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Image result for grunewald crucifixion of christSeven Last Sayings
Wesley Chapel
West Virginia Wesleyan College
16 April 2019

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34

Have you ever felt abandoned? By a friend? By your family? By the church? By God?

Abandoned: ditched, deserted, disowned, discarded, isolated, repudiated, cast off, cast aside, cast out, left out, left for good, left for dead, forgotten, forsaken.

Abandoned.

I suspect that those who have felt abandoned by the church or by God are not here tonight. That’s one of the ironies of Holy Week, isn’t it? That those who’ve been most wounded by Christianity aren’t likely to be present to discover, possibly, the consolation, ironically, at the heart of Jesus’ own cry of desolation.

We pronounce no judgment on their absence. We do not shame the friends who cannot be where people gather to tell this impossible story about friendship and betrayal, terror and hope, exclusion and mercy, imperial power and divine grace. A story given shape and substance in the life of a first-century Palestinian Jew whose raw, vulnerable humanity can sometimes make religious people like us uncomfortable.

For, if we’re honest, like the poet Mary Karr, we have to say to Jesus who hangs helplessly, raggedly, a little comically on the Empire’s preferred instrument of torture:

You’re not the figurehead on a ship. You’re not
flying anywhere, and no one’s coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.

It’s a scene of utter humiliation, utter abandonment.

And we shouldn’t try to explain it. The words of abandonment, placed on the lips of Jesus by the Gospel writers appropriating the Psalms, are a mash-up of Aramaic, Greek, and Hebrew. Which might mean that we have to live with the limits of language, the confusion of human speech, and with the truth that sometimes we can’t understand each other.

As one writer has said, “We do not tell stories as they are; we tell stories as we are.” And sometimes our stories, and the stories of people we love and of people we despise, are stories of forsakenness, of “belonging gone bad.”

The silence that ensues from that cry of desolation on the cross—a silence we can’t explain away with our noisy clamorings—is perhaps the opening of a space. And perhaps, in time, some will be able to safely enter that space and without fear speak their stories of forsakenness, of belonging gone bad.

Perhaps we can say to our wounded friends: we will hold your stories of abandonment and we will trust you with our own wild and weird stories, and together, maybe—who knows, this is fragile, fraught work—we will tell a different story.

A story of a first-century Palestinian Jew who emptied himself of every possible pretension, every temptation to power, every seduction of Empire. This peripatetic Rabbi, breaker of boundaries, of social taboos, of unjust laws, who taught that sin is the “addiction to being less than ourselves.”

A story which invites us into its telling, and into the consolation that there is no where in our own or anyone’s godforsakenness that the vulnerable, humiliated, abandoned Jesus hasn’t also been.

It’s a start anyway. Can we tell that story? Can we be that story?

My departmental colleague, Rob Hull, died unexpectedly yesterday. I would prefer to mourn his death in private and in person with others who knew and loved him, and I will do that. But public grieving in cyberspaceImage may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, ocean, sky and outdoor has come to feel obligatory in this age of death-notice-via-social media. I’m not a fan of the latter. But I do want to communicate my affection for my philosopher friend.

Rob was kind. I think this quality of his character comes to mind for a lot of people who knew him. I think Rob cared about kindness. Which isn’t mere niceness but a virtue that must be cultivated and practiced over time.

Rob loved our students. He loved teaching. He knew that to introduce undergraduates to philosophy was to create the possibility in each of them of becoming a lifelong lover of wisdom (what philosophia literally means), and to seek the good, to care about the right things, to live worthy, beautiful lives. We toiled, he and I, in a higher education landscape that increasingly devalues religion and philosophy; that regards such disciplines as superfluous for the job training program that many now consider college to be.

Rob’s students loved him back. They were moved by his care for them, how he asked questions about their lives, cared about their futures, encouraged their scholarship and their athletic gifts (he was famous for this), seeing them as whole beings: body, mind, heart, and spirit.

