About two weeks from when I write this, on the third of June, L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling will be hauled in front of the NBA owners and commissioner and put on trial for being a racist. The real trial, of course, is already over. In the twenty-four hours after a tape surfaced online of Sterling making horrible comments to his girlfriend V. Stiviano, he was tried, sentenced, and executed.1 By us.
From what I’ve read, the conviction is just. I won’t repeat everything Sterling said here; you can look up the full tape online if you really care to hear the whole mess. Most of the responses to the tape have been of two varieties: those who condemn Sterling for being a horrible person, and those who condemn him for being a horrible person while carefully wondering aloud whether illegally taped comments should serve as evidence for forcing a person to sell property. That second one is a vaguely interesting question, probably good for a discussion in a college civics class. But I’d like to talk about Sterling in a different way, as an enemy of humanity, as a villain.
And to do that, I have to talk about Ron Swanson, Leslie Knope, and Parks & Recreation.
My wife and I watch Parks & Rec fairly habitually, queuing up old episodes on Netflix when we’re relaxing after dinner, or after church, or after Parenthood.2 One of my favorite episodes is from Parks & Rec‘s fifth season, “Swing Vote.” The main conflict of the episode is a staple of the show: the free-market-loving, libertarian parks director Ron Swanson battling the relentlessly enthusiastic, pro-government city councilwoman Leslie Knope.3 Ron submits a budget proposal to the city council that eliminates taxpayer subsidies for the local miniature golf course. This act of treason against the venerable institution of putt-putt immediately causes Leslie to start rage sweating (or, as she insists, “rage glowing”). Eventually their struggle leads to a miniature golf playoff, Leslie and Ron playing one round against each other, with the winner getting sleazy councilman Jeremy Jamm’s swing vote. (It’s a golf pun. Get it?) Ron wins, condemning the mini-golf course and sending Leslie into a fury, which for some reason causes her to fill Ron’s office with a giant statue of a gorilla.
Everybody still following? Because this is the exchange I really want to get to.
RON (talking about the gorilla in his office): How much did you pay for this?
LESLIE: Irrelevant. I would pay any amount of money to properly shame you.
RON: Leslie, you should know by now that I live my life according to a certain set of principles, and I do not deviate from them.
LESLIE: Right, I mean God forbid you’re flexible in any way. You should just stick to your stupid, rigid, anti-government principles. But you know what? Those principles stink. They’re not the right principles.
RON: You may think so. I do not.
Two things I want to say about this. One, this is the only time in all of Leslie and Ron’s interminable battles over the years that Leslie says something this direct about Ron politics. They’re not the right principles. Two, I want to write a script someday with the parenthetical (talking about the gorilla in his office).
Just a few minutes after this exchange, councilman Jamm comes into Leslie’s office and offers to save the putt-putt course in spite of his promise, if Leslie will offer him some kind of deal. Leslie, of course, is so disgusted by Jamm’s betrayal that she refuses—and then storms back into Ron’s office to unleash this tirade:
LESLIE: I have six things to say to you. One, you drive me nuts with your rigid code of honor. Two, congratulations, putt-putt has been defunded, and only because Jamm was going to double-cross you, and I made him stick to his word. Three, I am furious that putt-putt has been defunded.4 Four, I am sorry I said the gorilla’s blood was on your hands, twas Leslie killed the beast. Five, putt-putt is for children and they are the future and I have already written a ballot measure that will save it and it will pass. And six, your rigid code of honor, which drives me nuts, makes you a wonderful human being and I am proud to call you my friend and don’t ever change.
RON: You want a drink?
LESLIE: Very much.
And so their friendship is repaired, and they share a drink and talk about life, etc. What happens here is very rare in television, especially comedy. They reconcile, yes, but they do it while still disagreeing. I put that in italics so you would get the importance of it. Leslie and Ron have fundamentally different ideas about the role of government, the nature of capitalism, and the value of putt-putt. Yet, wonderfully, the show allows both of those views to remain in force. It finds a way for two people with strong, real disagreements to remain good friends.
