Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
I cannot count how many times I have read this book or watched the award-winning film starring Gregory Peck. But I do know how the book and the film changed my life.
I grew up in the presence of people who were convinced that people of color – African Americans, blacks, whatever you may call them – were inferior individuals. They were people who could not be trusted and needed not only constant supervision but also enforced separation.
What Lee accomplished was an elegant and devastating end to this empty mythology.
In her portrayal of Tom Robinson, a disabled yet hard-working man of color, we discover a depth of character and even compassion that was despised and eventually rejected by a majority white community.
In fact, Tom’s compassion became an opportunity for additional ridicule.
He was castigated in a powerful courtroom scene for having compassion for a poor white woman.
This story changed me in profound ways. The way I view Southern culture has not been the same since I first read this story.
And in the years since my first encounter with this story, I have discovered that the reality of racism in our culture is not only a Southern phenomenon. An undercurrent of racism permeates our culture from one coast to the other.
I recall an encounter I had with a very prominent member of a church I served while in seminary in North Carolina.
I had preached a sermon in which I talked about the persistence of racism in our culture. At the conclusion of the service, this member approached me and asked why I only dealt with racism that exists between whites toward blacks.
“There is also racism against Hispanics,” she said, with a sort of defiant defensiveness.
And she was right. There is something insecure about majorities. They see minorities of whatever color, or even ideological differences, as being a threat to their way of life. So whether it is African Americans or Hispanics or Muslims – the trigger seems to be the same.
Anyone who is different is dangerous.
Lee’s significant accomplishment was to profoundly challenge this sort of nonsense. Even though it continues to be with us, and in recent years has enjoyed resurgence, it continues to be nonsense.
All of this was driven home to me recently as I encountered Kathryn Stockett’s compelling novel, “The Help.”
Stockett describes in poignant detail what it was like to be a woman of color, working as a maid, in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s.
The humiliation, the false claims of separate but equal, the indignities imposed by people of wealth and privilege upon those who had none of that created a dark tapestry demonstrating just how painful prejudice is in our world.
These are particularly important matters for people of faith, and especially those of the Christian faith.
We are the ones who treasure those words of Paul – that there is no longer slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female, only human beings that God loves equally.
And not the cynical notion of separate but equal from a racist past, but a legitimate equality that is affirmed not only by God’s grace, but also by our founding documents.
It is time, and past time, that we live up to our own highest ideals.