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Welcome to Super Bowl Sunday! To pretend that anything else exists today is nonsense. This game is the most viewed sporting event all year. Last year, more than 100 million people watched as the Kansas City Chiefs took the title and this year it is quite likely that there will be more people will be watching. Not only is there the question of whether the Chiefs can repeat or if Tom Brady can manage to win again, but we’re also in the middle of a pandemic. We’re stuck at home! What else are we going to do? We’re desperate for something different than bingeing D-level sitcoms on Netflix.
Part of what has always made the Super Bowl a draw for people who aren’t necessarily huge fans of the sport is the commercials. Companies this year are paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $5.5 million for a 30-second spot, and that’s not including production costs! If they want their commercial to stream as well, a stronger draw this year than it’s ever been, that costs an additional $300,000. Getting your ad in front of all those people, especially during the first half of the game when the most people are watching, is big business.
This year, though, three of the most iconic and well-known brands who have been long-time mainstays of Super Bowl advertising aren’t participating. Budweiser, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi have all said they won’t be airing any commercials during this year’s game for their primary brands. Now, don’t let that mislead you. Budweiser is only omitting ads for its namesake brand. There will still be plenty of ads for Bud Lite and other beers. Pepsi will still air ads for many of their Frito-Lay brands and Mountain Dew. Still, they’re not the only ones saying “no thank you” to the high-cost, high-visibility ads. Hyundai, Ford, Olay, Avocados from Mexico, and Little Ceaser’s pizza are among the other brands sitting on the sidelines this year.
To some degree, the move isn’t surprising. All three major brands have strong ties to the entertainment industry and have taken a severe revenue hit as people haven’t been going to the games or the movies or any other entertainment venue where they might purchase beer or soda. The hit to their bottom line has been frightening. Spending a total of somewhere close to $10 million on a single ad doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense.
Budweiser, however, gave a different reason for not spending all that money this year. The statement on their website says:
For the first time in 37 years, Budweiser is foregoing its iconic in-game Super Bowl airtime and reallocating the media investment to help support COVID-19 vaccines awareness and education through various marketing efforts throughout 2021. To start, Budweiser will donate a portion of its advertising dollars to the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative: one of the largest public health communication campaigns in history.
Let me give this some monetary context. Last year, Anheuser-Bush bought four one-minute commercials for the Budweiser brand, an investment of roughly $20 million, give or take. Imagine the level of good that can be done if Budweiser donates even a portion of that investment! Giving back has always been a shrewd corporate strategy, but today, it’s a bit in your face.
With everything that has happened in and around the pandemic this past year, there’s been more talk than ever about giving and philanthropy and what it means to help someone else. You’re going to see that theme repeatedly throughout the Super Bowl ads. The reason is that there are more people in need right now than any living generation can remember. Record high unemployment, disproportionately affecting single-parent homes and people of color, resulted in equally high numbers of people filing for unemployment and food assistance. Lines at food pantries around the country stretched for blocks. Homeless services have had to cut back even as the number of people on the street has increased.
As a result, some people have turned to alternative means of generating income. Those with an entrepreneurial spirit have turned to crowdfunding methods to raise capital when banks are not lending. The amount raised through crowdfunding could reach over $114 billion by the end of this year. Payments on the OnlyFans platform increased from $64 million in December 2019 to over $300 million last month, a jump of more than 370 percent. While these methods have helped fill in the gaps for some people, there are still millions who struggle to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
The pandemic has disrupted income for no fewer than 30% of American households and at the same time, charitable giving has dropped by roughly ten percent. Few people are brazen enough to question the claim that the need for help is considerable. What we do argue about is where the help should come from. Congress debated for months over two excruciatingly meager aid packages last year and is nearly choking on the $1.9 billion relief bill President Biden has proposed.
Yet, every second that passes sees a greater level of grief and misery, conditions that every belief system in the world demands that we have a moral obligation to address.
Perhaps the oldest written story in Western literature, predating that of Judaism or Islam, is that of a man we generally know as Job. In ancient Hindu literature, it’s similar to The Legend of Harischandra. Job’s condition of suffering is paralleled all through the teachings of Buddha as well. Even Pagans, who have trouble with the theodicy of Job’s story, understand the natural state of human suffering. Job’s suffering is defined through some amazing poetry. He says:
Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?
