Before I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I read a book that has been lost to history that quoted Atticus Finch: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” I have always thought of that as Atticus Finch’s most famous quote, but it is not my favorite. Good advice, but who wants to stand in Robert E. Lee Ewell’s shoes? Perhaps I am not yet ready for that level of compassion and empathy.
As a parent, I see things more clearly from Atticus Finch’s side. The ways he tries to do right and the ways he fails and the messages he wants to teach his children through it all. He is a pragmatist, not a prophet. He sees things the way that they are and he points his family in the direction of change, change that looks like a young girl surprising a crowd on a tense night, change that looks like dignity in the face of defeat, change that looks like respecting the dignity of others no matter their situation. His benign neglect is not going to help win any parenting awards, but his values are helping him raise smart, brave, informed kids who are learning to think of others.
I have thought a lot about Atticus Finch this past week. He is with me often enough on a regular week, but the news of the past week has been so terrible. The shock from Ferguson and the death of Robin Williams took over most of my feed last week as we as a country wrestled with injustice and loss in the physical sphere. (And in the case of Ferguson, we continue to do so.)
There were a lot of compassionate responses. But then there were the others, the ones who claim that Mike Brown was a thug who deserved to be shot, or that Robin Williams was a selfish sinner for killing himself. There’s not a lot of nuance in that kind of story. There’s only a list of what you must do to be in, and in both cases, the central figures are most definitely out.
This is human nature, to try to set up systems that help us understand the problems we see before us. This is understandable. And it is wrong. To jump to these conclusions is to deny that the person you are discussing was created in the image of God, carries that life and light inside.
No matter what happened with cigars or pot or jaywalking, there is no reason for Mike Brown to have ended up dead on the street, shot six times (twice in the head). If you think that he was a menace, you should ask yourself why. If you don’t understand why the community is upset, you should ask yourself why. And if you feel okay with trusting the police in this situation, you should ask yourself why. Why do you think the community is having such a different response? Is it possible that they have experienced things you haven’t that make it hard for them to trust the police? Wouldn’t that make their responses just as valid as yours? Try putting yourself in the shoes of a community member. Read some books and listen to some stories about race in that area and what it is like to be young and black in this country. That’s not walking around in someone else’s shoes, but it’s a good start. Maybe you should find out a little bit more before you speak about such a large and complicated problem.
As for Robin Williams, he was never my favorite comedian, despite the places I hold in my heart for Dead Poets’ Society and Good Will Hunting. But he taught me Whitman and he taught me not to be so afraid and I love him for it, even if he didn’t make me laugh as much as he did other people. All I can think about is how terrible he must have felt, the despair that must have been surrounding him as he chose to end his life. Anyone who would reduce such an experience to a judgment call about sin and selfishness, I have some questions for you. Have you ever suffered from depression that made it hard to get out of bed? Depression that made you feel so wholly unconnected to your body that you weren’t sure how to move or speak at a normal pace? Depression that stretched into nothingness? It’s not the same as being sad when your dog dies. Maybe you should find out a little bit more before you speak about such a large and complicated problem.
Listening to Atticus Finch is teaching me what I learned as a small child, the importance of a faith that prioritizes imagination. Holy imagination draws us closer to God by allowing ourselves to see God at work in places we might not expect. We see God’s presence around us, God’s image in the people we meet.
I think we could all use a little bit more Atticus Finch in our lives this week, a little more of taking off our own shoes and trying on someone else’s. As you watch the news, especially the news from Ferguson, give that holy imagination a try. Embrace compassion. Consider what you might not know. And listen to those who can offer you a different perspective.
-Black Bodies White Souls by Austin Channing Brown