Until very recently, the fact that I hadn’t yet read Harper Lee’s great novel To Kill a Mockingbird bugged me–like a fly on the potato salad at grandma’s picnic.
I’m no expert on this story, author, or genre of literature, but reading Mockingbird was an education. This classic novel treats societal prejudices in the 1930s American South. With the recent sickening recrudescence of overt racism in my country and around the world, the book’s themes have gained more currency lately.
I’m pleased that I finally read this classic novel, especially since To Kill a Mockingbird’s main character–attorney, Alabama state legislator, widower, and devoted father Atticus Finch–evinces universal Baha’i themes such as courtesy, racial unity, justice, and sacrifice.
The Baha’i teachings emphasize courtesy:
O people of God! I admonish you to observe courtesy, for above all else it is the prince of virtues. Well is it with him who is illumined with the light of courtesy and is attired with the vesture of uprightness. Whoso is endued with courtesy hath indeed attained a sublime station … – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 88
In the novel, Finch wants his children to constantly empathize with others. He counsels his daughter Jean Louise (aka Scout) with a formula to reach such levels of compassion:
If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, p. 33
The Disease of Racism
The Baha’i teachings liken racism to a disease:
Racism is now tainted by its association with the horrors of the twentieth century to the degree that it has taken on something of the character of a spiritual disease… – The Universal House of Justice, To the World’s Religious Leaders, April 2002.
On this theme, a main thread in the novel is Finch’s legal defense of Tom Robinson, a young African-American man falsely accused of rape. In stunning symmetry with the Baha’i viewpoint, Lee, writing 42 years beforehand, has Finch, too, label racism a disease:
… I hope and pray I can get Jem and Scout [Atticus’ children] through [life] without bitterness, and most of all, without catching Maycomb’s usual disease. Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand … I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the town… – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, p. 100-101.
O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah, pp. 3-4.
Spoiler Alert: Concerning this concept of justice, at the end of the novel, Bob Ewell, who had falsely accused the innocent African-American Robinson, accidentally falls on his knife and perishes. Neither Finch nor his family bear any guilt. However, he is concerned that if the facts of the accident are not known, it will undermine the legal process and create a poor impression for his children. He reflects:
If this thing’s hushed up it’ll be a simple denial to [my son] of the way I’ve tried to raise him… if I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn’t meet his eye, and the day I can’t do that I’ll know I’ve lost him … – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, p. 315.
Selflessness, detachment, and sacrifice are key teachings of the Baha’i Faith:
Until a being setteth his foot in the plane of sacrifice, he is bereft of every favor and grace; and this plane of sacrifice is the realm of dying to the self, that the radiance of the living God may then shine forth … – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 76.
In this respect, Finch shows willingness to “take a punch” for the greater good when Ewell confronts him on a street corner, spits in Finch’s face, and threatens to kill him. Yet after this jarring incident, Finch displays remarkable selflessness–and concern for Ewell’s daughter Maybella–while talking to his son Jem:
Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children out there. You understand? – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, p. 250.
However, Atticus Finch isn’t necessarily the civil rights paragon we’d expect, and people (as well as literary characters) evolve. Please follow along for the second half of this series, which focuses on the relationship between Finch and his adult daughter years after Mockingbird, in Harper Lee’s sequel Go Set a Watchman.