A True Dad: The Father Figure of Atticus

It’s a Fathers’ Day Special!  A version of the good news I’m preaching this Sunday . . .

Show of hands: How many people have read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird?  How many read last year’s Go Set a Watchman?  It’s true the first 100 pages of so of the latter drag a bit, but stick with it for the explosive ending.

“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” – Isaiah 21:6

Harper Lee was part of the renaissance of Southern literature, which along with authors like Faulkner, was often Bible-based.  Historian Wayne Flynt, a longtime friend of Lee’s and also a Baptist minister, says, “She grew up in a Bible-reading family. She was imprinted with it as a child.”

Isaiah was a prophet in the Kingdom of Judah, probably between about 740 and 698 B.C. In this verse, he is prophesying about the fall of Babylon. “Nelle (Harper Lee) probably likened Monroeville to Babylon,” Flynt continues. “The Babylon of immoral voices, the hypocrisy. Somebody needs to be set as the watchman to identify what we need to do to get out of the mess . . . Somebody needs to be the moral compass of this town.”

Apparently, Go Set a Watchman was what Harper Lee originally wanted to title To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s real father was similar to Atticus – she saw him as a hero and the moral watchman of the town of Monroeville, where Lee grew up and is the Maycomb both books are based in. But even as far back as the 1950’s her publisher deemed the American public too Bible-illiterate to have an immediate connection with such a title, so it was changed.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch serves as the worthy watchman, standing up for justice in defending a wrongfully accused black man of rape, risking personal and professional security. But in Go Set a Watchman we see that this moral compass is, in fact, flawed, and that our hero is, in fact, merely human. We learn that rather than count on someone else, all of us, as individuals, are responsible for setting our own watchman, which is our conscience.

There is much to unpack here that makes for a great Fathers’ Day meditation. For many, there was disappointment that Atticus turns out not to be as anti-racist as we were made to view him in To Kill A Mockingbird.  I’ve heard some people say they won’t even read Go Set A Watchman so as not to shatter their image of the Gregory Peck hero. We can be this protective of our father figures of literature!

And aren’t we also protective of the idealized view of our real dads? So fiercely protective that we can deny or fail to see our fathers’ flaws or shortcomings. But all dads have them, and it’s something of a rite of passage when we are, for the first time, confronted with these flaws, just as Jean Louise, or Scout, is in Go Set A Watchman.  That is the climax of the book when, with the help of her uncle, she understands that a necessary step of maturation into adulthood is to differentiate herself from her father, whose standards of racial equity, mercy, and righteousness do not live up to her own. The confrontation between Scout and Atticus is traumatic and ghastly, as this process often is in real life.

Do you remember when it happened to you? How old were you? What were the personal traits or character flaws of your dad with which you were confronted?  Do you remember the cognitive dissonance, anger, or sadness?  The more flawed the parent, the earlier it seems to occur. For my dad, he was only ten years old, and to keep with the theme here, living in Huntsville, Alabama. His mother was bi-polar, and his father had some kind of personality disorder – which involved a lot of histrionics and emotional abuse. My dad realized he was the only sane person living in the house – a classic southern gothic situation!

But he turned out pretty well – he and my mom are still married and he’s always been a wonderful dad. But I remember the moment my idealized view of my father dissolved. My dad drinks regularly, everyday, and I never much thought about it, until it turned out my brother had alcoholic tendencies and I wasn’t much far behind. I was in seminary, had decided to quit drinking, and was seeing a therapist. I’ll never forget when she confronted me one day: “Hannah, why is it so horrible for you to see that your dad is an alcoholic?” Up to that point the thought had literally never occurred to me – I’d never seen him drunk and he accomplished a lot in his career; he’s a good man. But it dawned on me that to see him as such – a functional alcoholic, if you will – could provide insight into my own tendencies.

It didn’t make me love him any less, and in the last pages of Go Set a Watchman we see Jean Louise tell her Dad (even after calling him grim things of “the ring-tailed variety”), “I think I love you very much.”

So that is the first part of this Fathers’ Day meditation: to view our dads as they are, as flawed human beings, frees us from illusion, and in seeing them as whole people, we have a better chance at coming into our own wholeness.  And the good news is it doesn’t lessen the love – it makes it richer. You see yourselves in each other, without judgment, without remorse. With, perhaps, more mercy.

