There is a classic dynamic in storytelling where villains can be considered more interesting than heroes. Evil is interesting, flashy, complicated. Goodness is simple, bland, boring. This framing is superficial but can often feel true. Understandably, we can’t relate to flawless characters. We find comfort in the company of sinners over saints. These days we love our anti-hero protagonists and morally gray cable dramas. People are complicated. Fair enough.
Sometimes though, seeing the real deal can be a revelation.
One of the most moving experiences I had last year was watching the new documentary on the life of Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Through his gentle television program, Mr. Rogers nurtured multiple generations of children from a guiding philosophy rooted in his own faith. As anyone who grew up with the show knows, his empathy for children and their emotional life was profound. Through both his fictional characters and personal life, his kindness and grace to the vulnerable felt otherworldly. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister but his reach ultimately extended far beyond the church.
I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a theater as collectively emotional as this one. Suppressed sniffling became part of the soundtrack. People were holding back sobs. The end credits were brief and we all had to awkwardly stumble out of the darkness, trying to keep it together. It was a unique reaction to watching 93 minutes of compelling goodness, disorienting in how rare it felt to observe.
Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the peacemakers.
The world that Christ proclaims in the Beatitudes is one we want to see. We like the sound of it, we pray for its arrival, but it usually feels remote. We find ourselves surrounded by the opposite –– in our public life, in our politics, and even in the church. Blessed are the rich. Blessed are the powerful. Blessed are the merciless. Blessed are the arrogant. Blessed are those who divide.
It’s no surprise that when Christian communities get ensnared with these inverted orientations, people go running. The gospel is discredited and rings hollow. God’s care for the marginalized feels far away.
We’re all hungry for a glimpse of the real thing. We need to see images of goodness. To see the promises of the Beatitudes made manifest. The truth is, vice and cruelty are actually dull and monotonous. Drama is gripping because we see virtue under pressure. The grace of Mr. Rogers doesn’t represent something static or easy. As he puts it, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle.”
We owe our neighbors just that.
This article was written by parishioner Anthony Parisi.