In 2003, members of Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside the funeral of Fred Rogers. They followed the same script, held the same signs, enacted the same dismal theatre of outrage they had at countless funerals before and as they would at many more.

Journalist Tom Junod talks about this near the end of the new, beautiful documentary film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (He also wrote about it for Esquire in 2014—link above). Junod describes how he approached the protestors after the funeral and was drawn, as Mr. Rogers would have been, to the children among them:

There were so many of them, for one thing; the Westboro congregation turned out to be a young one, and even some of the lank-haired women holding signs and spitting epithets turned out be, on closer inspection, teenagers. And they were all so poor. I’m not speaking simply of their clothes, and their teeth, and their grammar, or any of the other markers of class in America. I’m speaking of their poverty of spirit. Whether they were sixteen or six, they looked to be already exhausted, already depleted, with greasy hair, dirty faces, and circles under their eyes that had already hardened into purplish dents. They looked as if they were far from home, and didn’t know where they were going next. They looked, in truth, not just poorly taken care of, but abused, if not physically then by a belief inimical to childhood—the belief that to be alive is to hate and be hated.

By the time Junod recounts this experience in the film, the viewer has been immersed in the theology of childhood that Mr. Rogers embodied in his life and work. He was no heavy-handed evangelist, of course—gentleness and utter guilelessness were his way in the world. The long-running Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was not explicit in its theological convictions but it was unintelligible apart from them. Which may be why he was relentlessly mocked by critics who for decades questioned his sincerity, his sexuality, even describing him as “an evil, evil man,” as Fox and Friends did in 2007. The cheery hosts breezily claimed, with characteristic ignorance of their own ignorance, that Mr. Rogers had help to raise generations of spoiled, narcissistic, entitled adults who didn’t realize that specialness must be earned.

A Wall Street Journal article was full of the same armchair Ayn Rand huff, though it struck a more patronizing tone:

Fred Rogers, the late TV icon, told several generations of children that they were “special” just for being whoever they were. He meant well, and he was a sterling role model in many ways. But what often got lost in his self-esteem-building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.

But as the film points out, not didactically but with every frame featuring Fred Rogers, this criticism gets everything wrong. Without ever saying it directly, Mr. Rogers conveyed to children watching him in living rooms and in his many face to face encounters with children and their parents that they were persons of inherent dignity, worthy of love and capable of love by virtue of their creatureliness. “Love,” he said, at the beginning of his long career, “is at the root of everything: all learning, all parenting, all relationships; love or the lack of it.” Children, he believed, had complex inner lives and should be respected not condescended to; they should be valued and listened to for the unique, beloved human being each one is. Every child should be protected and given the opportunity to flourish.

The lack of love was at the heart of the second episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood but not overtly. It was part of a week long series—the very first week the show went into national distribution from its production base in Pittsburgh—on conflict, change, and distrust. In the episode, King Friday, one of a dozen or so low-budget puppets voiced by Rogers, was posting border guards and erecting a fence to keep out those calling for change. “Down with the changers!” he bellows, “because we’re on top!” The episode aired in February 1968 when images of Vietnam were the centerpiece of the nightly news. In the end, the fence came down, the guards were dismissed, but only through the bold civil disobedience of King Friday’s subjects.

In a 1969 episode, Mr. Rogers invited African-American cast member Francois Clemmons to join him as he rested his feet in a kiddie pool of cool water. The associations aren’t subtle: the segregated swimming pools of that era, the Christian practice of washing feet, the simple gesture of inviting a neighbor to sit and rest. (Clemmons played a police officer on the show; a strategic choice in the late 60s. The two reenacted this scene in a 1993 episode.)

Mr. Rogers was a practitioner of disruptive peacemaking which is, at heart, love’s redeeming work: bearing witness to another way of being and seeing in a world where the powerful rule by fear-mongering, the constant threat of war, and dehumanizing others. Disruptive peacemaking, the redemptive work of love, is both the dramatic, potentially risky work of social protest and civil disobedience and the ordinary acts of loving one’s neighbor with kindness, hospitality, friendship; it is seeing to their well-being in ways that may be modest—a homemade meal for a homebound neighbor—and may be costly, as in refusing in material, consequential ways to live by a story that would deny anyone their dignity and strip them of their personhood.

I wept pretty much through the whole of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and not only for the beautiful man that Fred Rogers was but for the fear-mongering, constant threat of war, and the dehumanizing of others that has become normative and maybe long-term 50 years after the beginning of Rogers’ work.

The travesties of the last few days seem beyond comprehension and yet the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the President and the calculated destruction plotted and carried out by his henchmen and henchwomen have become so routinized in only 18 months (only!) that systematic acts of child abuse seem as inevitable as they are horrifying and heartbreaking. The conservative corporate media defend the traumatizing of children (the effects of which will be lifelong; we know this) with the same breezy certainty they displayed in criticizing Fred Rogers (a life-long Republican).

Counterintuitively maybe, tenderness is also at the heart of disruptive peacemaking. That tenderness is utterly absent in our public discourse, that it is seen as weakness, especially in men, is something to be mourned. Tender men like Fred Rogers are marked men—mocked, belittled, dismissed, and regarded with deep suspicion, especially if they work with children.

Another tender man, the extraordinary  Jean Vanier, who founded the first L’Arche community a few years before Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood began, says that “to love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance.”

This was Fred Rogers’ lifelong vocation. He practiced it fiercely.

God help us to do the same.