Tuesday, February 18, 2014

America la Maganda

During the Super Bowl, one of the highlights (and sometimes low lights) is the commercials. Advertisers spend millions of dollars to produce the best commercials they can come up with and more millions to purchase a small time slot on a Sunday afternoon/evening in January every year. They know that a great commercial can sway public opinion and bring more revenue into their coffers, but some also like to have some sort of message over and above “Buy my product;” they like to take a stand for something besides chips in a bowl or some sort of beverage. As in the sporting event itself, there are winners and losers in the commercial wars, and this year was no exception.  

Most writers seemed to agree on in the outstanding category was the Coke commercial featuring scenes of Americans living their lives in various places and in various ways while the voices of young women soloists sang a song that is iconic in the United States, “America the Beautiful.” The video was lovely, the voices of the young women clear and sweet, and the whole package seemed almost flawless. Yet there has been almost a firestorm of condemnation and anger about this very beautiful and meaningful celebration of not just product but national pride and diversity. The cause? “America the Beautiful” was sung in English – and Hindi, Tagalog, Spanish and several other languages that clearly were NOT English.  

People were up in arms that the words to such a song could be sung in any language other than English. How dare Coke foist such a disgusting misuse of a national anthem (some even referred to it as “the” national anthem) on an unsuspecting nation? We are Americans and Americans speak English is their cry. Anybody who comes here should either speak only English or go back where they came from. Xenophobia is alive and well in the United States of America, land of the free, home of the brave and, apparently, the seat of E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many, One, which now seems to be only those who look, act and speak like us, whoever “us” is.  

Instead of using the term “melting pot” we now use “diversity” and, for some, “diversity” is a very bad word indeed, almost worse than some of the scatological and carnal words and phrases that are heard on almost every street corner, school hallway and locker room, and even over backyard fences in “nice” neighborhoods. And this Coke commercial? It celebrated diversity by having young women sing a familiar song in more than the original language in which it was composed. In celebrating diversity, it has helped to expose the fact that we don’t believe in the basic right to freedom, including the right to speak in their own languages and dialects in this country; we only want others to be like us in every way. It’s funny, but I bet none of these people complaining about the commercial have any problem singing “Silent Night” at Christmas (it was originally written in German) among other translated classics. Music is universal, poetry and sentiment as well as news and inspirational writings are translated into many languages and dialects every day, so what is so sacred about “America the Beautiful” that it can’t speak to others in Hebrew or Mandarin as well as in English? Even the Bible is written in many languages other than its original (of which there is no “original” copy) without losing its power, beauty and meaning. 

In first-century Palestine, the land Jesus knew, there were numerous small towns and villages where individual clans and tribes made their home and probably spoke their own dialect of Aramaic. Those involved in trade such as merchants, skilled laborers, innkeepers, and those working for the government probably all spoke not just their local version of Aramaic but Koine Greek, possibly a bit of Latin, maybe a dash of Hebrew and perhaps even a pinch or two of Demotic. Most towns and villages didn’t have many immigrants but some probably did, and Jesus, as an itinerant preacher/teacher/healer, would have undoubtedly been able to make his message understood no matter to whom he spoke. The Samaritan woman and the Roman Centurion probably didn’t speak the same dialect or maybe even language, yet Jesus seemed to be able to speak to both of them in very clear and understandable ways. And so it went also for the individuals and crowds with whom he came in contact. The only ones he seemed to have trouble with were the Pharisees and that didn’t have anything to do with the language they each spoke, only the interpretation of that language. 

Does the message of Jesus become diluted or unsuitable because Jesus didn’t speak English and we don’t speak the original language (whatever language that was) in which he expressed so many of his teachings? His message was to draw people together, regardless of whether or not they were members of the same clan, nation or even language group. What amazes me (and amuses me in a sad sort of way) is that we think nothing about truly sacred words of the Bible that we read being translations of translations, versions of versions and interpretations of interpretations of a message that wasn’t in English or even in a language commonly spoken today, Koine Greek. Yet we raise a huge fuss over the lyrics of a secular song extolling the beauty of the country and the freedom we have to enjoy it.  

What a strange world we live in that we begrudge them the joy of expression of the blessings and beauty of our land or any land simply based on the language they use to express that joy. What would Jesus think?

Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Saturday, February15, 2014.

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