From political campaigns to prime-time television, our collective desire for change is given lip-service in almost every area of American life. We long for lasting change and cheer it on when we get a glimpse of it: from elections, to Wall Street reforms, to transformations of the biggest loser we yearn to believe it can happen. It is sadly apparent, however, as we surf the Web, watch the news, or read the paper that we are missing the mark -- very little has changed in significant ways. Meaningful change is uncommon. This realization has me ruminating on the lasting significance of one of the most important novels in America's history. To Kill a Mockingbird forces us to look beneath the surface of our well-intentioned rhetoric and discover the truth about change. Harper Lee's novel affirms that it is not propaganda, religious dogma, political power or economic reform that is the catalyst for change -- it is compassion. This treatise on compassion has remained relevant for 50 years since its publication, and it still holds the answers to our social, cultural and religious challenges in 2010. In my book, The Mockingbird Parables, I explore how rediscovering the message of compassion can create lasting change -- the way we live our lives, the way we communicate, the way we see each other, even the way we care for the natural environment.
One of the greatest lessons of compassion from this iconic novel concerns our communication. Whether it is a proposed book-burning or simply the daily grind of economic and political arguments, our nation's dialogue is always geared toward who can grab the headlines, win the argument, and have the final say. I wonder sometimes if the frequency of the language we exchange without human contact via e-mail, texting, Twitter, or cell phones has not desensitized us. Communication is a deeply spiritual matter, but so often there is no flesh and blood visible when we are exchanging words. More and more, we operate as if we are truly islands unto ourselves, much like the Ewells who lived near the town dump isolated from everyone in Maycomb. We have developed an easy violence with our language. We are becoming a culture who, like the bad guy of Maycomb, Bob Ewell, must always have "some kind of comeback." One of the most profound aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird is discovered when we notice that our heroes and heroines are not people driven to have the last word. Even when Atticus is repulsed by the opinions of his neighbors, he still communicates with them respectfully. He tells the truth with an unassuming and respectful confidence, never raising his voice. He reminds his daughter no matter how bad things get, she should always remember to treat the townspeople as her neighbors. Compassion demands that we acknowledge the other person in our exchange of ideas, and the importance of maintaining a connection even in our most bitter disagreements so that we may keep the doors to change open.
The mention of "change" leads us quickly to another prevalent idea -- justice. We talk about social justice, economic justice, environmental justice -- the very nature of justice is embedded in our thoughts about change. To Kill a Mockingbird is, in essence, the story of Tom Robinson and the racial prejudice that permeates the 1930s southern town of Maycomb. It is the story of an innocent man convicted of a crime he did not commit, simply because of the color of his skin. The novel unmasks the illusions about justice, revealing it as a system of power, no more impartial or fair than the hearts of the men and women who make up the jury. The hero, Atticus Finch, recognizes in his closing arguments that justice is built on the shoulders of our social codes and traditions. It is often shaped by the mortar of our own self-righteous blindness; it is frequently used as a wall to separate us from the others that we do not know and do not care to know. Is there really equity in justice when those who wield its power lack a connection to those who are different? To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us that, without compassion, justice may be reduced to another method of oppression.
To Kill a Mockingbird's call to compassion can transform the way we view courage. When we examine the hero Atticus as a model of courage, we find compassion at the heart of his decisions. When Atticus stands on the post office steps and allows Bob Ewell to spit in his face and threaten him, I am sure the on-looking town's people do not see it as courageous, but Atticus has someone else in mind. He knows that he has exposed Bob Ewell as a liar to all of Maycomb County and that Bob abuses his own daughter Mayella. Atticus explains to his children his hope that by allowing Bob to threaten him, he might have saved Mayella just one beating. It is also compassion that allows Atticus to stand in front of the old woman, Mrs. Dubose, who terrorized his children, and speak kindly to her as he passes each day. He does so because he understands the deep affliction behind her hateful words and actions. Finally, it is compassion that drives him to place himself in harm's way -- between the angry mob and the innocent Tom Robinson with nothing but a newspaper and a light, knowing that he may be harmed but understanding the injustice that needs to be stopped. This is the type of courage that signifies something divine in the DNA of humanity, the type of courage that truly leads to change.
Atticus Finch tells his daughter early in the story that "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." For people of faith, the quality of seeing the world from another's perspective, the core of true compassion, is something we are prone to forgetting. Those of us from Christian traditions certainly don't own compassion, but we should be leading the culture by example, because we follow a God who moved into the neighborhood and did exactly what Atticus Finch tells Scout -- he walked around in human skin for a while. The heart of the Gospel of Jesus, God's act to redeem the world, is a movement of compassion. We believe that God experienced life from our point of view. We all need to remember that without compassion, without a true connection to the other, nothing we do religiously, politically or economically can really make the world a better place. In reality, the greatest lesson of To Kill a Mockingbird is also the one that is most difficult for us to live out. Although it is challenging to do, change can't happen until we learn to "climb into someone else's skin and walk around in it" and until we stand on our neighbors front porch and see the neighborhood, the street and even the world from their point of view. Compassion is the place where "change" ceases to be a buzzword and becomes authentic transformation.
Follow Matt Litton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Matt_Litton