How Mr. Rogers practiced truly seeing people

A look at the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

December 26, 2019

“The most important thing to me right now is talking to Lloyd Vogel.” 

That particular line may not have much significance to you now, but it’s a crucial part of an introductory phone call between a jaded journalist and Fred Rogers (played by Tom Hanks) in the new film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (rated PG). The movie, based on a true story, explores the friendship between these two men.

Early on, we’re introduced to Esquire Magazine writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, who plays a version of real-life journalist Tom Junod). He’s married and has a newborn son. He also has issues with his dad. In fact, early on in the movie he gets into a fist fight with his father that ends in a bruised and bloodied face. When we catch up with Vogel post-fight, he’s at work getting his next assignment, which is to write, as he puts it, a 400-word “puff piece” on Mr. Rogers, the TV and cultural hero of the beloved children’s show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” For a serious writer, this assignment is an insult, but he agrees to do it.

As the film progresses, we witness several interactions between Vogel and Rogers. With his cynical outlook, Vogel has a difficult time believing Rogers could truly be anything like the earnest, soft-spoken character he plays on the show. His interviews with Rogers don’t go as planned, as Rogers seems less interested in talking about himself and more interested in learning who Vogel is. Who he really is. 

Truly seeing the worth of someone 

As Mr. Rogers intimates early in the movie, each human life is precious. To Rogers, that doesn’t seem to simply be a trite notion. When Vogel first walks onto the set of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Rogers is kneeling down at eye level with an unruly young boy who is violently swinging around a plastic sword. After Rogers spends a bit of time with him, the boy stops swinging the sword, lets down his defenses, and moves in to hug Rogers. Although the show’s crew is annoyed at getting off schedule because of having to wait on Rogers’ interaction with the boy, they, and Vogel, witness the change in the boy and the gentle, calming presence Rogers has on the child. 

In interviews with Vogel, Rogers explains the whole purpose of the show, which is to help give children positive ways to deal with their feelings. Throughout the film we see that Rogers is also helping a cynical journalist navigate his feelings (particularly those of anger) toward his father. “Forgiveness,” Rogers explains in an episode taping, “is releasing a person from your angry feelings.” 

When Jesus taught on forgiveness, he spoke of forgiving offenders not seven times, but 70 times seven. And at his most vulnerable, he asked the Father to forgive his tormentors, “for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). As he was dying, he still saw people—really saw them. And he still loved them. In Genesis 16:13, Hagar says to God, “You are a God who sees me.” 

That notion of seeing someone, and thereby recognizing their dignity as well, is what Rogers embodied so well. He cared for people and seemed to make each person he interacted with the most important conversation of his day. And while the journalist might not have believed him during that initial phone call where Rogers says, “The most important thing to me right now is Lloyd Vogel,” eventually he comes to. There are plenty of great takeaways from the person and character of Rogers, but at the very least, I hope to emulate that same intentionality in my personal interaction with others. 

Pointing broken people to Jesus

Now, lest we put Rogers on too high a saintly pedestal, I appreciate one particular conversation Vogel has with Rogers’ wife, Joanne. During that exchange, she explains that her husband actually has to work at being the way he is. She says he reads Scripture daily, he prays for people by name, he swims laps to vent. The film further humanizes Rogers by touching on some regrets he had in his own parenting, particularly when his children hit their teenage years. We see the regret in his eyes. Surely there were times when it must have been tough for a kid to have a parent like Rogers. He also speaks of taking out his anger and frustration on the low bass notes of the piano. 

But at his best, Rogers cared for people, particularly the “broken people,” as Vogel refers to himself. Rogers simply wanted to help, serve, and put people on a better path. And as I think of Jesus, I’m reminded of the broken people he, too, encountered. In the gospel of John, for instance, when he met the Samaritan woman at the well, he saw through her. Without ever having met her, he spoke of her sin, but didn’t leave it at that. He saw her—really saw her. He spoke to her of her true need and offered her that better path, a path leading to himself. And in him, she was fully seen, fully known, and fully loved. As believers, we are called to do likewise in order that we might point our neighbors to the One who not only sees them but offers them the forgiveness and salvation we ultimately need. 

Erik Parks

Erik Parks is married to author Catherine Parks and has two children. He is a Nashville filmmaker whose debut feature film, “Why We Breathe” is currently in post-production and will be released in 2019. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24