I was making cookies for my own students (we do that kind of thing here) when I began receiving texts and calls about Rob’s death. I experienced what I have come to know as a truth of human existence: grief begins in the body and it exhausts our bodies. When death comes unexpectedly we are caught off guard by the physicality of the sorrow we feel—in our limbs, our chest, our throbbing temples. Or by a sorrow that leaves us numb, and wondering why we can’t feel anything.

The 13th century Sufi poet Rumi said:

Don’t run away from grief . . . Look for the remedy inside the pain.

Why on earth would we do that?

Because the ground of grief, the root of sorrow, is love. We grieve because we love. And love, too, lives in the body. Love is what we are made for.

I think Rob believed this deeply and he practiced it, like anyone does, imperfectly. I think his students sensed that he believed it. I think his kindness to them in explicit, practical ways—whether they were stellar students or struggling students—was one of the ways he lived this conviction.

I will miss Rob Hull, lover of wisdom, lover of students, and the daily, unassuming warmth of his witness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

“Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye

 

 

Tears today for the beautiful life and work of Mary Oliver.

In late 2016 I submitted a solicited piece on her poetry to The Christian Century. They decided not to run it. We parted amicably on the matter (well, I Image result for mary oliver earth skirtswas a little vexed).

But that same afternoon I took a long walk on the beach (something Mary Oliver did almost every day of her life) and wrote another piece entirely in my head (something I never do).

I went back to the house where I was staying (I was on sabbatical and in Southport, NC at the time, thanks to my generous friend, Nola). I stayed up all night transcribing the thing. I sent it to The Christian Century the next morning (something I normally would never do—no editing? no second guessing? are you kidding?). It was received enthusiastically and ran as the cover story in April 2017.

The original piece was reworked and published last year in The Cresset, a journal dedicated to literature, the arts, and public affairs. It explored a topic that had consumed me for a long time: the charge of sentimentality in Oliver’s work. Responding to what I considered an irresponsible critique of Oliver in First Things (not surprised they published it), I noted how sentimentality as a putdown is often itself sentimental, and that it is almost always gendered in ways that go unnoticed and unreflected upon.

I love that piece.

Which is something the constitutionally-insecure me would never say. Why do I say it now? Because Mary.

Mary Oliver didn’t need to be defended or rescued by me. But today as the surprising waves of grief have washed over me, I’ve been reminded, again and  again, poem by luscious poem, how she and her life-giving words have saved me.

[NB: In his new book, He Held Radical LightChristian Wiman has a personal story about Oliver that is, by turns, tender, funny, wise, beautiful, and a little horrifying–in other words, classic Mary Oliver.]

And the poem below might be my favorite. It’s not well-known. Oliver wrote it when she was in her late 20s. Alone, it stands, in my view, as one of her best; if you know something about the trauma she endured as a child, it takes on an even deeper poignancy.

Rest well, Mary Oliver, lover of words and the world and their happy meeting. May the earth, as you once wrote, take you back tenderly.

“The Return”

The deed took all my heart.
I did not think of you,
Not ’til the thing was done.
I put my sword away
And then no more the cold
And perfect fury ran
Along my narrow bones
And then no more the black
And dripping corridors
Hold anywhere the shape
That I had come to slay.
Then for the first time,
I saw in the cave’s belly
The dark and clotted webs,
The green and sucking pools,
The rank and crumbling walls,
The maze of passages.

And I thought then
Of the far earth,
Of the spring sun
And the slow wind,
And a young girl,
And I looked then
At the white thread.

Hunting the minotaur
I was no common man
And had no need of love.
I trailed the shining thread
Behind me, for a vow,
And did not think of you.
It lay there, like a sign,
Coiled on the bull’s great hoof.
And back into the world,
Half blind with weariness
I touched the thread and wept.
O, it was frail as air,
And I turned then
With the white spool

Through the cold rocks,
Through the black rocks.
Through the long webs,
And the mist fell,
And the webs clung.
And the rocks tumbled,
And the earth shook.

And the thread held.

 

My title is from Malcolm Guite’s powerful poem “Refugee.” I was reminded of it after the death of a child on Christmas Day in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

So much for protection. This is the second child to die in a detention center in recent weeks.

It is scandalous and heartbreaking and criminal and infuriating and utterly avoidable. Yet we can hardly tear ourselves away from our carefully-curated-for-consumption-on-social-media Christmas celebrations to be purposefully outraged. I indict myself in this.

Guite’s poem reflects on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, observed each year in the Western Church on the fourth day of Christmas.

Sometimes referred to as the “slaughter” or “massacre” of innocents, it commemorates a subplot of the nativity story recounted in St. Matthew’s gospel: a petulant, paranoid ruler feels threatened by a child born to refugee parents and, with his ego and power unchecked, puts policies in place that ensure the death of young children across the region.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.

Because Christianity has long been domesticated in the American context, with sentimental versions of the stories associated with Christmas the quintessential proof of this, it is almost impossible to take in the raw, radical edges of the gospels’ infancy narratives and their explosive import for the social, economic, and political norms of the day–and for ours.

And so here we are at Christmas in 2018, caught up in cradles and creches and soft candlelight, unable to see that refugee Jesus

is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.

And unwilling to reckon with a petulant, paranoid ruler who feels threatened by children born to refugee parents and who, with his ego and power unchecked, puts policies in place that ensure the death of young children.

___________________________________________________________

Image credit: https://suzannezoole.com/portfolio/the-holy-innocents/

 

 

A homily I gave a few days ago at Holly Springs United Methodist Church, Holly Springs, North Carolina, at a mid-week Advent Evening Eucharist.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Malachi 3:1-4

Let us pray:

From the cowardice that dares not face new truth,
from the laziness that is contented with half-truth,
from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Deliver me and all of us, O Lord. Amen.

Prayer from Kenya, United Methodist Hymnal no. 597, adapted

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Advent is my favorite season of the Church year. I wouldn’t say “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” since that phrase, as we know, has other associations. And now you have that sappy—I mean snappy—song stuck in Image result for advent modern liturgical iconyour head, don’t you? Sorry about that. Anyway, I don’t think the word “wonderful” gets at what is most profound about Advent.

The season of Advent is the Church’s ancient autumnal interval—a marking of the time between the end of the fall harvest and the coming spareness of winter, between November’s fading light and December’s inky darkness. Advent has a sense of the foreboding about it.

And not just because the trees are stripped bare and winter winds can come early—at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It’s because our inner landscapes can sometimes seem as desolate as the outer ones. Achy uncertainty can blanket our spirits like a late-fall Carolina snowstorm covering everything in slate-gray stillness.

This sense of foreboding, this Advent spirit of achy uncertainty is due in part, I think, to the scriptural texts that the Lectionary, year after year, cycle after cycle, asks us to hear, read, sing, pray, ponder. These texts can be startling in their bleakness, their harshness. They are at once familiar and yet ominous, perplexing, inscrutable.

Recall St. Luke’s solemn tone on the first Sunday of Advent this year, with his warnings about “distress among nations”; people fainting “from fear and foreboding”: the charge to be “on guard” that the Lord’s Day not “catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

This coming Sunday John the Baptizer—that most unsettling figure of Advent—will utter his famous words of welcome to those who came to him seeking baptism: “You brood of vipers!”

Anyone ever received that lovely sentiment on a Christmas card?

And then there is our text for this evening, the Old Testament reading appointed for the second Sunday of Advent.

The book of the prophet Malachi is a short one and the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Turn the page and you’re in the New Testament—ready to read about the birth of Jesus at the beginning of St. Matthew’s gospel. But Malachi doesn’t portend babies and mangers and shepherds abiding. Here we have, as we heard tonight and as you may have heard on Sunday, talk of fire and cleansing and purification. The coming Day of the Lord is not cheerfully summoned; there’s a question about whether it can even be endured.

And here we have more evidence of Advent’s sobering sensibilities, its achy uncertainties. This season is about the coming of a long-awaited messiah, yes, but it’s not only or even primarily about a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. These few verses from Malachi remind us that we begin the Christian year every Advent not by embarking on a straightforward path to nativity joy but by acknowledging the gaping chasm that exists between our deepest human longings and the reality of God.

And God, according to the prophet Malachi, is “like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” A refiner’s fire.

