If you were a child at any point between 1968 and 2001, you likely remember the familiar opening theme of the now classic children’s television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and the kind smile of the show’s namesake singing this tune as he donned a colorful sweater and comfy sneakers. I cannot think of any other example in popular culture of an individual that that both my parents’ generation and my own can point to as a celebrity role model in the way that we can with Mister Rogers. We are in the midst of what some might call a “Mister Rogers Renaissance,” with the recent release of the popularly and critically acclaimed documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a Tom Hanks-starring film set to be released sometime in 2019, and books that continue to be written about the legacy of everyone’s favorite neighbor.
I would venture a guess that this resurgence in Fred Rogers’ popularity has much to do with the current state of affairs in the world around us – so many of us are in desperate search of public figures and celebrities whom we can trust, we can learn from, and whose integrity and public image are not found to be merely facades for inexcusable and appalling behavior. We are so steeped in division, fear, uncertainty and general loss of hope that the narrative of a man who embodied a peaceful yet powerful presence throughout our childhoods, both on and off screen, has become a buoy of hope that goodness can still exist. I would like to make the argument that in addition to this, Fred Rogers can also provide a powerful example to us, as people of faith, in how to live and love as faithful peacemakers in God’s present and coming kingdom.
Unbeknownst to many, Fred Rogers was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian tradition, and his position as one of popular culture’s most iconic television stars was actually Rogers’ vocational ministry for most of his adult life. His personal theology significantly informed the content of his programming, and he was in many ways able to minister effectively in what was an otherwise secular medium without alienating his viewers. Without explicit reference to theology or the Christian faith, Rogers embodied their tenets in deep ways in both his on and off screen life. In the book Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, the author describes the core of Rogers’ theology in the following way:
“To be loved as God loves us is a primary way in which we encounter God, and to love as God loves us is to make God real in the lives of others. When we love our neighbor, he or she really experiences God; we experience the same when our neighbor loves us. God is present, incarnate, in the sharing and exchanging of human love. Love is a sacrament.”
This core theological identity of the man Fred Rogers is present throughout the seasons of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Whether regarding difficult macro level topics including war, racial injustice, assassination and more, or more personal questions of worth, acceptability and innate goodness, the program consistently illustrated the ultimate necessity of love, peace and goodwill towards others, and ourselves, through hand puppets and simple songs.
In this way, the legacies of Mister Rogers’ and his namesake television show are fertile ground for lessons in how to be faithful Christian peacemakers and transform conflict in meaningful ways. In living a theology of peace towards ourselves and those around us, we perpetuate a faithful embodiment of God’s kingdom founded in love. We read in 1 John 4, that “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in god, and God remains in them…there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear…This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also (v. 16, 18, 21).” God is embodied in our love towards our neighbor – and as we see exemplified by Mister Rogers’ plea, “won’t you be my neighbor,” each person with whom we come into contact we should desire to love in this way.
I am convinced that the best way to fight the growing cynicism and darkness in the world around us is through genuine relationship with one another. We are called to be a hopeful people, not a cynical people, but that is so incredibly difficult when we are consistently bombarded with the injustices, atrocities and heartbreaks present in the world around us. And to be a hopeful people need not make us a naïve people – we are still very much called to “seek justice, help the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow (Is. 1:17). Fred Rogers did not stop with inactive idealism but worked in both quiet and public ways to seek justice and acceptance for the last, the lost and the least. He used his individual and unique giftings, bestowed by the Holy Spirit, to do his part in ushering in God’s kingdom in our present world, and we are called to do the same.
(Author: Sarah Howell)