Are not his days those of hirelings?
He is a slave who longs for the shade,
a hireling who waits for his wages.
So I have been assigned months of misery,
and troubled nights have been allotted to me.
If in bed I say, “When shall I arise?”
then the night drags on;
I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.
My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle;
they come to an end without hope.
Remember that my life is like the wind;
I shall not see happiness again.
I read through those words and they feel as contemporary as if they were written yesterday. How many times have you lied in bed at night worrying, wishing the morning would come simply so it would distract you from all the noise in your head? How many people right now feel as though they’ll never see happiness again? We get it. Perhaps at this particular moment more than any other, we don’t just understand, we feel what Job was experiencing.
This ultimately leads us to the question of what are we going to do about it? How do we ease our suffering and the suffering of others? What’s reasonable for me as a person? What’s the moral mandate for corporations and governments? Those are some big questions, but I want to try and give you some not-so-big answers.
The unquestionable presence of human suffering requires a response. No matter what one’s belief system might be, from the Abrahamic traditions to the Eastern mythologies of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, there is not a suggestion or guidance but a moral imperative to do whatever one can to ease that suffering. Whether it is an individual act of helping a neighbor shovel the snow out of their driveway or participating in a larger corporate activity, we have no choice but to help those in need and do it without any consideration or argument as to what minor sacrifice it may cost us.
Examples of this level of generosity are scattered throughout the various religious texts. Mark’s gospel tells the story of Jesus leaving the synagogue to go heal Simon’s mother-in-law. When he finished with her, he spent the rest of his day not only healing but comforting others in the community.
The Quranic perspective is especially interesting, hinging on three specific ideals that,
- There is an absence of separation between spiritual and material endeavors in human life.
- The nature, purpose, and function of the Muslim community is to commit to the good and struggle together against evil.
- Those who possess wealth are accountable for the way in which it is expended.
Getting away from mainstream religions, if we dare, among druidic and pagan belief systems there is the acknowledgment that even trees and other plants help support each other, making sure those in need have the nutrition and water they need to grow. At times, nature sacrifices itself for the sake of providing space for new plants and species to grow.
Not only should we help those who are suffering but we should do so without questioning whether anyone deserves it, whether they are high enough on the priority list, or what level of sacrifice we may have in providing that help. If we have to go into recoverable debt to help someone who doesn’t have a roof over their head, that’s not only acceptable, it needs to be second nature.
Even in The Big Lebowski, a movie about the “laziest person in Los Angeles,” we see acts of charity in place. Maude props up her dad even though she knows he’s misusing the money. Walter breaks his largely self-imposed rules of Shabat in order to respond to the Dude’s needs. And when Donny dies without any family, the Dude and Walter take care of his remains in one of the most memorable ways possible.
So, we have no room to claim ignorance when it comes to helping those who are suffering. And for anyone who might want to lean on the adage, “God helps those who help themselves,” I want to remind you that the phrase appears nowhere in any religious text. In fact, the concept of Grace, on which the Xian religion stands, centers on the concept that God helps those who cannot help themselves! That’s what Grace is! There’s no room for argument.
Since we’re sort of talking about the Super Bowl in a very round-about way, the NFL, which some have criticized as being filled with pampered millionaires, gives its annual Walter Payton Man of the Year award to the player who has had the most significant impact on their community. The purpose is not only to recognize players who give back but to encourage them to do more with their millions than buy fast cars and big houses. Each team nominates the player who does the most within their team, and then a winner is chosen from among those nominated. The winner receives a $250,000 gift to the charity of their choice, while the others all receive $40,000 gifts to their causes. In total, the NFL contributes almost $1.5 million to charities, distributed across the cities hosting NFL teams.
The award is named for the late Chicago Bears running back, Walter Payton, who set a remarkable example not only on the field, but off, leading the way in establishing a foundation that has given millions of dollars to children, veterans, and organ donors not only in Chicago but across the United States. In fact, much of the emphasis behind organ donation we now consider commonplace started because of Payton’s emphasis on the topic back while he was still playing football. This was his entire life. He was so committed to others first, he didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school because he didn’t want to compete for a position against his older brother. He understood more than a lot of people that what we give to others means more than what we accumulate for ourselves.
