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Why an “evil” Atticus Finch is good for us

In Discrimination, Education, Multiculturalism, Prophetic, Racial Justice, Radical Welcome on July 12, 2015 at 12:26 am

by Ryan P. Sirmons

I’m glad that Atticus Finch turns out to be less-than-ideal in Harper Lee’s upcoming sequel to her 1960 book To Kill a Mockingbird. Michiko Kakutani’s review of Go Set a Watchman has revealed that the sainted Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a segregationist. The man who counseled his children for racial justice and humanity shifts in his old age to a Klan-rally-attendiatticus-finchng person who is concerned about ‘Negroes’ attending the same schools as white children. This revelation has caused outrage around the internet, coffee shops, and living rooms. Careers, sermons, moral certitude, and high school inspiration have all come from Atticus Finch. Even a clothing line is named after him. But because we’ve grown up and become disillusioned with our former hero like Jean Louise (known to us as Scout), we can now have the conversation about whether it is truly best for the white, male, and debonair Atticus Finch to be the portrait of racial justice. We can discuss who really should be representing those who have been historically oppressed in our society.

Nobody likes being disillusioned. We were told as children to look up to certain people in our lives and try to model our lives on them. People like George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Neil Armstrong were heroes of my childhood (not to mention Robert E. Lee, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Finding out that these heroes have character flaws excites an existential crisis in our own lives. We ask, “Why did I follow that person all my life if he or she turned out to be wrong about this or that?” Yet becoming disillusioned helps us to see the very human nature of a person, with gifts as well as flaws, that we all have. Facing head-on an existential crisis and seeing the good and the bad, the flaws and the gifts, helps us develop empathy and courage to act despite not having the qualities we think we need in order to act. It might remind us that we, too, are capable of leading things despite our own flaws.

Atticus represented a type of benevolent moral dignity that powerful white men could exhibit in the twentieth century American South. He was strong, certain, and used his authority as an attorney for the good of racial equality and the emphasis of mental illness. Yet we forget that the book is told from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl who is entirely smitten with her father. Everything he does is cast in a righteous light. Shouldn’t we have been surprised during our ninth grade reading of this book that in Atticus we have no real moral failing? He’s just too good. He’s the scandal-free George Washington. He’s akin to a high-brow comic book hero, but without a mortal flaw that almost stops him from doing good. It is no wonder that Harper Lee waited so long to share this story with us: she needed to wait until America grew up so it could, like Jean Louis, deal with her disillusionment about her parent. The backstory of Atticus presumably reveals, if Kakutani’s review is accurate, that he was a white Southern man who held typical views of other men of his generation. Of course those men did good things, too. But to try and maintain them as saintly good men today is folly. America needs to wake up and realize that Atticus cannot be our hero. Atticus cannot be the agent of change we need to include all our sisters and brothers in a united country. The old South from which he came is a figment of our imagination, idealized in a childlike light out of which we need to shake our national discourse.

Of course change is certainly helped along by allies of those oppressed who are in the majority. I’m a straight white male; almost any cause to which I lend my voice is as an ally. Yet it would be problematic if my voice was still in the leading position of authority after the initial work is done. The voices that do not represent the (white male) voice of the majority need to come out of cultures and norms formed differently than mine, using words, language, and music I don’t understand and wearing clothes I never would consider “respectable.” It’s possible I might resent this, not accepting it as responsible. In some ways I already resent this, as I begin to recognize that I may need to sit on the sidelines of political and moral leadership because I am a white male who knows other voices need to be heard. Based purely on speculation as the book doesn’t come out until Tuesday, I think this is what happened to Atticus. He becomes embittered as the people he once championed find their voice and no longer need him to be their savior. I think this is happening across America as we grow up.

  I feel that the dream of America is one where diverse cultures and voices can share in leading our people. We need new immigrant voices, the voices of black and brown people, women and LGBT people, to be in positions of leadership. Atticus Finch, and those of us from his background, cannot be the voice of a new America in which cultural difference is a symbol of our unity. An “evil” Atticus is the person who resents this change and challenge to his authority. An “evil” America is one that attempts to preserve this privilege, just as a child attempts to preserve the sanctity of its hero. It is the child who, like me, clung to a Confederate flag at eight years of age because I truly thought it was a symbol of my heritage. Its racial past never crossed my little mind. I even declared gray my favorite color because it was the uniform color of the South’s noble heroes who I grew up hearing and reading about. I’ve grown up now and see that the romantic dream of the South never existed, and that battle flag I bought in a gift shop in Michigan was revived mid-twentieth century as a symbol of privilege and hate. Even Robert E. Lee learned to get over it and advised a Confederate widow to “[d]ismiss from your mind all sectional feeling, and bring [your children] up to be Americans.” It’s been disillusioning for me to grapple with my own inherent racism, sexism, and privilege. But in doing it, I am able be part of a new way for America.

Scout grows up and becomes Jean Louise. She leaves Alabama and moves to New York City. No doubt she encounters different cultures and racial empowerment in the heady 1960s. Upon her return to her roots she recognizes that her father fails to be the hero she may have thought the South needed. This suggests a realization we as a country need to have. Jean Louise, and women like her, will need to become the leaders and the voices for change. Tom Robinson’s children need to be the new leaders, using their language and customs to have equal ownership of the country they change. It’s sad but true that we need a real, rather than idealized, Atticus Finch to remind us of our responsibility to empower those who are oppressed. It gives me a hopeful joy that Ms. Lee thinks we have the maturity and capability to be disillusioned with Atticus. It’s a vote of confidence from the writer of our (dare I say it) former “national novel” that we can begin to write a new chapter for equality in our country. Ms. Lee has, most likely, signaled that we can pass the torch of national leadership from Atticus to Jean Louise and Tom Robinson. It doesn’t hurt, either, that we grew up knowing Jean Louise as Scout. She can’t be lionized as Atticus was. We know her faults and her prejudices. Despite this she can now be a national leader, imperfect, but herself. This can pass to all new leaders and free us from hero-worship to empathy and camaraderie. This gives me hope for the children I see, and the child my multiracial wife is expecting, for an America that can be free – free from hero worship, free from monoculturalism, and free to have a voice to be heard.

With thanks to the Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear. Our conversations on the need for leadership from underrepresented people, and that those in the majority should step aside to help this happen, helped fuel this thought.

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Jesus says: “I am the way.” How are we to understand this in a multicultural world?

In Acts, Authenticity, Discrimination, Education, John, Multiculturalism, Progressive Christianity on September 6, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Sermon delivered at Buckland United Reformed Church, Portsmouth, Hampshire, on 22 May 2011

Readings: Acts 7.55-60; John 14.1-14

Our first reading today came from the book of Acts. Normally during the church year we read a passage from the Old Testament and a passage from the New Testament. But in the weeks following Easter, we supplant that Old Testament reading for  a reading from Acts to give us insight into how the very earliest members of the Christian tradition set about proclaiming the good news of Jesus‚Äô resurrection. The stories of their lives are not always light-hearted. Today‚Äôs story of St Stephen being stoned by a crowd of people in Alexandria, in what is today Egypt, is no exception to this rule.
One way to take St Stephen’s story is to highlight the peril that people of faith face in communities resistant to change. Alexandria had a devout Jewish community. It was, and is today, a major trading port on the Mediterranean and at that time controlled the wealthy grain trade from the Nile River Basin to the city of Rome itself. People in this city were getting rich off of this grain, and used this wealth to create a centre of learning and erudition which was unparalleled anywhere else – even Rome itself. The city held two wonders of the ancient world, the lighthouse of Alexandria and the library of Alexandria. The loss of the library, reported to have been burned down by an angry and misguided Christian mob, destroyed countless years of scholarship. Some have even speculated that the burning down of this library and its wealth of information led to the dark ages of scholarship. But that is beside the point: the point here is that St Stephen has come to this city of wealth preaching a message of change and inclusion. He is preaching a message of hope, but like Jesus, preaching one which has no place for wealthy people or hierarchies where one person is superior to the other. It is a radical message.
As Christians when we take up the call to evangelise today, we find ourselves in the very awkward position of trying to say that someone is perfect to God just the way they are, but that they need to change to be even better and become the perfect person they are. That doesn‚Äôt sound like it makes a lot of sense, but it does sound like we are criticising the way someone lives. Now I don’t know about you, but I know that when I tell someone or even imply to them that there is something wrong in the way they conduct their lives, it does not go down well. In telling this message, Jesus was crucified. In being faithful to the spirit of relaying this message, St Stephen was stoned to death. The Jews felt he was insulting Moses, the prophets, and their intellects. His message to change just was not going to be accepted, because as far as they were concerned, he was telling them to accept something which made no sense and sounded a lot like blasphemy. And they were not going to stand for it.
We should not derive from this passage that places of culture and learning like Alexandria are inherently hostile to the gospel. After all, there was a devout Jewish community here who believed in God as Father and felt bound by a covenant relationship with Him. They, like anyone today, had trouble accepting Stephen’s message, and we know that it would take years of hard work on behalf of many evangelists to make this message of inclusivity and hope acceptable to all hearers.
Now the writer of Acts, whom we suspect is Luke, notes that a young man named Saul is present for and approves of this stoning of the heretical Stephen. Saul is, as you might recall, none other than St Paul before his experience on the Damascus Road. This is the first place in the Bible in which Saul in mentioned (although Acts was written well after most, if not all, of Paul’s letters). We can assume, therefore, that this is his first experience of this newly formed sect of Judaism which claimed to have found and worshipped a man whom they thought was God incarnate.
Paul’s reaction is much like that of the Alexandrians. But he goes further, and begins to travel throughout the enclaves of Judaism in the Ancient Near East and seek out members of this sect who may threaten the purity of law. He tells us of how he used to boast of his success in his letters, up until he realises in a vision he receives on the Road to Damascus.
This Damascus Road moment is Paul‚Äôs defining moment. After recovering his sight, both physically and metaphorically, Paul‚Äôs zeal is still for God, but is focused on God as revealed through Christ. We often talk of this moment as Paul‚Äôs conversion to Christianity. “Conversion” is not an accurate term, though. There was no Christian church to convert to. Paul never completely renounced his Judaism, though he grappled with it frequently and certainly foresaw changes in how covenant was understood between God and His people. A better word for what happened to Paul is that he began to “conform” himself to Christ. He sought to understand the model of Christ and began to mould his own life to match the example set by Jesus. This is what he urged the congregations he established to do as well – conform themselves to Christ.
So now we come to our gospel passage from John 14. “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” When we look at it in context of the gospel passage, it is a set of directions. Thomas, the disciple whose question “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” prompts this response, is not expecting this statement. Who would? If I told you I was going to my Father‚Äôs house, and you asked me how to get there, you probably are expecting a “Right at the intersection, third exit on the roundabout, and it’s across from the Sainsbury’s Express.” Jesus’ response is cryptic at best, and a bit frightening.
Thomas misunderstands Jesus. So does Phillip. Thomas is looking for a literal understanding of what Jesus is saying. This happens all the time in the gospels. But Jesus is not speaking of a place to go, as if he‚Äôs heading over to Egypt for a bit of holiday at his dad‚Äôs house. Jesus is instead referring to something altogether different. Some will call it heaven. Some will call it a way of life. It’s both.
Traditionally we think of where he is going as heaven. There‚Äôs good reason to think this. He talks of his Father’s house, and how it has many rooms for them to dwell in. In the timeline of what is about to happen, we know that he is soon going to be crucified – a horrible way to die. Thomas, perhaps, is afraid of this happening. He figures that if Jesus is not left alone, such a terrible fate will not befall him. There is a wonderful loyalty in his question, but there is also, perhaps, a tinge of desire, too. The place that Jesus talks about sounds like a paradise, and he wants to go there, too.
This is often the problem when people of faith talk about heaven. We can get caught up in the desire of achieving a right life so we can get there. We tend to think that a checklist can get us there, even though we’ll be the first to say that anyone can get there as long as they profess Jesus as Lord. In Thomas’ words you can visualise a hint of envy in his eyes, the same one would expect if one heard there was treasure out in the road just waiting to be captured. When we talk of heaven, we are caught in a paradox: for to dwell on it in our thoughts now is to abandon the calling we have to be disciples now. To not think of it at all sounds like we are denying that it exists. But really, all we have to do is trust that God will take care of us in the afterlife. It is as the song puts it, “Blessed Assurance”.
We cannot know what heaven will be like. We can only achieve a vague sketch, mostly derived from our haphazard reading of Revelation, of what it might be like. But even that picture does not talk of a land of harps and clouds as Hollywood envisions it, but of a heaven on earth. Heaven is a great unknown. To dwell on what it is like now does nothing for us, and in fact removes our focus from God’s plan for us. Jesus assures his disciples that he is making a place ready for them, but the real focus of his words are on how they get there. It is a place to dwell in a time to come, but it is not a place to dwell in now. Now is the journey.
Jesus is saying that he is the way. This means a lot to us. It‚Äôs even on a poster on the outside of the church! Yet I think it is frequently one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented quotes in our tradition. It is often used to say that unless one accepts Jesus, one cannot go to heaven. But that’s a very negative take on a very positive affirmation that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and shown us a way to live. Our desire to turn it into a negative arises from our very human desire to get right to the centre of the meaning of something. Except that in doing this, we’re doing much the same thing as Thomas and Philip: we’re establishing our understanding of it quickly, and not entirely with the discernment and careful study with which Jesus requires of his disciples.
Jesus is not saying that people of other faiths, people who think differently than we do, people who do not fit our definition of a “classic” Christian, cannot follow in his path. When Jesus says I am the way, his emphasis is on the journey which is achieved by conforming oneself to his life teachings. Challenge me on this if you wish, but his answer is in response to a question: how can we follow you? The answer emphatically is not on statements of faith. It does not provide any ground to foster false feelings of superiority between our faith tradition and any other. Its emphasis is on action. It is an active declaration that living in the way he teaches, which includes and in fact highlights such people as the Samaritans. Samaritans were loathed by the Jewish population to which he spoke, and were not Jews in the sense that they understood them. This passage of Jesus‚Äô cannot be used to say that anyone else is not going to heaven or will not experience God‚Äôs divine grace. To do so is to break another one of Jesus‚Äô sayings, even if only in heart. It was repeated by Barack Obama in his historic Cairo speech this week: ‚ÄòDo unto others as you would have done unto you.‚Äô Using this very positive statement as a divisive statement is to make Jesus an excluder, as if to give us a feeling of inclusion which others cannot participate in unless they embrace our statements and our beliefs.
Yet it IS a reason for celebration in our Christian tradition. Jesus affirms to us that his teaching will bring about heaven on earth, that what he is teaching if the life and the truth which we seek in the daily drudgery we experience.
Jesus gives us more reason to be joyful, for he affirms that we know the Father God already by conforming to his teachings.  For Philip says, “Show us the Father, and then we will be satisfied.” But you have already seen the Father, haven’t you? We, too, experience God daily in our lives. Jesus’ response is a wonderful affirmation. God is with us and is working with us to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. We remember again what was trumpeted when Jesus was born: “Peace and goodwill to all people.” Jesus’ way is the way of peace and goodwill to all people. Living in this way will bring about peace and goodwill.
Instead of being concerned about going to heaven, though, we like Paul must be focused on the journey now. Paul did not deny that there was a heaven nor did he deny hell. But he dismissed the reflection upon such things as irrelevant. His work, like ours, is now. It is in the daily act of conforming ourselves to the way, truth, and life of Christ. It is to committing ourselves to following in this exemplary code of how to live and carrying it out in such a way as to be able to achieve a semblance of God’s kingdom here on earth.
Christ planted the seed of that possibility with his arrival on earth and his careful teaching of disciple, who in turn went out and faced persecution and death to spread the news of this type of life. It was not a conformity to the way of being in this world, of conforming to society or buying trends, but to the way of Christ. I am the way is an inclusive statement that affirms that we can live a life of justice and righteousness; of a humility which can transform the entire earth.
And the best part of the story is that Stephen, the one who message impressed Paul even though at the time he was not aware of it, was a mere fisherman. He was no different than any other ordinary human being. No better, even, than the ones who stoned him to death. Yet he had no fear, he had no hate, he had nothing to prove. He lived as he died, in grace. And he transformed Paul, eventually, and the world. If he, an ordinary person, could do that, why not you and I?