These are familiar words, especially if we’ve heard or sung Handel’s Messiah a few times. But we can too easily make the familiar idolatrous. We can forget that before the gospel is good news it is strange news. We can miss that the whole of Israel’s prophetic tradition, including the slim book of Malachi, seeks to say loud and clear and often “that things are not as they should be, nor as they were promised, and not as they must and will be.”[1] And we can misunderstand that metaphors like fire and soap and their refining, purifying properties are meant to call into question the dominant social reality of both the prophet’s day and our own.

In an Advent sermon in 1928, German pastor and later Nazi resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said this:

It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.[2]

Bonhoeffer’s words suggest to me and perhaps to you that Advent might be the season of the liturgical year that reveals most profoundly how our social location determines how we read the Bible.

I’ll say that again: Advent might be the season of the liturgical year that reveals most profoundly how our social location determines how we read the Bible.

Because what we discover when we take in the sobering, unsettling scriptures of Advent is that they are difficult not because they are willfully obscure but because we are often willfully lodged in places of privilege and power, incapable of hearing them from the underside of history from which they come.

Refining fire is a horrifying prospect to those who benefit from the status quo. To the powerless whose daily lives are a struggle for survival, for dignity, the fire that would purify unjust systems, the caustic soap that would clean out corruption and abuse of power can’t do its work soon enough.

For those of us whose way of life depends on political, economic, and social systems in which power and resources are accessible to a privileged few, refining fire and caustic soap and the winnowing fork and the axe laid to the root of the tree and any number of Advent’s startling images can make us long for cradles and creches and toddler-shepherds in bathrobes. We prefer soft candlelight to refining fire, thank you.

But here’s the good news in this strange text in this bleak season—and it’s Bonhoeffer’s words again from the same sermon in 1928:

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.

It turns out, as blacksmiths and jewelers know, that refining fire does not annihilate; it purifies to make something beautiful. We are forged in a fire that makes us able to “offer ourselves to the Lord in righteousness”—to see to the moral obligations that bind us to God and to our neighbors.

“Moral obligation” is the connotation of the Hebrew word for “righteousness” in this passage but it does not refer simply to the obligation of charity that we are so good at this time of year. Rather, it’s about the obligation to let go of what we think of as real, as stable, as ordered and uncontested—the systems, again, that serve and benefit us at the expense of others—and to inhabit that realm, that reign, that kingdom of righteousness which all of Advent is leading us to: where the proud are scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty.

I’ve included an image in our bulletin tonight by Everett Patterson, an artist based in Portland, Oregon who created this illustration in 2014. It is rich in JoseyMariaWebvisuals, in symbols and associations with the familiar story of a displaced couple in dire straits: an illegitimate pregnancy, harassment from political authorities, shunning and rejection from local businesses, an uncertain future.

I hope you’ll take the image with you and for the remainder of Advent and into the twelve days of the Christmas season ponder all these things in your heart. For, like the startling, unsettling texts of Advent, this image is about power. Who has it and who doesn’t. Like Advent, it reminds us that God resides with the powerless and invites us to live there, too.

And the power of Advent is that the one we are waiting for has already given us all we need to do this, to bear witness to his reign, to stand alongside and learn from those considered illegitimate—the harassed, the shunned, the rejected, those with an uncertain future.

For when the Word became flesh he didn’t just slip into skin like ours. And he didn’t come to impart wisdom to help us important people get on with our busy lives. He came, full of grace and truth, to show us that we are made for relationship, that we are most fully human when we live into God’s desired future envisioned by prophets like Malachi, where all abide in kinship and mutual care—where all oppression ceases, all are made welcome, all know their belovedness.

We need to be purified to see this vision of what God desires for all creation—to work for it and live into it. We need to be cleaned up. Fire and soap.

And we need bread. We need to be fed by the one who was born in Bethlehem, the house of bread, who gave his own body to be broken and shared. As we come to the table we offer our own brokenness—our anxieties, our blindness, our mixed-up priorities, and our toxic prejudices. And we trust that God will take all that we are and purify us, cleanse us, and make us beautiful.

