by Sonja DeWitt | 23 December 2019 |
I’ve been thinking a lot about neighbors lately. Although I have yet to see either “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” or “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” (the documentary and feature film featuring Mister Rogers, respectively), he’s been in news persistently over the last few months. I have always had great respect and admiration for Mister Rogers—which has only grown with a greater understanding of who he was and the extraordinary things he did.
To be honest, my own introduction to Mister Rogers was not particularly inspiring. His was one of two TV shows we were allowed to watch in my very conservative home. So although I enjoyed his stories and songs and puppets, and liked the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, I really wanted to watch something a lot more interesting.
I never really started to understand Mister Rogers’ true impact until years later when someone close to me told me that when she was being constantly insulted and demeaned in her marriage, Mister Rogers was the only person who made her feel she had any worth. She said she used to cry when Mister Rogers said, “I like you just the way you are.” And when I discovered that he was an ordained minister and considered his show a ministry to children, I started seeing the big picture much more clearly.
Mister Rogers was a deceptively disruptive figure. Even though he never overtly courted controversy, he quietly did what he thought was right and he showed love, which in our society is a revolutionary act. And sometimes, he did overtly challenge social evils, like when he asked an African-American character, Officer Clemmons, to share his wading pool to cool his feet. In an era of widespread segregation, this was a direct confrontation to the status quo.
In his beautiful remembrance in the Atlantic Magazine, Tom Junod, on whom “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is loosely based, told a story that reflected the conflicts inherent in Mister Rogers’ legacy. He told how Pam Bondi, Florida’s Attorney General, was confronted by protestors condemning her for challenging the Affordable Care Act and not standing up against the Trump Administration’s family separation policy. Ms. Bondi explained later that the protesters had yelled at her, called her a horrible person, shouted in her face and bullied her boyfriend. She said one woman yelled at her “Would Mister Rogers take children away from their parents? Would Mister Rogers take away health insurance?”
Junod noted, “Remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one. Fred Rogers was not a particularly political man, despite the fame he won for going to Capitol Hill in 1969 and fighting for the survival of public television…..” He mused that based on his experience with Mister Rogers, “one can hazard a guess about Fred’s answers to the questions shouted at Pam Bondi in Tampa. It’s obvious that he would have been saddened by our country’s continued refusal to provide health care to all its citizens. It’s obvious that he would have been devastated by the cruelties committed in our name at the border, and shaken by our lack of mercy in all things, particularly our policies toward helpless children. But even more obvious is what his position would have been regarding the civility debate. Fred was a man with a vision, and his vision was of the public square, a place full of strangers, transformed by love and kindness into something like a neighborhood. That vision depended on civility, on strangers feeling welcome in the public square, and so civility couldn’t be debatable. It couldn’t be subject to politics but rather had to be the very basis of politics, along with everything else worthwhile.
Mr. Junod goes on, “Indeed, what makes measuring Fred’s legacy so difficult is that Fred’s legacy is so clear. What he would have thought of Pam Bondi’s politics is one thing; what he would have thought of Pam Bondi is quite another, because he prayed for the strength to think the same way about everyone. She is special; there has never been anyone exactly like her, and there never will be anyone exactly like her ever again; God loves her exactly as she is. He repeated this over and over, and that his name was invoked as a cudgel by activists who probably shed tears over the documentary has haunted me since I first saw the video from Tampa. It isn’t that he is revered but not followed so much as he is revered because he is not followed—because remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one. He spoke most clearly through his example, but our culture consoles itself with the simple fact that he once existed. There is no use asking further questions of him, only of ourselves. We know what Mister Rogers would do, but even now we don’t know what to do with the lessons of Mister Rogers.”
That is the question I’ve been struggling with. I believe that Mister Rogers, more than almost any contemporary public figure, exemplified the spirit of Jesus. And the question remains, how would Jesus respond to these blatant and open violations of human rights and human dignity? I’m sure he would do more than wring his hands helplessly. And the Bible record makes it clear that Jesus did not shy away from confrontation, even from harsh words. What is the correct balance for a Christian between love for all people and the need to confront evil to protect the innocent?
I think Jesus’ teaching about neighbors is a good place to start. When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” his response was to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. If you carefully examine that story, there is much more there than merely a man who did good. What made the actions of the Good Samaritan virtuous and praiseworthy was not merely that he did good. Every religious person in Christ’s day prided themselves on doing good. It was that the Good Samaritan’s actions in saving the injured man required moral courage and incurred significant costs and risks. Risks to his safety (the robbers could still have been hanging around), risks to his reputation, (Jews hated and refused to associate with Samaritans), costs of lost time and profit, and monetary costs.
