Scripture: Micah 6:6–8
I can remember it like it was yesterday. There I sat in my seventh grade English class, in a molded plastic chair, one of those with a wooden writing desk welded on the side. The teacher walked up and handed me a worn copy of a mauve-covered book with a funny name. Little did I know how much it would change my world.
To Kill a Mockingbird.
As I opened the book, my eyes were opened to a new world. I entered the world of the Jim Crow South, a place and time that was completely foreign to my mid-1980’s, Midwestern White existence…
- I felt like I was reading a different language every time the narrator and main character, Scout Finch, would talk about a day in her life.
- I felt my blood run cold the first time that Boo Radley, Scout’s neighbor, made his ghostly appearance.
- I felt horrified and angry at the way that White folks talked to and about Black folks, especially the ones that they didn’t like. But even the ones that they did.
I might as well have been reading some of the science fiction that I talked about last week. There is no way people like this actually ever existed! I devoured the book in our open reading time in class, and when I took it home. It was, for me, a window into a world that seemed at once foreign and surreal, but also incredibly true and universal and important.
I am not alone. To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 by Harper Lee, has been called “our national novel.” It tells the story of young Scout, her brother Jem, her father Atticus, and a collection of fascinating characters and vignettes that are all woven into a compelling and emotional story. It is a story about growing up, and the struggle to both respect and reject the ways of adults. It is a story about community and family, and how each one builds and impacts the other. It is largely a story about race: the injustice of being forced to live in separate communities, sit in different parts in a courtroom, and be considered guilty until proven innocent…just because of the color of your skin. This book opened my eyes, and in many ways made me want to shut them all the tighter to a pain and injustice that I never knew existed.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about young adulthood, about community and family, about race…and it is a story about character. Scout and Jem are forced, in their own ways to figure out what they think about their father, about his identity and purpose and character. Atticus Finch, a respected lawyer in town—has chosen to represent a black man who is accused of a heinous crime, a choice that leads to no shortage of resentment by the Whites in town, including his own family. I immediately found myself in awe and deep respect for Atticus, placing him on a high pedestal. The makers of the movie adaptation that came out a couple of years later agreed. Gregory Peck plays the character as though he were Christ incarnate, able to do no wrong, completely void of any kind of moral ambiguity. A man with perfect character.
But literary scholarship has treated this as more of an open question, especially in recent years. Harper Lee doesn’t seem to have quite the same moral perfectionism in her portrayal of Atticus as the movie version. In fact, she caused quite a stir when she released—some 55 years later—a sequel of sorts to her famous first book. Go Set a Watchman tells the story from the eyes of an adult Scout, including her comparisons between the father she remembered, and who he really was. Its publication caused no shortage of consternation, in part because of the way that she portrayed Atticus. Falling short of the perfect Gregory Peck that many of us remember, Atticus was not Christ incarnate, but fully a part of the systemic racism that destroyed even the man that he claimed to protect. In Watchman, he opposed the NAACP and other organizations trying to work for justice, and even excused the Klu Klux Klan as being more of a political organization than a racist hate group. For those raised on the same images and assumptions that I had in that molded plastic chair in seventh grade, Lee had ruined their hero. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I haven’t chosen to read the sequel.
And yet, Lee’s return to her most famous character is an important touchstone in the world in which we live. We, too, are grappling with questions of race. We, too, are trying to figure out what family and community look like in our changing context. And we, too, are trying to make sense of character. What is it…who has it…and does it even matter anymore. When our political leaders from the top down look and act a lot more like Robert E. Lee Ewell than Atticus Finch, we wonder what this world is coming to. We yearn for an Atticus Finch, even if creating this great White hero is unrealistic and oversimplified.
What if there was another way?
A lot like Harper Lee, who uses a familiar literary genre to explore the idea of character, the prophet Micah does the same. While Lee uses the familiar genre of the novel, Micah uses what was a familiar genre in his context: the Entrance Litany.
Picture with me pilgrims who had travelled a long distance to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Each hill they crested, the kids asked if they were there yet, but onward they trudged. Until that last hill, when they at last caught sight of the Temple in the distance. Immediately, the mood shifted. They began thinking about their offering. They started singing a new set of songs. And there were these Entrance Litanies that they would recite—like our responsive readings—where a leader would speak a line and the people would respond. Psalm 15 and 24 are examples of this.