The second piece of our Fathers’ Day meditation is to, rather than be annoyed with Lee that she shatters our one-dimensional view of Atticus, consider what we can learn once the wishful thinking and naïveté have been removed. I highly recommend Bryan Stevenson’s gripping and readable book Just Mercy, published 2014, that details actual unjust sentencing cases of Monroe County, Alabama and around the country from the 1980’s forward. Bryan Stevenson is the real attorney hero we want Atticus Finch to immutably be – only he’s not white, he’s black – go figure.

It was naïve of us to think that Atticus Finch would be some all-star of white liberal ideology, having been the product of Jim Crow Alabama.  See this insightful review by Richard McAdams on The New Rambler.  Frankly, in the New Jim Crow era of a criminal justice system that destroys families and communities, we haven’t evolved much as far as understanding what racial equality actually means or is.  As Americans, and of the white variety especially, we are naïve and young in our thinking about race in the same way Scout youthfully aligned herself with Atticus as a child into young adulthood.

One way we are naïve is knowing our own history. We need a more mature recognition of how our violent and racist history has resulted in an equally violent and racist modern manifestation: the harsh punishments that call for mass incarceration. Young in our moral development, we don’t take responsibility for over 350 years of domestic terror on our own soil, whether it was slavery, convict-leasing, the failure of reconstruction that resulted in Jim Crow and the era of lynching, or now: the acceptance of overcrowded prison conditions, long prison terms, even death sentences for the most vulnerable – the poor, the immigrant, the mentally ill, the neglected and abused.

The New Jim Crow has been defined by laws, standards, and practices approved of by our elected representatives or by our own votes, which is the modern version of looking the other way when hundreds of thousands of lynchings took place in the south. The prevalence of wrongful death row cases in the modern era are lynchings in slow-motion.  Stevenson says the death penalty developed as a way to calm the public mob lynchings – allow them, but under heavily sanctioned terms, which creates an air of officialdom and social decorum, but just makes it easier for the public to ignore they are happening.

Yes, Scout’s naïve view of Atticus as infallible moral compass is to our naïve view that racism, bigotry and injustice have made leaps of progress toward their demise. In some ways they have, but our society’s penchant for unjustly locking people up for decades on end, not infrequently in solitary confinement, and executing people has become a more insidious, systematic and invisible enterprise since the civil rights era. We have a poverty-to-prison pipeline, which is more out of sight/out of mind, yet more widespread as rural communities’ economies get “saved” by huge correctional institutions that provide jobs, jobs, jobs. Our targets go well beyond African Americans. Don’t forget poor whites (who have been there all along), brown people, the undocumented, and especially Muslims we perceive as a threat or execute by drone strikes, habeas-corpus be damned.

The truth is too many of us are realistically more like Atticus than not. Atticus says he’ll follow the law and defend it, but he doesn’t want too much change too fast – or too much power given up. Our willful ignorance of the real Monroeville compared with our fondness for the fictional is a lot like us saying we approve of change, but not wondering long enough what that change really means or should look like.  We profess mercy, but don’t understand what mercy is.

Here’s what mercy looks like – learn comprehensive United States history. Read about how our criminal justice system came to be what it is – To Kill a Mockingbird was a drop in the ocean of historical and ongoing miscarriage of justice in our court and prison system.  Acknowledge the extent of suffering – especially for the wrongfully accused, children, the mentally ill, and the impoverished. It’s still happening, though thanks to the heroic efforts of people like Brian Stevenson, we are beginning to see change – recently, the Supreme Court outlawed sentencing children to die in prison (we had been the only country to do so). Restrictions on solitary confinement are occurring. California voted to end some harsh sentencing laws. But there is little forethought to the interventions and support services needed to transition the formerly incarcerated to the outside. It’s good to end a bad system, but now we need to address the costs of the harm its done.

The third and final part of this Fathers’ Day meditation is that you don’t have to be a perfect hero to be heroic.  Real heroes are often broken, flawed individuals – just like Atticus, like you and me. Like any of us.  The best part of Brian Stevenson’s book is when he defines mercy and understands what it is as a result of his own brokenness, from working for decades for justice in a broken system. He writes,

“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent … Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones. I’d always known but never fully considered that brokenness is the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.”

