Many of us are aware that Fred Rogers, in addition to being the star of a children’s television show, was also an ordained Presbyterian Minister.
But according to a new book by Michael G. Long, Mister Rogers was also a prolific peace activist.
In his book Peaceful Neighbor Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, the author describes how the very first episode of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood aired in February 1968, which was just three weeks after the Tet Offensive, when 84,000 VietCong staged surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam.
While South Vietnamese and U.S. forces quickly regained any lost ground, the sheer shock of the Tet Offensive led to a growing public disapproval of the Vietnam War.
Three weeks later, television viewers made their very first visit to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The ever-mischievous puppet,
Lady Elaine Fairchilde, has used her magical boomerang to rearrange the landscape, even moving the Eiffel Tower to the other side of the castle. The mischief so angers King Friday XIII—the dogmatic and often bumbling ruler of Make Believe—that he establishes border guards so that no other changes can come in.
When Mister Rogers shares this news with neighbor Betty Aberlin back at his television house, she exclaims, “That sounds like a war!” Distressed and concerned, she dons a burlap cape and leaves to find out what’s going on in the normally peaceful Make-Believe.
Once there (she’s now Lady Aberlin, the niece of King Friday),
she discovers King Friday and Edgar Cooke, the singing castle cook, dressed in full military regalia and prepared to use force to turn back anyone seeking to make further changes.
Sporting a helmet with thirteen stars, King Friday then instructs Lady Aberlin to check the north gate while Edgar checks the castle gardens.
When Lady Aberlin protests, saying she was not planning to stay, the king angrily retorts, “You have come during a state of emergency, and I have drafted you.”
Both the draft and draft resistance have come to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Meanwhile Lady Aberlin and Daniel Striped Tiger come up with a plan to send peace balloons to the castle so that King Friday will know that the whole neighborhood wants peace. The balloons will have signs tied to them such as love, peaceful existence, tenderness, and the word peace by itself.
Back in Mr. Rogers’s TV house, Mr. Rogers is not sure the plan will work because the king is in such a fighting mood. But then he smiles and says I think this can work.
On the day of the balloon launching, King Friday mistakes the balloons for paratroopers and shouts out, “Fire the cannons!”
But Lady Aberlin pleads with King Friday and the soldiers to read the messages before they start firing. One of the king’s soldiers reads the messages aloud and, lo and behold, the surprised king immediately says, “Stop all fighting!” even though no fighting had technically begun.
The residents of Make Believe sigh a collective sigh of relief, and back in Mr. Rogers’s TV studio, Mr. Roger muses, “Isn’t Peace Wonderful?” (recounted by Michael G. Long in Peaceful Neighbor).
Peace is wonderful, but what if we’re talking about the real world and not the neighborhood of Make-Believe?
What if we’re not simply talking about puppets rearranging the furniture, but we are talking about terrorists determined to do us harm?
How do we understand Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek in light of ISIS and other examples of extreme violence and terror?
The phrase turn the other cheek comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In that section, in Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus expounds, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you."
Is this meant to be taken literally?
Imagine someone taking the train from Katonah to New York City one morning and deciding to do everything Jesus says here: to turn the other cheek, to give to every beggar, and to respond to every lawsuit by settling out of court for double the amount.
One biblical scholar predicts that such a person would be broke, homeless, and in the emergency room of Bellevue Hospital before noon! (See Thomas G. Long, Matthew, p. 63).
So, how do we understand Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek?
Many faithful Christians have understood this saying as literally as possible, and the members of the traditional Peace Churches, Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, Quakers, base their theology of Christian Pacifism largely on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.
Other Christians interpret Jesus’ words more broadly and abstractly. What Jesus is condemning is the tendency toward violence. In this interpretation Jesus is not saying never hit back, because there might be a need to use violence to restrain an evildoer. But Jesus is saying, that if there is to be peace, then eventually, one slap must not be answered by another slap.
During most of the first three centuries the earliest Christians were pacifists who lived as a persecuted minority under the military dominance of the Roman Empire. If a would-be convert to Christianity was a Roman soldier, the soldier had to stop being a Roman soldier before beginning the three-year catechism to become a Christian. The reasoning was that the soldier could not say "Jesus is Lord" while still being obligated to obey the Emperor, especially when the emperors were persecuting Christians.
But the situation changed when the Emperor Constantine espoused Christianity and outlawed the persecution of Christians in 313.
Now that a Christian emperor wielded the power of the sword, a new theology was needed. This paved the way for St. Augustine (354-430) to draw upon Paul’s arguments in Romans 13 about the state having the right to use force to restrain evildoers. Thus, Augustine became one of the first Christian thinkers to articulate criteria for just war. Under certain circumstances, war is justifiable, especially to restrain evil.
Nearly nine hundred years later, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) refined Augustine’s criteria for a just war, and he held that for a war to be just:
It must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state.
