By Justin Rossow
In the midst of all the images of protest and violence on social media this last week, one image captured my attention in a unique way. Fred Rogers, from the children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was towling dry the feet of Officer Clemmons, played by the African-American vocal artist François Clemmons.
The image is a striking reference to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in John 13. That image speaks not only of racial unity, but of genuine love and friendship. I had to find out more, especially because the foot washing scene was a prominent part of my own Pentecost sermon just days before.
Seeing that image from an historical perspective helps inspire and motivate my response to our current racial tensions. But seeing that image from a more personal perspective can leave me pretty much in despair. So I also need a theological perspective on what Fred Rogers and François Clemmons were doing on that children’s TV show–on what Jesus was doing and commanding in that Upper Room–if I am going to move forward at all as I live in a world torn by sin.
An Historical Perspective
Seeing that foot washing image drove me to do a little bit of research online (I’ve shared my sources at the bottom of this article). First off, I was glad to find TruthorFiction.com rated the claim that this scene was an intentional stand against segregation as true: whew!
This scene of Mr. Rogers sharing his kiddie pool with Officer Clemmons actually occurs twice in the lifetime of the long-running children’s program. The first, Episode 1065, aired on May 9, 1969, two-and-a-half years before I was born; and two years after a summer of riots in major cities across the U.S., including Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and Boston. One of the bloodiest riots that summer was in Detroit, Michigan–about an hour from Flint, where I grew up.
Back in 1969, it was sill illegal for African-Americans to use the same public swimming pools as whites. In that context, the image of Fred and François sharing a pool is even more startling. Franç, a young, poor, athletic, gay, black man from an abusive family background was playing a police officer on TV and being invited by this skinny, lily-white Presbyterian minister to share his pool.
The invitation is startling: “Would you like to join me?” And so is what happens next. Officer Clemmons at first begs off: “Well, that looks awfully enjoyable, but … (shaking head no) I don’t have a towel or anything….” To which Mr. Rogers replies, “You can share mine.”
That kind, warm, generous invitation flies directly in the face of a national sentiment that said, do not handle; do not touch; keep social distance; segregate. François Clemmons would later relate how intentional that moment was. Fred Rogers wanted to wash Franç’s feet on national television, on purpose. And he wanted them to share a towel, so he could help dry off his friend’s feet.
Referring to more than just cooling off your feet on a hot day, Mr. Rogers tells Officer Clemens on TV: “Sometimes a minute like this will really make a difference.“
To me, it matters that François Clemmons was a young, gay, black man at a time when any combination of those things could get you beat up at the local bar as likely as not. And it mattered to Franç that Fred Rogers demonstrated unconditional love consistently, over time.
In more than one interview, François Clemmons tells the story of a time when Fred was signing off of the show like he always did: “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.” But it seemed like Fred was directing that closing line personally to Franç. Afterwards, Franç asked Fred directly, “Were you talking to me?”
Fred’s answer, as Franç relates it, almost knocked me down: “Yes,” Mister Rogers said, “I have been talking to you for two years; and you finally heard me today.”
25 years later, Mister Rogers and Officer Clemmons recreated that scene in the kiddie pool. It was Franç’s final episode on the show. As they reminisced, Officer Clemmons asks Mister Rogers what he was thinking when he shared his pool. “I was thinking of the different ways we say, ‘I love you.'” was the reply. It leads into Officer Clemmons singing in his Grammy-award-winning voice with Mister Rogers. Their song is called, “There are Many Ways to Say I Love.”
Placed in its historical context, the image of Mister Rogers sharing a pool and washing Officer Clemmons’ feet is even more poignantly a call to unity, unconditional love, and service.
A Personal Perspective
Seeing Mister Rogers publicly and tenderly breaking down racial barriers way back in 1969 leaves me personally with a wide range of emotional responses. On the one hand, I certainly feel inspired to go out and love like Fred Rogers loved, in part because it seems so clear that Mister Rogers was intentionally trying to love like Jesus. That thought brings up its own baggage about Jesus as an example I am trying to emulate.