What gets uncomfortable is that we don’t fully embrace the whole concept until we talk about the immorality of accumulating wealth for ourselves. Again, every major religion covers the topic and warns that hoarding wealth instead of helping others is a perfect way to avoid paradise in whatever sense it might exist. I find a very interesting passage in 1 Corinthians that I wish was on the wall of every megachurch pastor in the world. Paul writes in chapter 9, verses 16-19:
If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast,
for an obligation has been imposed on me,
and woe to me if I do not preach it!
If I do so willingly, I have a recompense,
but if unwillingly, then I have been entrusted with a stewardship.
What then is my recompense?
That, when I preach,
I offer the gospel free of charge…
I’m sure that to many the whole concept that Paul would refuse payment for his preaching is mindblowing and I know for a fact that many look to Paul’s presumed personal wealth as a reason for his ability to make that sacrifice. We get all kinds of pushback when we begin talking about going to such extreme measures as to inflicting poverty on ourselves in order to give more to others. A lot of people get very nervous.
Last Sunday marked the 19th anniversary of my father’s passing and over his 40-plus years as a pastor, I watched him continually set the example of what it meant to give to the point of sacrifice. Distinct in my memory is one particular event where a man knocked on our door on a Sunday afternoon. He was an ex-con who had just gotten out of jail and was trying to get back home where he had the promise of a job waiting. Someone had given him a bus ticket, but the closest bus station was still 20 miles away. There was no way for him to walk to the bus station in time to catch the bus. My father loaded the whole family in the car and we took the man to the bus station, and then, my father gave him the last $10 he had in his wallet.
I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I saw my father do things like that. It wasn’t until after he passed that I was going through his old tax returns and realized how dramatic his sacrifice had been. I knew our finances were always tight, but I was amazed to discover that it wasn’t until my brother and I both were out of college that my parents earned enough money to put them above the poverty line. All those years, we had been poor as dirt, but not once did that keep him from giving to those who were in need.
The powerful examples we have of people giving unselfishly are what drives us to hold a brighter light of examination on those who won’t or those who hesitate to give sufficiently. While a $100,000 gift may seem like a lot to people whose annual income is less than a third of that amount, it’s hardly more than pocket change to the person who makes billions of dollars without lifting a finger. Hoarding wealth, whether on an individual, or corporate, or governmental level, is immoral when there are billions of people who know right now, at this moment, the level of suffering in Job’s lament.
Around the world, the suffering is extreme. Whether we’re talking about Uyghurs in China, farmers in India, the Rohingya, or Kashmiris, the rate of genocide around the globe is unprecedented. Dirty drinking water. Lack of access to vaccines. Lack of any kind of modern healthcare for that matter. Homelessness. Mental health. Hunger. Starvation. In many cases, all one has to do is look next door to find someone hurting and in need.
There is so much that people in the United States can do to help. To hear people complain about something as small as the president’s $1.9 billion aid package makes me physically ill. In addition to the $1,400 payment to individuals, the bill would also help cut childhood poverty in half by providing many families with up to $300 per child each month. The level of good that could be done, the amount of suffering that stands to be erased, far and away outstrips any indebtedness that may occur as a result. But there are some who will inevitably complain that people might have more babies just to get more money. Shut your fool mouth.
There is more. We have to demand more of both corporations and individuals whose income is excessive. Currently, those in the lowest income brackets give a higher percentage of their income to charitable causes and invest more of their time helping others than any other income class. Sure, the numbers wealthy people give may be higher, but it’s also a considerably smaller portion of their overall income, and they’re much less likely to donate their time on the front lines making a difference. A society that allows some to hold back, to accumulate wealth while millions suffer, is a society that is as immoral collectively as the most cold-hearted of demons. As long as there is suffering in the world, there is no plausible excuse for billionaires existing, not even for the purpose of buying football teams.
There are no qualifiers on who is obligated to be charitable and generous in any way they can. We have a responsibility to ourselves to give anywhere we see a need and we have a larger responsibility to make sure every level of society does the same. There is no claim to being a moral people without it.
Let me leave you with these words.
May love be the passion
in your heart.
May joy be your strength
when times are hard.
May the communion of friends be a peace
And may generosity be the seed
that you might sow.