Second, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain.
Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.
These criteria for just war, with some additional modifications, are still part of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.
In our own Reformed Tradition, the early Reformers likewise embraced the doctrine of just war, in contrast to the Anabaptists, who later became Amish and Mennonites.
John Calvin advised the city leaders in Geneva. The early Reformers were in the seat of power, and they devised their theology accordingly. They believed that the magistrate did have the power to wage war.
The Second Helvetic Confession, written in 1566, and part of our Book of Confessions, advises that “if it is necessary to preserve the safety of the people by war, let him [the magistrate] wage war in the name of God; provided he has first sought peace by all means possible, and cannot save his people in any other way except by war” (5.256). The confession explicitly condemns the pacifist “Anabaptists, who, when they deny that a Christian may hold the office of a magistrate, deny also that a man may be justly put to death by the magistrate, or that the magistrate may wage war” (5.257).
The 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith similarly adopts Just War criteria.
During the American Revolutionary War, Presbyterians were somewhat famous for their willingness to take up arms in support of the Revolution, while one of my own Quaker ancestors did not take up arms in support of the Revolution. (Alas, no DAR membership for me!, or for my genealogical line, rather).
In essence, we have two faithful responses to violence in our world—pacifism and just war. Both have longstanding support in the Christian tradition.
My own position is closer to the traditional just war theory, although as I get older I think that the threshold for justifying a particular war should be harder and harder to reach. Perhaps I’m inching towards pacifism, but I’m not there yet. Particularly when it comes to terrorism and extreme violence. And particularly in this community, where we knew and loved people who died in 9/11.
Where we know and love people who have faithfully served and continue to serve in the military.
This is not an abstract issue. We are doing our best to figure out how to live faithfully in a violent and unpredictable world.
When I was serving a church in Kansas City I got to know a man named Bill Eckhardt. Bill is a retired army colonel and military lawyer. In fact, he was one of the prosecuting attorneys during the trial of Lt. William Calley for the My Lai massacre. During a discussion of just war and violence, Bill turned to me and said, “Jack, never forget that no one desires peace more than the soldier.
No one desires peace more than the soldier longing to go home.
No one desires peace more than the soldier’s friends and family who long for reunion.” I’ve never forgotten that.
We all want peace. And one of the central convictions of our faith is that God desires peace. And one of the central challenges of our faith is to keep asking the hard questions about peacemaking in our world.
The late Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), in words printed on your bulletin covers, challenges us by reminding us that
"… you are Christians only so long as you look forward to a new world, so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society you live in, so long as you emphasize the need for conversion both for yourself and for the world, so long as you in no way let yourself become established in a situation of seeming calm, so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come. You are Christians only when you believe that you have a role to play in the realization of this new kingdom, and when you urge everyone you meet with a holy unrest to make haste so that the promise might soon be fulfilled. So long as you live as a Christian you keep looking for a new order, a new structure, a new life." (Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands)
Where pacifists and proponents of just war can find common ground is by doing peacemaking work together.
A few years ago, a group of Christian theologians and ethicists at Fuller Seminary came up with ten peacemaking practices that offer a model for Christians working for peace in our families, in our communities, in our nation, and in our world.
I’ll quickly list the ten practices here:
1. Support nonviolent direct action.
2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.
3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.
4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.
5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.
6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.
7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.
8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.
9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.
10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations. (Google Fuller Seminary and "Just Peacemaking" for the latest on the Just Peacemaking Initiative. This list of ten practices was quoted in a sermon by my friend and seminary classmate Mindy Douglas, preached at the Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC, on September 21, 2008).
The late Glen Stassen, one of the authors of the “just peacemaking” initiative, wrote in an article in Sojourners magazine, that "the ethic we need for a viable future is not only an ethic of restraint in making war, but an ethic of just peacemaking initiatives for preventing war and building a future that is better than war after war, terrorism after terrorism.” (Glenn Stassen, "Winning the Peace," Sojourners, January 2005).
In essence, we are urged to imagine a better world.
At the end of the first visit to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, Mister Rogers debriefed their narrow escape from war.
He said, “You see people can imagine bad things, hurtful things, angry warlike things, but people can also imagine good things, helpful things, happy, peaceful things.”
And as Mister Rogers debriefed the successful plan to use the Peace Balloons to diffuse the warlike mood, he used the word “work” nearly two dozen times. Peacemaking is hard work.
But it’s necessary work. (Michael G. Long, Peaceful Neighbor).
At the close of a 1983 episode of Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood, Mister Rogers encouraged us to make the world a better place and better place for people to live so that people won’t have to be scared of other people.”
And then Mister Rogers sang a song called Peace and Quiet, a simple song he had written for his father long ago:
Mister Rogers smiled as he finished the song and he said, “I wish you peace.”