I think when we see Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, and giving a command to love–indeed, to wash one another’s feet–when we hear Jesus say that no one has greater love than laying down your life for your friends, and then say that he has left us an example, then we can get pretty discouraged. We end up putting Jesus way out there on a pedestal somewhere as an example, an ideal I am supposed to aspire to.
I have to work hard to make my life be more like Jesus, which doesn’t really seem fair to me, since Jesus is God and therefore by definition already holy and perfect and loving in a way I could never be. And the more I struggle to bridge that gap between my life and the ideal Jesus, the more discouraged I get.
When I’m in that mindset, seeing Fred Rogers act like Jesus doesn’t actually help. In fact, it makes it worse. How am I supposed to be like Jesus?? I can’t even be like Fred Rogers!!
Another facet of my personal response includes grief and anger. Fred and Franç were breaking down racial barriers two years before I was born! Aren’t we supposed to be farther along than this? Was there nothing we could have done to make the summer of 2020 look less like the summer of 1967?
We do lip service to equality and still live in the clutches of systemic racism and prejudice. We have only learned better ways of circling the wagons, defending our own, and therefore by definition excluding everybody else.
How is it possible that things are still this bad, a generation later? How can the Church, of all places, still and persistently be so radically segregated? How can those who bear the name of Christ kill, or condone those who kill, others who also bear the name of Christ?
How can our priorities be so screwed up? One of my favorite sound bites from Facebook in recent days goes: You keep saying, “It’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop.” Try saying, “It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men has to stop.” You’re prioritizing the wrong part.
I know it’s a complex issue; and I am sick to death that we have not made more progress even on such a complex issue in the last 50 years.
I went to a public high school in Flint, Michigan (yes, that Flint) and was part of a nationally-recognized theatre program. When we did Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the “brothers” were African-American, Jewish, and Anglo. After five minutes, the audience didn’t notice or care. But the cast and crew–we never noticed or cared. I knew what it was like to be invited to dinner at my best friend’s house in a poor and predominantly black part of Flint, and to be welcomed warmly by his mother with a hug. (Incidentally, Ben went on to study at Carnegie Mellon–just like François Clemmons.)
I had friends that were Jewish as well as a friend from Iran. And we could all meet in the basement of my house to hang out, just as my white German-Lutheran grandma welcomed my dad’s black friends from Willow Run High School into their Ypsilanti home. I was simply not aware of how racially divided America still is until I went off to college; to a private, Christian college. And the fact that it seems things have only gotten worse makes me angry and breaks my heart at the same time.
So many Christians have said so many hurtful and ungodly and stupid things, that, as a Christian, I feel like I can’t say anything at all.
So many white males have said so many hurtful and ungodly and stupid things, that, as a white male, I feel like I can’t say anything at all.
So I feel helpless and overwhelmed and like I can’t help, because I don’t know how, and because anything I do or say won’t be taken the right way, anyway.
I see Fred Rogers be a little like Jesus, and I don’t see how that has made a difference; and I don’t see how I can possibly make a difference, either; I know I am even less like Jesus than Mister Rogers.
I just want to throw in the towel, hide my head in the sand, and wait another 50 years; by that time, it won’t be my problem.
A Theological Perspective
Mister Rogers visually referenced the right section of Scripture when he chose a kiddie pool and towel to demonstrate unconditional love. Going back to the foot washing scene and the conversation that follows in John 13-15, we get a clear theological perspective on what’s at stake in our own imitation of Jesus.
Feeling the burden of being like Jesus, I wish I could just blow off the idea that Jesus gave a command to love and left me an example to follow. Unfortunately for me, it’s pretty clear in the text what Jesus is up to. Jesus does indeed actually give a command to be like him: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
This command is so important, Jesus repeats it a little later that same evening: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). For the third time, Jesus says, “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17). That repeated mandate gives Maundy [from the Latin for “command”] Thursday its name.