This reminded me of other people who have recently taken risks to promote justice and human dignity, particularly for the vulnerable and marginalized. In October, James Standish, a good friend of mine and a long-term advocate for social justice and religious liberty, made a speech at Andrews University, in which he encouraged the church to serve as a refuge for undocumented immigrants. Because of this bold stand in support of the vulnerable, he was excoriated by the right-wing press, even though his expressed viewpoints on other issues, notably abortion, were conservative.
In his speech, James referenced the public moral courage of early Adventists, who were vocal and active in support of such reforms as abolition and temperance. Indeed, Ellen White even advocated that Adventists risk criminal penalties to defy the Fugitive Slave Act, which required any citizen to return escaped slaves to their masters. She wrote, “When the laws of men conflict with the word and law of God, we are to obey the latter, whatever the consequences may be. The law of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey; and we must abide the consequences of violating the law. The slave is not the property of any man.” I was proud of James for reminding us of our Adventist heritage of fearless resistance to immoral government policies, and for taking a public stand on such a contentious moral issue.
Another courageous “neighbor” who comes immediately to mind is Scott Warren. Warren, the humanitarian and volunteer with No More Deaths, risked not only his reputation, but his legal status and his freedom. He was tried twice for the “crimes” of providing food, water and shelter to undocumented immigrants.  For these “crimes” he was charged with felonies carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. In November, he was finally acquitted after a second trial.
As the Washington Post explained, “The verdict in Warren’s highly publicized trial marks the peak of a months-long legal saga, after he was arrested nearly two years ago by U.S. agents at an aid station run by No More Deaths.
“Known as “the Barn,” the station is located near the tiny town of Ajo, Ariz., about 40 miles north of the border and almost 130 miles west of Tucson. Warren and other volunteers would meet there to haul jugs of water and buckets of first-aid supplies into nearby mountains and canyons.
“When they received reports that someone had gone missing, No More Deaths sent volunteers on search-and-rescue missions to offer emergency aid or, in the worst of cases, recover bodies. Between 1998 and 2017, the remains of more than 7,000 people have been found along the U.S.-Mexico border, including nearly 3,000 in southern Arizona, according to U.S. Border Patrol, though experts say both of those figures are low…
“That may be where two migrants, Kristian Perez Villanueva of El Salvador and Jose Sacaria Goday of Honduras, entered the United States in January 2018 before trekking through the desert to a gas station. A migrants’ rights organizer saw the men and offered to shuttle them to a better location, dropping them off at the Barn, The Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker reported.
“No one was on the premises. But when Warren discovered the men less than an hour later, they asked for food, water and a place to rest, according to court records. He gave them clean clothes, offered them beds and fed them, lawyers say, but never hid them or encouraged them to make an unlawful entry.
“All the while, however, Border Patrol agents had been staking out the Barn. They had been tipped off by an anonymous Arizona resident, who suspected the group was harboring undocumented immigrants, the Associated Press reported.
“When agents noticed Warren speaking with the two migrants, they arrested all three men. Perez Villanueva and Sacaria Goday were both deported, while Warren was charged with two felony counts of harboring and conspiring to transport undocumented immigrants.”
In November, after he was finally acquitted in his second trial, No More Deaths tweeted: “Yet again, No More Deaths has withstood the government’s attempts to criminalize basic human compassion. We will continue to provide food, water, and medical aid to all those who need it, until the day that no one dies or disappears while crossing the deserts and oceans of the world.”
In a world where evil has become the norm, merely taking a public stand against evil attitudes and policies is a revolutionary act and carries inherent risks. How far does following Jesus require us to go in resisting this evil? That is between each person and God. But the teachings of Jesus strongly suggest that if we are not taking at least some risk, and suffering some cost to resist evil—if we are not standing up and taking public stances against evil acts and in defense of the defenseless—we aren’t going far enough. We are not “loving our neighbors as ourselves.”
 White, Ellen, Testimonies, Vol. 1, pp. 201-202 (1859-1860)
Sonja DeWitt is a civil rights attorney with over 20 years of experience handling Equal Employment Opportunity cases. She has a strong interest in religious liberty and has worked with the North American Religious Liberty Association, for which she received an award. She blogs about religion, politics and government, and social justice at www.voicesfromthewilderness.net.