Harper Lee, who died today at 89, understood the things of earth. In her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the descriptions of waxy camellias, droopy houses, and shoes crunching on gravel painted a small-town world that we recognized. We recognized the people in her world, too. There were oppressors and oppressed, hypocrites and cynics, and one quiet man with a conscience.
Atticus Finch’s conscience becomes inconvenient when he is called upon to defend Tom Robinson, an innocent black man accused of raping a poor, white woman. In this small, Depression-era Alabama town, there is no possibility of justice. Finch’s daughter, Scout, doesn’t understand how Atticus can be doing the right thing when nearly everyone in town is against him. “I couldn’t go to church and worship God,” he explains, “if I didn’t try to help that man.”
In writing about religion, Lee’s strength was bringing out the earthly implications of heavenly belief. When it came to racial prejudice in a small Southern town, one could not trust the communal conscience. Citizens of heaven shouldn’t uphold the values of their earthly communities when those values reek of the Devil. Lee saw the contradiction of worshiping a God of justice while doing injustice (or watching it done without intervening). As one of her characters puts it, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of [another].”
For the African Americans in To Kill a Mockingbird, the hope of heaven coexists with earthly desperation. We witness this desperation when the Finches’ housekeeper takes the children with her to her church. Much about the service is unfamiliar to the children, especially the collection. The Rev. Sykes tells the congregation that the offering will go to Tom Robinson’s wife. One by one, people place their nickels and dimes in a coffee can. The minister counts the money and announces it’s not sufficient. They must have $10. He closes the church door, holding them captive, until the money for Robinson’s family is raised.
The tension abates when, at last, $10 is collected, and they open the doors as the organist plays “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.” The thrust of this church’s hope is toward the future, even while its members are trying at great cost to help each other survive in the present.
The members of Tom Robinson’s church and Atticus Finch serve as models for Christians whose faith leads them not to abandon this world, but to serve their neighbors. C. S. Lewis describes this kind of faith in Mere Christianity:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
Harper Lee (1926–2016) wrote about a time and a place where Christian religion looked very different on two sides of the same town. Much has changed, but much has stayed the same. May we never prize a socially convenient religion over true religion, but instead seek and pray for justice on earth as it is in heaven.