"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." So says Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's masterful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Her story about the courage required to overcome racial prejudices is an exercise in exploring the importance of empathy for getting past the things that divide us from one another. In one of the most powerful moments of the book (as well as the film made from it) is when the white southern lawyer, Atticus Finch, who is trying to protect an accused black man of rape, is confronted by a lynch mob, bent upon taking matters into their own hands and not trusting the system of justice to do its job.
Atticus is standing guard outside the jail house, knowing that fear and anger might take the upper hand and usher in violence, when his young daughter, Scout, wanders into the middle of the very tense situation. Having been taught all her life to be kind and to acknowledge people, she stands alongside her father and addresses members of the lynch mob as individuals. "Don't you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I'm Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?" This simple act of innocence slowly returns a sense of neighborliness and sanity to a situation that was threatening to escalate into something very ugly. Scout recognizes that this gathering of townspeople is not merely a mob; it is a collection of indviduals. People who must learn to live together in respect and humility.
Perhaps this example helps point the way toward overcoming some of our present cultural tensions. Harper Lee emphasized the importance of empathy--trying to use our imaginations to see the world through the eyes and experiences and emotions of others. If we simply treat those we disagree with as the enemy, we only deepen the divide. If we make the attempt to understand them a little better, and imagine how they might have come to arrive at the ideas they hold...even if we deem those ideas deeply mistaken or even dangerous...we at least have opened the possibility of meaningful conversation.
I've just finished reading Makoto Fujimura's important book, Culture Care, and it is his book that reminded me of this powerful scene from Harper Lee's novel. Fujimura urges that artists become "border stalkers," those who cross over the boundaries separating us into distinct groups, and help each side understand each other better as they attempt to break down the divisions. Harper Lee did that so effectively in her novel. Every character is portrayed as a human being, not just a representative of a set of ideas.
One of my prayers is that artists like Harper Lee will arise to defuse some of our current cultural tensions, helping us to better understand each other, be more patient with each other, and look for creative solutions that transcend the nasty rhetoric and fear that so often drives our debates.
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