Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Gospel according to Harper Lee - Part I

The girls and I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird. It's the third time round for me. Some books just keep getting better. This time, I read Lee's masterpiece through the lens of Rene Girard's thought on the role of mimetic desires and the scapegoating in forming human communities, and the role of the Gospel in exposing and overturning these. Lee is dead on.

The next few posts are dedicated to To Kill a Mockingbird, with my attempt at some girardian commentary.

“When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn't teach us how to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us on the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn't interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something...”

In Atticus' pronuciation, Harper Lee condenses all the petty sins of conservative southern society into one: the hypocritical lynching of an innocent victim. Various other voices in the town are scandalized by sins against fashion, against class, against American sensibilities, against polite decorum, against Jim Crow racial rules, and each one of these scandalized reactions is exposed, through the innocent observations of Jem and Scout, and the patient integrity of Atticus and Calpurnia, as hollow and hypocritical.

Jesus boiled down the multitude of the old commandments into a two-in-one: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and the second one like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. The second is like the first because in Jesus God becomes the Neighbour, and this Neighbour God becomes our Victim. “Whatever you do to the least of these, you have done unto me.” The mockingbirds who it is a sin for us to kill are each and every one the Christ.

One look around the postmodern world reveals that the harming of innocent victims really is the only sin we believe in anymore. What scandal on the news is not a story of the cross: either the story of a victim, told from the victim's point of view, or an expose of corrupt authorities, often judged from the perspective of their victims?

The only ones we still feel justified to righteously condemn anymore are the mockingbird-killers. It's the only scandal we have left. But like the titilated missionary society ladies of Maycomb, we are finding our little gatherings breaking down, because a voice is breaking in that gives the lie to our shared gasps of dismay. The gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the gospel according to Harper Lee, reveal the mockingbird-killers to be none other than ourselves.

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