Jesus clearly gives a command based on imitating his action (“as I, so you”). Jesus explicitly makes himself an example for us to follow: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).
Jesus takes it even a step farther (“as I, so you; but even more so”): “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12).
When I see Jesus, out there somewhere, high on a pedestal, as an ideal I am supposed to strive for, I know I can’t ever do enough good to measure up. I feel small and impotent and I just want to throw in the towel. I don’t like feeling like that, but I can’t dismiss out of hand the fact that Jesus actually commands me to love, and makes my action an imitation of his example.
So what’s going on? How do I engage Jesus’ command and example without needing a pep talk on trying a little harder to be like the awesome Jesus? (Who, by the way is God, so of course he is awesome–and I am not; not God, and not awesome.)
Thankfully, Jesus himself points out the answer. I am not reading the command or the example part wrong, but as soon as I set Jesus up on a pedestal, way out there somewhere, as an ideal for me to emulate and strive to attain, I have reversed the theological direction of this Upper Room discourse.
Jesus does not put himself up as a standard far, far away and then leave you to your own reason or strength to be a little more like Jesus, and love your enemies, and shine light into a broken world. In fact, Jesus expressly sends help, and stays near!
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16)
The Spirit “lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you … I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:18, 20).
“Remain in me, as I also remain in you” (John 15:4)
Jesus, the one who is anointed with the Spirit at his baptism, receives and bears the Spirit, fulfills his mission in the power of the Spirit, and then pours out the same Spirit on those who follow him. (That’s a central part of his job description as the Messiah/Christ: “The Anointed One.”)
Just as Jesus does what he does and lives as he lives in the power of the Spirit, so you also do not go out to love or serve or wash feet or embrace diversity in your own strength or power.
You are supposed to be like Jesus, which means, you are supposed to act in the power of the Spirit and under the authority of the Father, just like Jesus does: “The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:10).
Just as the Father is present in Jesus, living and active and doing the Kingdom’s work, so Jesus is present and active in you, by the power of the Spirit, living and active and doing the Father’s Kingdom work in and through you.
“As I, so you” is not a formula for leaving you on your own. As Jesus–filled with the Spirit, under the authority of the Father–so you–filled with the Spirit, under the authority of the Father, in-dwelt by the risen and living Christ.
That’s what I learned in my Pentecost sermon this year: Jesus is not an ideal set up way out there on a pedestal for you to aspire to; Jesus is the present and living one, who gives the Spirit and brings unity with the Father. The Spirit in you shapes you to be like Jesus in your thoughts, and actions, and emotions, and love, and service, and sacrifice. (You can see a video of that sermon here.)
Your job is not to make yourself more like Jesus. Your job is to desperately need the Spirit of Jesus to make you like Jesus. (That, I can do.)
You don’t compare yourself to Jesus (or even to Mister Rogers); you grab a towel and let the Spirit shape Jesus in you.
You aren’t in control of your progress on the upward climb to being Christ-like; Jesus sends the Spirit down to you, and Jesus sets up residence in you, and the presence of Jesus is available through you to those around you.
The end result is not a report card that tells me how often I have failed or lets me pat myself on the back for washing more feet than my classmates. The result is not merely courage to face a confusing world filled with plenty of dirty feet (though it is that, too). The result Jesus sees for you as the Spirit shapes you to be like Jesus, even in your humble service and love for those not like you, might be a surprise.
The result of being shaped to be like Jesus is: joy.
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
I don’t have an easy answer on how to handle violence, systemic racism, social injustice, or human hate.
There isn’t one.
And Jesus doesn’t expect me to have an easy answer.
Jesus gently takes my confusion and doubt and fear and failure in his strong hands, and washes my feet. Jesus pours out his Spirit on me again today, smiles, and hands me a towel.
I don’t know exactly how, but I can trust that the Spirit will make me a little more like Fred Rogers; a little more like François Clemmons; a little more like Jesus.
And I trust that towel will bring me joy.
Web pages I used to confirm the story of Mr. Rogers and Officer Clemmons: