Sermon: Learning from a “Watchman” (text & audio)


From To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

“I can’t say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he’s my brother, and I just want to know when this will ever end.”

Her voice rose: “It tears him to pieces. He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him t pieces. I’ve seen him when – what else do they want from him, Maudie, what else?”

“What does who want, Alexandra?” Miss Maudie asked.

“I mean this town. They’re perfectly willing to let him do what they’re too afraid to do themselves – it might lose ‘em a nickel. They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they’re afraid to do, they’re – “

“Be quiet, they’ll hear you,” said Miss Maudie. “Have you ever thought of it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycombe knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we ca pay him. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.”

“Who?” Aunt Alexandra asked.

“The handful of people in his town who say that fair play is not marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is for everybody, not just us; the handful of people with enough humility to think, when they look at a Negro, there but for the Lord’s kindness am I.”

Miss Maudie’s old crispness was returning: “The handful of people in this town with background, that’s who they are.”

From The Luminous Darkness by Howard Thurman

“As long as Negroes functioned within the patters (of segregation), the fear of reprisal and punitive measures was a very effective deterrent. The fear was always current and always active. It could be implemented quickly anywhere by any white man. To use violence as a deterrent against the violation of the pattern had a general sanction in the white community. And the surest protection against its us was not one’s guilt or innocence but rather one’s cunning or the protection of some white an who sytood in the gate on your behalf.

“The stability of the pattern rested uneasily on the Negro’s active fear. That fea, in turn, was based on the threat and the fact of violence, and the inactive fear of the white man, which sprang from his deep unconscious guilt because of his treatment of the Negro and his genuine anxiety about the security of his own position and status. The active fear of the Negro and the inactive fear of the white man provided a condition of tension that stabilized the pattern of segregation. . . .

“Now a strange thing is happening, particularly in the South. The active fear in the Negro, one of the foundation stones providing uneasy stability for segregation, is rapidly disappearing (and) being replaced by an increasing sense of personal and inner freedom. The more Negroes lose their fear, the more white people increase their fear. . . .

:When both are free of the fear, then a new way of life opens for all.”


The voice is a familiar one, like that of relative who surprises us every once in a while with fascinating, chatty phone calls: updating us on the family gossip, relating some slightly scandalous old stories, and puzzling over all that we lose in the relentless passage of time.

I recognized Harper Lee from the moment I opened her newly-released novel, Go Set a Watchman. To be honest, though, I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to buy the book, given all the controversy over the circumstances of its appearance, apparently some 50 years after it was written. Did she really write it? Did she really intend to release it, or was she bullied into it by relatives seeking to enrich her estate?

I plead ignorance on all those questions. Instead, what intrigued me were the disclosures from its first reviewers that the book would tell us something new and disturbing about Atticus Finch, the iconic figure at the center of Lee’s towering masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I might as well admit upfront that I am among the devotees of Atticus Finch. At least part of it, I’m sure, comes from my admiration of how expertly Gregory Peck realized that role in the movie. But really, Harper Lee gets the credit for the lovingly drawn portrait of the small town lawyer who, against the counsel of his townsfolk, defends an African-American man wrongly accused of raping a young white woman.

It is not just Atticus’ courage that makes him such a compelling figure, but also his decency and humility. Throughout Mockingbird whenever Lee’s narrator, Atticus’ daughter Jean Louise, known as Scout, gets worked into a fury over the guile and narrowness of her townsfolk, Atticus’ is the voice of compassion – always inviting her to walk in another person’s shoes and be slow to judge.

At the same time, when principle, law, and duty are on the line, Atticus is a tower of strength and rectitude, and it made him a widely-held figure of respect. Probably no scene in the book speaks to that more powerfully than the one that closes the trial, in which the black man he defended so expertly is nonetheless convicted.

Atticus is among the last to leave the courtroom after the verdict is handed down and his client is led back to jail. Among those remaining are dozens of African-Americans who were relegated to the courtroom balcony.

As Lee tells it in Mockingbird from Scout’s perspective sitting in the balcony next to Rev. Sykes, the African-American preacher:

“Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’ lonely walk down this aisle.

“’Miss Jean Louise?’”

“I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Rev. Sykes’ voice was distant.

“’Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.’”

From the beginning of Watchman it’s clear that things have changed, beginning with Jean Louise. It is some 15 years after Mockingbird, and she is in her 20s, living in New York City. She says that her father suggested the move after she graduated from college. She’s not sure, though whether it’s a place she could make her home. At the same time, on the train ride back home she’s also doubtful whether Alabama holds much promise for her future.

Amid witty banter back at home about the state of the world, we learn a few things about her home town of Maycomb. Tragically, Jean Louise’s older brother, Jem, has died of a sudden heart attack, the same way that they had lost their mother years before. After Jem’s death, Atticus’ sister, Alexandra, moved in with him, and Calpurnia, the African American housekeeper who watched over Scout and Jem, left.

Meanwhile, Atticus is starting to feel his age. Though still practicing law, at 72 years of age he also has early signs of rheumatoid arthritis. Disappointed in his hope to see Jem take over his practice, he has been cultivating another young man in town, Henry Clinton, to help out in his office. Henry, in turn, has his eye on Jean Louise, and she is flattered enough by the attention to return it, though she discourages any talk of long-term arrangements.

One Sunday afternoon, though, everything changes. After Atticus and Henry leave for some undefined meeting, Jean Louise discovers in the stack of Atticus’ reading material a pamphlet full of sulfurous racism called, “The Black Plague.”

Sure that it must have been landed there mistakenly, she asks her aunt. But Alexandra confirms that Atticus has been reading it. Not only that, but the meeting that he and Henry have left to attend is a local “Citizen’s Council.” Jean Louise has paid enough attention to the news to know that these councils have cropped up across the South to block racial integration.

Disbelieving, Jean Louise hurries downtown to check this out. And in the courthouse – the very courthouse that was the center of the action in Mockingbird – she discovers Atticus, Henry and most of the prominent men in town listening to a speaker giving a scurrilous racist tirade. Stunned, her stomach heaving, she stumbles home, persuaded that, as Harper Lee puts it, “the one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her.”

So, how is it that we understand letting go to be a spiritual discipline? After all, isn’t our spiritual center, that inner place of trust and love where our heart rests, grounded in things that we deeply affirm? Of course. But we also find that to discover those things requires a good deal of choosing, of casting aside or pruning away those beliefs or ways of looking at the world that no longer serve us.

As my now-deceased colleague Forrest Church put it, “When cast into the depths, to survive, we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for the things that can.”

But how we choose is tricky business. The sad truth is that we are disappointed and disillusioned in so many ways when we grow up; especially hard is how we disappoint each other. And perhaps nowhere is this harder than between parent and child. A natural part of growing up is coming to idealize our parents, but in time they all prove to be fallible – human, in other words. How we cope with that disillusioning experience has something to do with how we grow to be more mature, self-reliant people.

So, it occurs to me that one way to look at To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman is as two parts of a coming of age story. Harper Lee’s first book is told through the eyes of a 9-year-old girl who idolizes a father as her model for moral behavior.

And it is a measure of the power of her prose that so many of her readers close that book with that same idyllic image in their heads. Perhaps one reason for it is the context for Harper Lee’s story. In a country so conflicted over race, she offered for white people an image, a father-figure as it were, who could calm our fears and through principled living, courage and compassion help lead us through the toils and snares of the legacy of racism that we each inherit.

What we discover in Go Set a Watchman is the other side of that story: the disillusion we feel when we are confronted with a side of that father figure that we didn’t know, the clay feet that show us his frailty and limitations.

I was intrigued to discover that the great African-American writer and theologian Howard Thurman wrote the book I read a quote from earlier, The Luminous Darkness, at about the same time that Harper Lee reportedly wrote Go Tell a Watchman: the early- to mid-1960s.

In that book, Thurman observed that there was a shift in race relations under way at the time. The old practices of violent reprisals that kept white people over black people were being questioned. As he put it, “the Negro’s active fear (of violent reprisals) is rapidly disappearing (and) being replaced by an increasing sense of personal and inner freedom.”

But he also said that there was an “inactive fear” among white people that was increasing. That fear, he said, “sprang from his deep unconscious guilt because of his treatment of the Negro and his genuine anxiety about the security of his own position and status.”

We see what that white fear looks like in Go Set a Watchman when Jean Louise finally confronts Atticus. Presented with her discoveries, he receives Jean Louise’s complaint with lawyerly patience, drawing out her concerns, until he lays his position out straight: “Jean Louise, have you considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?”

Brick by brick he argues his case for why he believes blacks aren’t ready for their rights, how, in his words, “they’re in their childhood as a people” and have been bamboozled by the NAACP to bring lawsuits that he says will only wreck Southern culture for all.

But Jean Louise won’t have it. She’s not interested in his fine arguments. Instead, she digs into her memory and throws his own words back at him. Her outrage over his remarks has its origins, she reminds him, in what he himself taught her about how every person had worth and deserved a chance.

“Atticus,” she says, “I grew up right here in your house and I never knew what was in your mind. I only heard what you said. You neglected to tell me we were naturally better than the Negroes, that they were able to go so far but so far only . . . .

“You sowed the seeds in me, Atticus, and now it’s coming home to you. . . .I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me. Now I’m in a no-man’s land but good. There’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.”

It was the African American writer James Baldwin who once said of his white detractors, “You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in history, which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it difficult to act on what they know.”

I remember when I was around 16 my parents told me of a call that they had received from my grandfather who relayed a complaint he had received from neighbors to house he owned on Point Pleasant beach in New Jersey. The weekend before an African American friend of mine had joined us during a stay at that house. The neighbors apparently were alarmed to see a black boy on the neighboring beach, and my grandfather informed us that we were not to bring him again.

I couldn’t believe that he would say such an outrageous thing – my own grandfather – and I wrote him an indignant letter protesting it. I don’t know what he thought of it. He never made any comment to me about it. Instead, in time each of us, in our own ways, let it go, and instead returned to our roles in family gatherings.

And so, in a sense, does Jean Louise. Once the bitterness of her disappointment fades, she’s able to hear her uncle Jack tell her that despite what she has seen, there are many in town who share her opinion. Not to forget, he tells her: “every man’s watchman is his conscience.” And she must follow hers.

And once we the readers get over, let go of, our disappointment with Atticus, this is the uplift that awaits us. Whatever limitations Atticus may have had, Harper Lee suggests that through his life’s example he was able to teach his daughter, and maybe us, too, not to carry forward the prejudice that had privately weighed him down and fed his fears in his declining years.

In that sense, one could say that his gift to the future, together with all the good he did with his life, was to send forth one child unshackled by that prejudice, so that, as Howard Thurman put it, “a new way of life (might) open for all.” So may that be the legacy that Harper Lee leaves to us, too.

Yes, there is much we must learn to let go of, but not each other, not the possibility of redemption for us all. We fragile, fallible beings do a lot of stumbling. As Stephen Sondheim puts it in his musical, “Into the Woods”:

People make mistakes: fathers, mothers,

holding to their own, thinking they’re alone.”

But we’re not. No one is alone.

We are ever learning and growing, and then invited to prune and discard. It is the way of things on the path to one earth, one people, one love.