There’s this famous thing that Jesus taught once, that I think is relevant here. You’ve heard it before. This particular quote is from the good doctor Luke, except for one thing that I made up. See if you can spot it.
JESUS (talking about the gorilla in his office): But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic… But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
This is one of those teachings that is rather unreal to me. It sounds good in the ear and settles in the mind comfortably. I can repeat it on command and understand exactly the situations that call for it. Yet it is incredibly painful to put into practice. So painful, in fact, that I tend to simply ignore it.
Martin Luther King Jr., who had a lot of opportunities to practice love of the enemy, described it as “the refusal to defeat an individual.” It’s a choice you have to make, a will you have to summon, to see your enemy as a person loved by God, as Ron Swanson or Leslie Knope, not as a fleshy container for the evils of libertarianism or socialism. And this is the choice Leslie finally makes, when Jamm offers her a deal. His sliminess forces her to see Ron as a person again, a person with a lot of good in him, a person that she can love even as she disagrees with him, and actively works against what he wants.
Of course, learning how to disagree with a friend is like step one of the thousand-mile journey it takes to love your enemy. And it’s much easier to do when you’re talking about something as small as a mini-golf course (again, pun intended). It gets much harder when you face an enemy over something that matters.
Say, for example, that the next Parks & Rec episode featured Leslie battling an old, rich, white dude named Stonald Derling, who was caught on tape espousing the common prejudices of the blood-soaked, racist history of America. There’s no way Leslie would be allowed to do anything nice for a person like that, no way that she would offer him her tunic if he stole her cloak (metaphorically speaking – although I suppose you could do it at a Renaissance fair and make it plausible). We all have an unspoken limit about just how much a person is allowed to disagree with us before any potential love for them starts to dry up. Which is another way of saying that there are some opinions that we are not willing to humanize.5
In the end, it is easy (and just) to ban Sterling from NBA games for life, fine him millions of dollars, and force him to sell the team. It’s much harder to do all of that and still wish him well. And it’s even harder to do as God does, and be kind to him in his evil. It wounds our pride and self-righteousness. It makes us look weak and deprives us of the pleasures of socially sanctioned outrage. In other words, it costs dearly.
And if you ever want to understand just exactly what that cost is, all you have to do is weigh the cross.
1 Metaphorically, of course. And, really, it’s a bad metaphor, since “execution” in this case involves Sterling selling the team for over a billion dollars. Sometimes I’m dramatic.
2 My wife cries easily, so an episode of Parenthood always wears us out. That show is scientifically engineered to make her weep. The only thing worse is Marley and Me, which we will never watch again.
3 I’m not sure why I am explaining who they are. If you are reading this, it’s probably safe to assume you’re familiar with the show. Unless you are my mother, and you read everything I write regardless of whether you understand it. Or you might possibly be my grandmother, who reads everything I write that my dad happens to print off and bring to her. So, now that we’ve caught those two up, I’ll continue.
4 Later, we learn that the government subsidy amounts to about $9,000, a hilariously small amount when you realize that the loss of this subsidy is apparently going to force the putt-putt course to close permanently. Nine grand is somewhere between one week and two days’ worth of revenue for a typical minigolf course, and the Pawnee course looks pretty awesome. It has at least two snow cone salespeople, a dragon that shoots out steam, and a gorilla that guards a gingerbread house. Even if the owners are running the course at a zero profit margin, they would basically just need to open up a week later than normal to reduce their expenses enough to remain open the rest of the year. In other news, I’ve watched this episode somewhere between five and sixteen thousand times.
5 Parks & Rec, as wonderful as it is, is as guilty of this as any other show. You need only look at Marcia Langley, Pawnee’s resident moral crusader, and her flamboyantly closeted husband Marshall to understand what sort of views aren’t credited with humanity in the Parks & Rec world.