“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.”
– Atticus Finch, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
There’s a moment in the film, To Kill a Mockingbird that’s particularly compelling.
Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small rural town in Alabama, is sitting in a local jail awaiting trial. Fearing an attack by some locals, the sheriff asks Robinson’s lawyer, Atticus Finch, to stand guard and watch that no one takes the law into his own hands. The sheriff chooses Finch not just because he represents Robinson, but because he is well-respected in the community as being a voice of reason and decency.
Soon, a mob of angry men arrive and armed with guns, are about ready to overwhelm Finch and seize Robinson. Unexpectedly, Finch’s young daughter, Scott, and her older brother Jem have arrived and push through the crowd to reach their father. Clearly upset, Finch tells his two kids to go home. A couple of men in the crowd begin to shove and push the kids telling them that they don’t belong there. As Atticus pulls them away from the men, that’s when the moment happens.
Six-year-old Scout suddenly recognizes one of the men to be the father of a boy she knows at school. She calls one of the men, Mr. Cunningham, by name, says hello and reminds him that his son is a friend of hers. In that moment, the men have become individuals. Cunningham may want to take the law into his own hands, but Scout has caused him to realize that he has enough decency not to force a fight in front of young kids. In that moment, Cunningham realizes that he’s a father too, and calls for the others to go home.
The scene has been criticized by some as a dramatic device that stretches reality. That may be true, but it also causes us to reflect on our own overreactions to injustice, feeling that our only recourse is to angrily lash out.
Before the verdict was announced in the shooting of Michael Brown, Jr., I was attending a special screening of To Kill a Mockingbird, that I’d been invited to months earlier. Watching the film, watching Gregory Peck in the part of southern lawyer and ethical hero Atticus Finch, caused me to compare the film with events in Ferguson. Both carry themes of racism and violence. Both seek justice and fairness. Sadly, both have tragic ends.
I won’t comment on the right and the wrong on events in Ferguson. All of us will hear plenty over the days and weeks that follow. What I will say is that, too many times, far too much time and energy is focused on the problem and not enough on the solution.
In spite of the pleas for non-violence, many attacked, vandalized and set fire to stores, many locally owned and operated by decent, hardworking, local citizens.
In attempting to explain the bigotry that exists in his small town to six-year-old Scout, Atticus says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
It seems to me that there’s not enough of that happening today. Hatred, prejudice and ignorance are global issues that aren’t likely to change anytime soon. But each of us can work in our own communities and homes to live out tolerance, because in spite of our individual differences, each of us shares a common humanity. We all want to be respected for who we are regardless of our differences. So, how can we advance that humanity?
Mahatma Gandhi, the non-violent activist who inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that we need to be the change we wish to see in the world. That begins when we’re willing to listen more than we talk; treat others better than they treat us; maintain self-discipline and self-control even under extreme circumstances; and earnestly practice loving thy neighbor as thyself. And when injustice happens, as it is bound to, to not use it as an excuse to recklessly act out.
Ethics is about continuous improvement, looking for ways to do things better, to increase our knowledge, skills and judgment to be the change we wish to see in our own communities, and to understand that, ultimately, integrity matters.
“Scout,” said Atticus, “… sometimes we have to make the best of things, and the way we conduct ourselves when the chips are down—well, all I can say is, when you and Jem are grown, maybe you’ll look back on this with some compassion and some feeling that I didn’t let you down. This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
“Atticus,” Scout says, “you must be wrong…”
“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…”
“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”