The curtains are down. The lights are out. America’s time hanging out with Indiana’s motliest crew of small-town local government employees has come to a close. Last night Leslie Knope and Co. wrapped up the seventh and final season of Parks and Recreation. No more Lil’ Sebastian. No more Paunch Burger. No more Knope.
Content concerns for this series have been typical to a bit less than typical when it comes to TV sitcoms these days. But in this space, I want to talk about one of the characters—Leslie Knope.
One of the most important things stories and characters in stories can do is challenge us. Whether they push us to greater heights or explore our messiest depths, well-constructed characters never leave us the same. With Parks and Rec, it’s Leslie who stands out. Not because her political views are so utterly persuasive. Or because she has the perfect philosophical bent. Leslie Knope is challenging not because of what she postulates, but because of how she lives.
What challenged me when watching Leslie Knope was realizing that she often acted more like Jesus than I do. And I’m the one who actually claims to follow Him. So I thought it might be interesting to dig into four of the ways Leslie Knope is more like Jesus than I am.
She sticks to loving and caring through action.
Far from your average everyday civil servant, Ms. Knope is Pawnee’s own tireless, overzealous, undauntable, government cash-strapped Energizer Bunny. In fact, comparing Leslie to the Energizer Bunny does her a disservice because that repping rabbit does eventually tire out. There is nothing that can stop Leslie from serving the people of Pawnee or from taking care of her friends. Not the flu. Not bureaucracy. Not even significant political and ideological differences.
Which is crazy good when you think about it.
Me, on the other hand, I’m much more comfortable being a “do-nothing.” Sacrificing personal comfort for the benefit of others? I like comfortable. Walking, running and/or sprinting the extra mile to help someone else out? That wears out my shoes … and gets me all sweaty. Caring for, working with and even befriending people whose values are the polar opposite of mine? Yeah, about that …
Jesus was all about getting His Father’s work done. He fed the hungry, cared for the hurting and healed the sick. And He didn’t simply do those things for His friends or for those who agreed with Him ideologically. He did them for all, including people He wouldn’t have been blamed for hating.
Which one of us is the written-for-television character again? Which one of us claims to love and follow Jesus?
Leslie – 1
Jake – 0
She sticks to her principles without needlessly alienating others.
Speaking of ideological differences and hatred, it should be noted that Leslie knows all about them. You can’t lean as far to the “left” as she does without encountering some resistance of the less-than-friendly sort. In fact, one need only look as far as YouTube to see that you can’t have an opinion on anything without drawing out some intense vitriol.
But Knope doesn’t care a whit about such things. She’s run up against plenty of opposition during her long stint in the government ranks, and her fight against tech giant Gryzzl (a delightfully melodramatic stand-in for Google) in Season 7 was one of the toughest she faced. Still, as both vied for a prime piece of real estate, Knope resisted the temptation to bring Gryzzl to its knees by any means necessary. No one would have blamed her if she decided to fight a little dirty and leave the data-mining dudes eating her dust. In fact, we probably would have cheered her on. Especially since her opposition wasn’t against relying on their own underhanded tactics.
Instead, she digs deep and finds a solution that benefits all parties involved. One could say that she does it because she had no other option. But we’re talking about someone who refused to resort to smear tactics during a political campaign even when they were being used against her. So it’s not a stretch to see that Leslie does it because, at the end of the day, she believed in doing what was best for her neighbors: the people of Pawnee and the owners of Gryzzl.
I can struggle with this concept. I get the whole “love your neighbor” thing, and I know that Jesus loves all of us equally regardless of our blind spots. But I still find it really hard to like people when we have significant disagreements about life, let alone feel friendly enough to do nice things for them.
Jesus was no stranger to dealing with people with whom He didn’t necessarily see eye to eye. The very leaders of the temple at which he loved to teach ended up orchestrating his crucifixion, after all. But he still found it within Himself to offer His life for theirs (and ours) while they (and we) were (are) still really messed up. There’s a pretty stark contrast between God’s good and our evil, yet He overcame it in order that we could be in relationship with Him.
Leslie – 2
Jake – 0
She sticks closer than a sister.
It would make sense, then, that you’d be hard pressed to find a more loyal friend than Leslie Knope. There is not a scrapbook she has made or a surprise she has planned that didn’t go above and beyond the call of duty. All because she’s great at recognizing the inherent value of her friends and the beauty they bring to her life, no matter how goofed up they may be. Take a look at this clip for an example.
I tend to do friendships more cautiously. I wade in slowly, not wanting to appear too eager about having a new friend. I hold my cards closely, not wanting to trust too much. I give up too easily, not wanting to seem needy.
Jesus had a very close group of friends. And He loved those friends so much that He cried with them and for them—even when He knew He was about to fix the very thing they were crying about. Not because He had to, but because He loved them so much that He was willing to walk through and experience their pain with them.
Leslie – 3
Jake – 0
She sticks to her optimistic path.
Leslie is no stranger to the pain and discouragement that life throws at all of us. She’s faced trial and hardship in ways that are only feasible in sitcoms. But in the face of it all, one of Leslie’s most important and defining characteristics shines the brightest. In fact, some have suggested that it was her optimism that made the show a success. It’s not that she never faced discouragement. It’s that she always countered it with courage and pluck.
Which always seems easier to write about or act out on a small screen than it is to practice in real life. Life isn’t easy and, because of that, I’ve often found it a little too easy to get discouraged. It’s normal, sure, but that doesn’t mean we have to or should simply embrace pessimism as a way of life.
Jesus called us to look doubt and anxiety in the face—and then hand it all over to Him. He encouraged us to take heart and to trust Him above all else. He knew we would need that encouragement, both for ourselves and for others.
You see, it’s when we ourselves are optimistic that our light shines the brightest. If Leslie’s optimism draws people to a silly sitcom called Parks and Rec, how much more should our optimism as Christians draw people to the salvation of a Savior offered to us by God Himself?
Leslie – 4
Jake – 1/2
Leslie Knope may not be, in the history of television, the most sanitary character ever. For she is certainly not without her flaws. But she does remind me of some of the things I should strive toward with a bit more vigor and enthusiasm. I realize, of course, that salvation doesn’t come through acting like Jesus, but a well-lived life does. And I want my life to be lived well.