The Gospel According to Knope
The presidential campaigns are just finishing their transition out of a lengthy primary season and into full-on general election mode. However, we are already nearing the end of what has been, for me, the most emotionally consuming election in years: An off-year, off-season race for an open city council seat in Pawnee, Indiana.
I’m referring, of course, to the campaign depicted in this season of Parks and Recreation, one of the funniest and most optimistic shows on TV.
The show, starring the gifted comedienne Amy Poehler, typically derives humor from loving critiques of America’s civic process. In its fourth season, most of the cast has rallied around Poehler’s energetic, capable bureaucrat Leslie Knope as she runs against Bobby Newport (guest star Paul Rudd), the genial and dim-witted scion of a beloved local processed food magnate. Contrasting Knope’s scrappy idealism against the calculated cynicism of Newport’s seasoned campaign manager has given Parks and Rec an opportunity to go beyond sending up the civic process to sending up the electoral process, as well. And at times, it has gotten profound.
This week, Knope, Newport and a handful of fringe candidates squared off for a riveting debate. The local news anchors moderating the debate took questions “from Twitter, because apparently that’s a thing that happens now.” One of the fringe candidates patiently passed on any question that didn’t afford him an opportunity to wax enthusiastic about gun proliferation. Another repeatedly asserted his devotion to treating Pawnee’s animals as though they were his own children. (Pawnee has a well-established raccoon problem, and the fact that we didn’t get to see their differing responses to how to handle the infestation at Ramsett Park seems like an obvious missed opportunity.)
Newport, meanwhile, only presented one substantive proposal, and it was the centerpiece of the debate: Newport said that if he lost the election, his father would move their factories (and most of the town’s jobs) to Mexico.
Pawneans are a fickle and excitable people, and this kind of declaration could have easily been the death stroke against Knope’s candidacy. However, she recovered. After processing her shock at the potentially game-changing declaration, she responded passionately and sincerely:
I’m angry that Bobby Newport would hold this town hostage and threaten to leave if you don’t give him what he wants. It’s despicable. [The power] to dictate what a city needs—that power belongs to the people. Bobby Newport and his daddy would like you to believe it belongs to them. I love this town. And when you love something, you don’t threaten it. You don’t punish it. You fight for it. You take care of it. You put it first. As your city councilor, I will make sure that no one takes advantage of Pawnee. … This is my home. You are my family. And I promise you: I’m not going anywhere.
Jesus doesn’t offer much in the way of express political prescriptions in the Bible. When cornered by pharisees and Herodians wielding a politically dangerous question about the Roman head tax, he defies the premise of their question and answers in a way that transcends their paradigm. When questioned by the local governors about his political goals, he has nothing to say that they feel is relevant to them.
But he does offer a prescription for the type of attitude a leader should have, and it looks an awful lot like Leslie Knope’s:
You know that the leaders of the Gentiles are lords over them, and their great men exercise power over them. It is not thus with you; but he who wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, and he who wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; as the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his own life for the redemption of many.
(Matthew 20:25–28, Lattimore translation)
Knope’s closing statement resonated with her audience and the viewers because it speaks to the way we all wish power would work. (It also resonated with her opponents: Newport broke the silence that followed by declaring how great he thought that answer was.) We all hope that those in positions of authority—be it in a household, a workplace, a social circle or a government—are worried about the best interest of those without power.
But power doesn’t work that way. More accurately, we aren’t brave or humble enough to wield power that way. If you need any evidence of that, pay attention to the way you talk about your job, your boss and your teammates. No matter what field you’re in, I’m willing to bet that you’ve rarely thought, “I don’t like the way my boss is running our department. If I were in charge and she were in my place, I’d have SO MANY reasonable discussions in which I listened to and thoroughly considered her opinions about how the department should be run, and I’d give them as much weight as I’d give my own ideas.”
No, most people’s fantasies about how they’d run their workplace, their community or their government are ultimately authoritarian. America’s government is structured to work best when the people in charge are open to debate and fully consider the implications of their decisions on a whole host of under-powered peoples. But the pace of work, the pressure of media scrutiny and the need to raise thousands of dollars every week just to prepare for the next election are powerful forces against that kind of humility taking root in the heart of elected officials.
Christians who work in public service or who hold public office would do well to remember to keep their sights fixed on Jesus, who accomplished great work by taking on the role of servant, even when the people he was serving actively tried to elevate him to master. We should also be willing to encourage leaders in every sphere of life to consider approaching their leadership with a servant mindset.
And while we usually avoid endorsing candidates on this blog, I do want to encourage you to vote for Leslie Knope by tuning in on Thursday nights. The election’s in two weeks.