Tuesday, August 14, 2007

God bless Harper Lee

The "Saturday book group" at our church spent this week discussing Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. I haven't read it in a number of years, even though it has been among my favorite novels for (literally, alas) decades. I first read it, over the disapproval of my mother, when I was about 10 or 11 (not that young, as things go), and I have re-read it a few times since then. (Unlike my 14-year-old daughter, I was never required to read it for a school class.) But in recent years, I've harbored a cynical fear that it wouldn't live up to my memories of its charm, quiet eloquence, depth, and humanity. Have I grown more sophisticated so that what once thrilled, charmed, inspired, and daunted me would no prove "nice" but not much more?

I was wrong to fear: It does so live up to my memories, and I think no one in our group disagrees with that assessment. The lady wrote a daggone great book, and one can understand what must be her reluctance to risk writing a second that does not (for it cannot) measure up to the first.

One scene stands out for me (and I'll re-watch the movie to see how -- indeed, if -- it is portrayed in the movie, for the movie remains my number-one favorite film), from all the many touching, humorous, and scary scenes. In it, Atticus (who in the movies is played -- no, incarnated -- by the demi-god Gregory Peck) has gone to sit outside the town's jail, because Tom Robinson (a black man accused of raping a white woman) has been brought to town for trial and is spending the night in that jail. In his typical unflappable style, Atticus sits outside the jail door in an office chair, reading a paper, prepared to stay all night to defuse any nonsense that might try to develop. And nonsense does develop.

When Scout (his daughter), Jem (his son), and Dill (their friend) traipse downtown to look for him, they soon discover that a handful of seethingly mad men (otherwise known as a mob) has assembled and demanded that Atticus stand aside. Their unstated, but obvious, intention is to break Tom out of jail and to lynch him (or so I gather). The children stand in fear and incomprehension for a moment, and then Jem runs to his father's side. (It's just like a kid to try to help -- and in the process make matters worse, eh?) And the tension builds, because it seems that the mob will have little more concern about knocking the boy aside than they do knocking Atticus away.

But then there's the magical moment: Scout spots the father of one of her classmates, a Mr. Cunningham, among the rabblerousers. And she addresses him by name, babbling on to him directly about how she knows his son and about some of the Cunningham legal difficulties that Atticus has clearly discussed with her. (The lawyer in me cringed at Atticus' obvious violation of his duties of confidentiality, but one can't hold even such turpitude against such a mensch as Atticus!) Toward the end of the scene, she asks Mr. Cunningham to say "hey" for her to his son, Walter. And Mr. Cunningham bends down, looks her directly in the eye, tells her he surely will, stands up, and calls for the mob to leave.

It is something straight out of Hauerwas. (Why hasn't he written that scene up in some of his writing about peacemaking?) Scout has responded to the violence and threat of force against her and her family in the only way open to a Christian: She has addressed the threatener by name and established common humanity with him. She refused to pigeonhole her opponent as "enemy" (although to say that is to deny neither the fact that he was nor the fact that she was frightened of him as such). Rather, she addressed the co-child of God in him -- as did our Lord those who came to arrest him or those who hung him on high.

Now Harper Lee did not intentionally or self-consciously write a tract or a parable about living the nonviolent life, although her focal character, Atticus, treats all but a (literal) rabid dog with nonviolent forebearance, if not respect. (And in a sense that comes back to threaten, less him than, his children -- in the person of Bob Ewell.) But that doesn't deny its lessons to those of us who see in artists -- at least some of them -- the wafting of the Spirit's breath.

It is eminently clear that had Atticus -- even Atticus and a few colleagues, armed to the teeth -- tried to hold the mob off with violence (guns, bats, or the like -- you've seen that in movies, too), all that would have resulted would have been bashed heads, even more hostility, and (in all likelihood) a hanged Tom Robinson. To treat the "other" as "enemy" usually results in that, an escalation of violence. Check out the Bible: Israel lived like that and ended up in exile -- more than once -- at the hands and by the will of the Lord whose honor she was upholding. (Most lamentably, the current nation-state that bears her name has learned nothing from her namesake.) The scribes and Pharisees conspired with the Romans to eliminate their enemy Jesus, and we see how successful they were. There was a little matter of Resurrection that rather puts to shame the success of the Caesars (oh, that's right; they're gone -- replaced by Sylvio Berlusconi and his ilk!) and even the scribes and Pharisees (who, though they may have heirs in this day, are no more either).

One wishes that there were, in preaching and teaching, more encouragement and instruction in how to live as Christ without fear. Oh, we hear lots about living without anxiety, encouragement for loving ourselves just the way we are, sweet platitudes about seeing Jesus in the one we offer a (charity-riddled) cup of water. But then we complement that with talk of the just war theory, with conceal-and-carry laws (which allow one to carry a gun for the justifiable purpose of self-defense). And it all just washes over us.

Jesus' teaching and parables are so familiar that it is easy to place them in the context of all the conditions and limitations we have heard attached to them. Thus, to cite an example from my obsessive-compulsive study of Matthew for a Bible study I'll be leading, Jesus intended the Sermon on the Mount, not to be taken literally, but to show us how we can't fulfill the Law of God and so we ought to just give up all attempts and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord. The Sermon is there to drive us to justification by grace through faith. For heaven's sake, don't think that we are to respect poverty or to pluck out eyes or to go extra miles; that's hyperbole.

Well, Scout remains for me an exemplar of the Christian -- the "little Christ" -- who hears in Our Lord's words direction and empowerment to live the new life he lived -- and died -- to bring. She was fearful, of course; "Have no fear little flock" may not have been the hymn on her mind at that point. (Check out Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane if you're inclined to blame her.) But the important thing is that she didn't allow fear to hold, guide, or control her. She gave herself over to humanizing action (i.e., to living as she was created to live with others) -- engaging the other at the level of common humanity. And in so doing, she embodied the mind of Christ.

Bravo to you, Miss Nell Harper Lee, for your magnum opus.

And so we move on to Frankenstein.

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