I haven’t really watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood since I was a kid. I don’t remember much about it except what has been parodied: the song, the sweater, the tennis shoes, vaguely the puppets. So I decided to refresh my memory and watch a little. It all comes rushing back, mostly this character: Mr. Rogers. Although, by all accounts, it is not a character. He is, as he always encouraged his viewers, simply being himself.
Fred Rogers complained of the parodies that they made him look too wimpy. Lest I be sucked into that wimpiness, lest I be transformed into such a gentle and anemic form, I finally sat down to watch American Sniper this weekend as well. It’s quite a contrast. I’m not sure Chris Kyle watched Mr. Rogers growing up.
Kyle’s philosophy was simple: find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, make the world better. However, the subtext of the film was the ultimate failure of this philosophy. I have no doubt that Chris Kyle was a man of honor and conviction, a man who cared deeply about the people in his world, a man who would do anything to protect them. He claims not to regret the people he killed, only those he was unable to protect. It turns out that there are always bad guys. It turns out that in seeking vengeance, we only create more violence and death, even to those we profess to love and intend to protect. It turns out that finding the bad guy and killing the bad guy doesn’t actually make the world better.
It also turns out that those who are put in a position of finding and killing the bad guy are often traumatized by the experience. Chris Kyle, like so many other veterans, suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He couldn’t sleep and when he did, he was haunted by nightmares. He drank heavily. He flew into fits of rage. He felt isolated, unable and unwilling to talk about what had happened to him and how it made him feel.
Fred Rogers famously testified before Congress to defend funding for public television. What people don’t know about Fred Rogers’ testimony before Congress was the reason he had to fight for funding in the first place. The budget for national public television was threatened in response to the first national episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which imagines war coming to Make-Believe. War is overcome with creative “peace balloons,” but more importantly with the refusal of the governed to go along with the fearful policies of King Friday. The analogy was obvious and Mr. Nixon was never one to let a slight go. But Mr. Rogers was no wimp.
In that testimony, he said, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.” That sounds like something Chris Kyle needed to hear after four tours in Iraq. Rogers went on to exalt conversation over confrontation as dramatic content. He would rather depict two people working out feelings of anger together than show gunfire. Mr. Rogers knew that honestly understanding our own feelings and being able to communicate about them, respecting ourselves and others as full human beings, was far more powerful than any weapon humankind has devised. That sounds like something Richard Nixon needed to know.
Each saint we have canonized has some rough spots. This sometimes produces some anxiety, whether it’s Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s disturbing coziness with Southern racists or Johnny Cash’s lifelong dance with amphetamines. Our hope is that talking honestly about those things will paint a broader picture of healing and redemption, of the miracles that are possible in a human life. With Fred Rogers, there is no such anxiety. He knew exactly who he was and knew the power of being just that. He made every person he encountered know the same thing. Most importantly, he knew the power of such a posture to transform the world and he lived every day to spread that message. Mr. Rogers was no wimp; he was a saint.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we celebrate the gentle and powerful life of everyone’s neighbor, Fred Rogers. Won’t you be my neighbor?
Grace & Peace,