This is our hope, in this season and in all the seasons of our lives.

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[1]Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 21.

[2]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) pp. 185-186.

From the archives and in honor of the canonization this weekend of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador: 

“And that is how Oscar Romero got disappeared by right wingers for a second time.”

Jon Stewart spoke these words at the end of a segment last week on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. The occasion was the Texas School Board’s recent decision to reject a PROMO9recommendation that Archbishop Romero be included in a world history curriculum standard about important figures who led resistance movements against political oppression. Stewart noted, with his usual stinging wit, that the rationale for the board’s decision was that Romero wasn’t famous enough. The absurdity of it: “let’s not teach this because no one knows it.”

Thirty years ago today Oscar Romero was gunned down with an M-16 assault rifle while celebrating the Eucharist for a group of nuns in a hospital chapel. In a sermon preached the day before, and broadcast across the country by radio, he had called upon the Salvadoran army to stop doing the bidding of the country’s corrupt military government.

I would like to appeal in a special way to the army’s enlisted men, and in particular to the ranks of the Guardia Nacional and the police—those in the barracks. Brothers: you are of part of our own people. You kill your own brothers and sisters. Before an order to kill that a man may give, God’s law must prevail: Thou shalt not kill!

No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to take back your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The Church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such abominations . . .

In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!

American involvement in El Salvador’s government was direct: Jimmy Carter dramatically increased U.S. aid to the Salvadoran military during his presidency–despite Romero’s public plea that his country was “fed up with weapons and bullets,” and between 1980 and 1992 6 billion American taxpayer dollars helped to fund an oppressive regime and its death squads.

And so on March 24, 1980 Romero wasn’t exactly “disappeared” as so many of his fellow Salvadorans had been, but his life was brutally cut short, his prophetic voice silenced by a sniper assassin.

Yet his witness has endured. In 1989 Australian filmmaker John Duigan made Romero, introducing the first world to this third-world prophet of the people. A collection of Romero’s writings–excerpts from radio addresses, sermons, speeches, and homilies–was published in 1988 (paperback 2004), and is available in its entirety online. Romero’s compelling life and death and the liberation theology he espoused have been the subject of countless theological texts and treatises.

When prophetic figures like Oscar Romero are cut down in their prime, there’s a tendency sometimes to tidy up their image; soften their radical edge a bit; make their persona a little more palatable for mass consumption–in other words, to minimize the revolutionary qualities that got them killed in the first place. (Tim Tyson has written eloquently about this phenomenon in relation to Martin Luther King, Jr.).

So it’s important to remember the truth that Romero bore witness to with his words and his witness (which were one and the same): a truth that wounds but which also heals; that accuses but also liberates. The truth of Christ, of God’s abundant mercy and generosity incarnate in a life of sacrificial love–a life and love which refused violence in all its seductive guises.

Chris Huebner suggests that “the truth of Christ is not merely a belief uttered or expressed or otherwise made present by us. Rather, it is a performance enacted in and through which truth is given as an offering or gratuitous gesture.” Romero made of his own life this kind of offering, this kind of gratuitous gesture in which “the interruption of the violent world of mastery, possession, and control” was glimpsed “by a nonviolent offering of a radically different way of being and knowing called peace” (Huebner).

And for this he was felled on the altar of a small Salvadoran chapel, days before the start of Holy Week, his own body and blood mingled with the body and blood of the Eucharist. The peace that the Eucharist makes possible made Romero’s life possible, and in his violent death, martyrdom and truth were again revealed as gifts that make the ongoing witness of peace in the world possible.

For those of us who live and work in the tedium that often characterizes church life in America–the pettiness, the mind-numbing sameness of our squabbles, the countless ways we accommodate to state power and politics, the scandals that may yet undo us–Oscar Romero’s witness is an enduring challenge–and a gift. For constitutive of his life’s work was another gratuitous gesture: that of making God credible in the world.

Texas school children won’t find this out in their new history books and they will be the poorer for it. But the body of Christ gathered around his table around the world have, in the martyrdom of our brother, Oscar, the credible truth of God’s own life and love.

Thanks be to God.

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.

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