertheless, like the NFL’s ad, our founders were aspirational. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson influenced the design of the United States Capitol building, believing that it should symbolically perpetuate the goals of the Revolution and the Constitution — among these, the political union of a people whose history, livelihood and attitudes varied greatly. Moreover, our founders left us with that motto to live up to: E Pluribus Unum.
The founders of the church were aspirational, too. One does not have to get too far into Paul’s letters to see the discord and division threatening the unity of the early church. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “We are no longer strangers and aliens but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:19-21). Paul’s image of the church is at once political and familial, reminding those early Christians, and us, where they had come from and where they were going, together.
The church today faces similar challenges of diversity, including the diversity of political conviction among Christians. As at its founding, it does so on a foundation more secure than that of political union — faith in Jesus Christ.
“Inside these lines,” Paul might write today, “we have our differences but recognize there is more that unites than divides us — faith in Jesus Christ.” That is a message Christians can take into the political and cultural divisions of our day.