The Pulitzer Prize winning novel concerns Finch's ultimately unsuccessful defense of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930's Alabama. Finch's daughter, Jean Louise, nicknamed Scout, learns a great deal about moral courage listening to and watching her father. Defending a black man during that time in the South was risky business, to say the least. Scout also learns about fear and prejudice through her experience with her neighbor, the reclusive Boo Radley. Children in the neighborhood invent all kinds of fears about Boo and fail to return his occasional acts of kindness. It is Boo who saves Scout and her brother, Jem, from a hate crime at the end of the novel.
Harper Lee past away a couple of days ago, a bit of a recluse herself since the novel's publication. Atticus Finch appears as quite a different character in the recently published Go Set a Watchman. It is the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird that will endure and will continue to instruct. It is easy for all of us, myself included, to become fearful in the face of recent events. We seek solace in ignorance and quick solutions based on prejudice. Things will be better if we build the walls a little higher and make the rules a little stricter. Intolerance towards those who may be different must be institutionalized. And we should count on cheap grace rather than undertake risks in the name of social justice.
We can learn from Atticus in counteracting these tendencies, just as Scout and Jem do. As he tells Jem, "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. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” That is the kind of courage we need, perhaps now more than ever.