It was this realization during the hour of execution of a disabled man, an execution he did everything he could to stay, that Stevenson found the courage to continue his work. He saw that making mercy looks like struggling for change not in spite of our brokenness, but because of it. He writes, “In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy (the italics are mine).”

As part of the New Rambler Review of Go Set a Watchman, McAdams corroborates the praise of what flawed heroes can accomplish, incomplete though it may be:

“If there were white radicals in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, I would join others in praising the superiority of their vision of racial justice. But I would also lament the fact that, unlike Atticus, their courage apparently failed them and they remain invisible in the novel, realistically so, as they were frequently (though not always) invisible in small towns throughout the 1930s Jim Crow South. When it comes to preventing or correcting injustice, sometimes the world works this way: the courageous but compromised individual accomplishes more than the principled but timid one.”

It comes down to courage – it always seems to. No, Atticus Finch wasn’t perfect, but he was courageous in his time and place, and the more evolved views of his daughter give hope that white America may come of age yet where racial justice is concerned. If we have the courage.

The mature on-looker of racial injustice in our country today fights for justice in spite of the obstacles and the odds. The gift of the flawed watchman in Atticus is that it’s an opportunity to see things as they are, not as we wish them to be, not as the town of Monroeville, where a stage production of To Kill A Mockingbird runs year after year, would rather view itself, the anointed southern town of a fictional civil rights hero – fictional, indeed.

We can’t mitigate extreme injustice, much less abolish it, until we see the flaws for what they are – character flaws of America that won’t change until we see our history as it is, just like a family history. We can’t uproot a hereditary trait until we intervene, examining the caustic elements with intention and fortitude, taking great effort and commitment. Just as reparations and mercy-making take great effort, as we as a nation create new forms of healing and restorative justice.

The mature onlooker of injustice is an authentic watchman, a moral compass we can trust, possessed of an imperfect yet evolved spirituality, where the true meanings of compassion, mercy, healing, and reconciliation are not merely understood, but for which they are fought, and practiced.

So go set a watchman, and let your conscience be your guide. Create in yourself and in your own brokenness a need and desire for mercy. For as Stevenson shows us, “when you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

May we be so blessed, with eyes to see, and ears to hear, that we recognize ourselves in one another, with our common need for dignity and redemption.

Until next time, Happy Fathers Day, and Do the Hustle!

Rev. At-Large aka Hannah Hustlin’ Hope Petrie

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “A True Dad: The Father Figure of Atticus”

  1. I am writing this on my iPad and cannot figure out how to create italics so names of books will not be properly written.

    I have read MOCKINGBIRD about 35 times, having taught it every year in sophomore English. It is one of my favorite books and one of the reasons is that I always wanted Atticus to be my father. My own father was a disappointment; I hated him for years. An alcoholic and then later a dry drunk. Yelled and screamed and swore. Beat my brother and me with a belt, on occasion. My poor brother. I knew how to raise myself and not do things that would irritate our dad. My brother, however, was always in trouble. It feels as if my father was always yelling at my brother rather than working with him and guiding him. My brother turned out to be even more father-starved than I was. Rather than hating our dad, my brother worshipped him.

    So Atticus made my heart hurt, yearn.

    I have not, as you can guess, chosen to read WATCHMAN. There are other reasons than having Atticus become flawed, but that is certainly a big reason.

    Lately, the last few years, the hate has left me. My hate for my dad. And my hate for my brother who turned into my dad. I find myself missing my birth family: I am the only one left. Orphaned. I wish I could talk to my father or my brother and ask them. . .something.

    As for Bryan Stevenson’s book–JUST MERCY is among the best books I have ever read. I saw Bryan Stevenson on a panel at the L.A. Times (picture italics) Book Festival. I loved him, his passion, and his advocacy. I bought his book and read it immediately. I was enraged and saddened to learn of the gross injustices perpetrated on so many people of color. I was devastated to read of people, whites, who lied and gamed the system to put innocent people in jail. How can that be? How can one human do that to another?

    I like the idea of being a watchman. I suppose the idea is that is we all were, the world might be better off.

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