Atticus Finch and the Search for an Unchanging Standard of Justice

Atticus Finch is a hero.  Or is he?  For decades the character from Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, has been a larger-than-life icon of racial justice.  That image was deeply imprinted on an entire generation when Gregory Peck brought Atticus to the big screen in the 1962 movie.

But now another book by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, reveals a saint that is more ‘complex.’  Atticus, it turns out, was a segregationist who attended Ku Klux Klan meetings.  How will a generation who bowed at the altar of a committed prophet for racial justice deal with his fall from grace?

First of all, let’s not forget that Atticus was never a real person.  The saintly version of the fictional Atticus Finch was probably too good to be true all along.  Real people are not that morally tidy.  The real heroes of civil rights struggles were often more ‘complex,’ as were the segregationists they opposed.

Our struggle for moral clarity in an often confusing and dark world creates a desire in our hearts for strong transparent examples whom we can look to as faithful models.  Like Atticus, however, many of our heroes eventually disappoint us.

Some people will surely be disappointed in the new version of Atticus, wishing to hold on to the morally pristine man that Gregory Peck portrayed.  Others may be willing to embrace the new version of Finch.  They may see the revised character as a reminder that real life is not always so easy to categorize into neat little packages of good and evil.

Whatever happens to Finch’s popularity, we are likely to go on searching for a hero worthy of our admiration and imitation.  Knowing that life is complex does not discourage us from yearning for someone who can present a compelling moral vision and back it up with a consistent inspiring life.

Can we find a great model worthy of following?  One who is more than imagination, someone who lived in our world but did so with victory?  Can we find someone whose message was consistently true and loving, never compromising or accommodating, despite the personal cost?

Years ago, a 30-year-old carpenter laid down his tools and turned to a life of preaching.  That he was no ordinary preacher was evident from the beginning.  His words came with stunning power.  He spoke with authority like no other.

It didn’t take long for this carpenter-turned-itinerant-preacher to make enemies.  Those who hated him made him face the ultimate test: give up his message or give up his life.  He refused to back down or to run away.  He was willing to risk it all.  He was betrayed by a friend, denounced by his people and destroyed by the authorities, or so it seemed.

For two millennia Jesus’ message has outlasted all others.  Many attempts have been made to alter or cast doubt on his life story and his divine message.  But his life is more than fiction and his word is more than inspiration.  In addition, Jesus died for more than his beliefs, he sacrificed himself for his followers.

Jesus is more than a great moral model.  We should do more than imitate him.  Jesus is God’s resurrected Lord and Savior.  We should bow down to him.  Praise God there is one who is always faithful, one whom we can always trust.  Jesus is still Lord.

Richard Foster, Grace Baptist Camden, July 2015

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