But Chapter Six of Micah is unlike any other Entrance Psalm. It begins with the worship leader asking a question to the people: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” Their response is familiar to how worshippers would have responded in that context. It is about animals to be sacrificed, and oil to be offered up. Even in the most extreme case, some of the worshippers answer that they would even give their firstborn.
But then here is the flipped script: “No. He has told you what is good.” You cannot buy God’s favor during a worship experience. It isn’t about what you give, but it is about how you live. What matters is how you live your daily life. What matters is your character.
And then come the words that Micah is perhaps best known for:
“…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Today, I would take a few minutes and dig a little deeper into these descriptions of character. How would they have heard them, and how might we hear them today?
Do Justice. Ah, our old buddy mishpat. The justice of God. The equality of God’s commandment. The first several chapters of Micah reveal an unjust world in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, some 700 years before the birth of Christ. The powerful are oppressing the powerless. Laborers are being exploited. Courts are corrupt. Injustice reigns. Here is where Micah falls in most fully with the other prophets: Amos. Mary. Samuel. Hannah. Jesus. For the justice of God to prevail, there must be an overturning. A disruption. A challenge to the status quo.
So how do we do mishpat today? Don’t fall for oversimplified and easy answers. Don’t rely on the way things have always been. Read To Kill a Mockingbird and fall in love with Atticus Finch. But then read Go Tell a Watchman and ask some hard questions about our heroes. But then, after you have read these two books from a white person about people of color, go read books written by people of color. From the Black perspective. The Latino or Latina perspective. The Indigenous perspective. The Queer perspective. Mishpat is about understanding the other. People who are different than me. Micah saw injustice and saw the need to disrupt it, to reject oversimplified answers. Do we allow ourselves to be similarly disrupted? That is how character is built.
Love Kindness. Again, the Hebrew word must be examined here. We noticed in the Two-Way [sermon discussion group] the other day that everyone had a different translation of this word. Mercy. Kindness. Love. Grace. And the thing about the Hebrew language is that all of them are correct. The Hebrew word hesed means all of these things, and more. It is the word used to proclaim the love that spouses have for one another. It is word used to describe how we worship and love God. It is the word used to show how we are to care for those in our community. Hesed means all of these things.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout’s mother figure was a Black woman named Calpurnia. In many ways, she represented the hesed that Micah calls us to. We can imagine that she had to shake her head at the privilege and presumption of her young charges, but she still went out of her way to care for them. To show mercy to them. To show kindness and love and grace. We must be careful not to oversimplify her character either, but perhaps there is something we can learn from her hesed. That is how character is built.
Walk humbly. Once again, a word study helps here. Because as we try to build character, we will often rush to the concept of humility, but that isn’t what Micah seems to be saying here. In fact, a better translation for “humbly” might be “intentionally” or “carefully” or “thoughtfully.” It is really a modifier for the verb here: walk.
Throughout Scripture, from the first pages of Genesis, to the call of Christ, there is emphasis placed on how we walk with God. God walked in the Garden in the cool of the evening, looking for Adam and Eve. Jesus called out to the fishermen, “Follow me.” Come and “walk with me.” Instead of trying to predict and prescribe what to do in every circumstance, the Bible seems to tell us to be intentional and careful about the way we walk with God, and then we are more likely to figure that stuff out. How might character be built? I could give you a list of how-to’s. But more important is the “who-to.” Who to emulate. Who to follow. Who to identify with. Who to walk beside. Walk with God. That is how character is built.
Alongside of the story of Scout Finch, perhaps you would do well to read the story of Lynda Blackmon Lowery: Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom. Like the coming of age story of Scout, Blackmon Lowery tells the story of growing up Black in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. She was the youngest person to walk in the Selma March to Freedom. At 15, she saw the effects of Jim Crow, watched KKK rallies, saw police brutality of people of color, was arrested for marching, and saw the impact of non-violent response in the face of violence.
It tells the story of her journey. Her walk. How her character was built in the midst of turmoil and violence. How her faith was strengthened through the challenge. Today, she gets the last word, as she tells us about her journey. As her grandmother brushed her hair, comforting her after the loss of her mother, she spoke words of courage and character:
“There is nothing more precious walking on this earth than you are. You are a child of God. So hold up your head and believe in yourself.”
May her words come to fruition today.