Of course the world is enamored with Mr. Rogers and with Tom Hanks who played him. And of course there is much laudable about his children's show with its gentle host and voice. Yet it would be a mistake to presume that Mr. Rogers was the best theologian or a good witness for the orthodox Christian faith. I have great respect for him and what he accomplished and believe Tom Hanks to be a fine actor but there is more here than meets the eye.
Of course Jesus did not say He wished to learn from innocent children nor did Jesus welcome children in order to do so. Mr. Rogers is more than correct in saying that Jesus did not speak the exact words that Mr. Rogers spoke but he is in error in suggesting that is what Jesus meant.
Now far be it from me to suggest that we have an over abundance of nice people in this world or nice figures to which our children might look for role models or examples of goodness. We have too few and ours is a coarse world filled with vulgarities and words that demean those who speak them and those who hear them. Mr. Rogers should give us pause to see how we force upon our children adult feelings and confront them with adult problems that rob them of their childhood and place upon them the burdens we should bear as parents, family, and community. But if Mr. Rogers has fallen into the fallacy of mistaking niceness for the Gospel and in this we dare not follow him in this area.
Niceness has its place but it dare not be mistaken for the Gospel. Christ did not become incarnate so that we might become nice and He was hardly mistaken as a nice figure by those around Him. He treated the scribes, elders, and Pharisees with disdain. He overthrew the tables of the moneychangers in anger. He warned of destruction for those who did not repent -- of gnashed teeth, unquenchable fire. He confronted a woman with many husbands who was not married. He called His friend Peter Satan. Jesus was not exactly nice at least as we might define nice today.
Mr. Rogers surely knew on some level that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about niceness but about sin and forgiveness, rebellion and reconciliation, death and life. None of the things from which we were redeemed could be called nice and niceness was not what was required of Jesus to save us from sin, death, and the devil. As much as we might like to think it is enough to be nice, the Gospel requires preaching and teaching this Christ, indeed, knowing nothing but Christ and Him crucified (at least according to St. Paul). Niceness is
inoffensive but the Gospel is scandalous.
Even the Pope seems to have gotten confused in all of this. He wants no proselytism, no conversion, but respect for those who believe in something different and respect for that which is believed that is not the Gospel. He cited once St. Paul and the altar to the unknown god as example of a inoffensive way to speak the Gospel but this was not exactly true to the account. St. Paul insisted that though the followers of many gods were trying to cover their bases with a tribute to one they might have missed, they had nothing unless they had the one God, Jesus Christ. Christianity is not nice in the sense that it respects the faith of others. We know only one God and one Gospel.
And while I am offending people, let me suggest that those who say that the Gospel can be preached without words are also goofy. Love for neighbor is not preaching the Gospel. I am not denigrating love for neighbor for that would contradict Jesus' own words and command. But this does not take the place of preaching the Gospel. It accompanies it. St. Francis is supposed to have said that we are to preach the Gospel and to use words if necessary. That is also goofy. The cross cannot be preached without words. Love can be shown. Forgiveness can be granted. But the Gospel requires words -- words of who Jesus is and what He has done and the lack of merit or worthiness on the part of those for whom He spoke and lived and died. Words preaching the cross are not in competition with love for neighbor. We need to remember that. Especially when some would reduce the Gospel to being nice and suggest that nice people are quiet.