To Kill a Mockingbird

Categories: Sermons

To Kill a Mockingbird


Numbers 21:4b-9;
John 3:13-17


The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

That miserable food was manna from heaven, a turn of phrase that is intended to imply a blessing but in this case did not feel like it was one. The people were tired and impatient and upset, in no mood for talk of blessings.

Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.

Complaining against Moses and God seems to have led to consequences.

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.”

The people seek to repent from their actions, asking Moses to intervene with God. They want Moses to pray to take away the serpents. And Moses does. And God in turn asks something of Moses.

“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

What is that all about?

Moses made a serpent out of bronze. He put it on a pole. The instruction comes down that when you are bitten by a snake, look up there. Look up there and you will not die. The image of the bronze serpent is recalled in the Gospel of John.

[J]ust as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Like the bronze serpent long before his life, the raising up of Jesus upon the cross was another means of salvation for the people who looked up. The bronze serpent was protection against snakes and Jesus was proof against death itself. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And what you needed to do was to look up.

This week, along with the scriptures, I would like to consider another story. Harper Lee’s famous tale, To Kill a Mockingbird. To some of you it may be well-known, to others like me, unknown or at least unread as a book or unwatched as a movie.

I approached this Sunday in what may have been a backward manner. I saw the movie first, back in the heat of the summer. Seeing the movie in the heat was appropriate, for the movie makes great use of the steamy Alabama setting. There are brief moments of narration, long colorful passages about the wilting heat, the slowness of life in Maycomb County. Otherwise the movie is enacted through the lives of two children, Scout and Jem Finch. The other main figure in the movie is their father Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in an Oscar winning performance.

The story weaves together several recurring elements. One is the neighborhood and its cast of unusual characters, first and foremost a neighbor spoken of in hushed whispers, the enigmatic Boo Radley. A man part legend, part monster, and all mystery. He lives a short distance from the Finch residence and even walking by his house is a demonstration of great bravery for the children. He is a subject of fear but also fascination.

The other main element is a trial. Atticus Finch, a lawyer, is tasked with defending a black man accused of beating and raping a white woman. Some people in Maycomb County consider a trial to be a waste of time, however, and instead would prefer their sense of justice meted out in the still of the night. For them, the accusation is proof enough for a death sentence to be carried out.

I mentioned that I did things out of order, because after seeing the movie again this week, I decided to get ambitious and read the book. I somehow escaped high school without having done so. It is one of the books most frequently challenged in school curricula, due to its handling of racial issues and discussion of rape. Perhaps the gap in my literary exposure was intentional rather than an oversight.

Reading the book after having seen the movie was surprising, surprising because while the movie was good, the book was excellent. The movie bore a glancing resemblance to the book, the shape of the story and the broad features. The book was deeper, more lyrical in quality and cutting it its characterizations. The movie was like the third use of a tea bag – you know it’s still tea but the flavor is not there anymore.

For a movie about race relations, the presence of black people was limited, understated. The one meaty portrayal in the movie involving a black character was the trial testimony of Tom Robinson (played by Brock Peters), the man accused of rape. Other black actors had bit parts, so disappointing in hindsight.

I say in hindsight, because the book from which the movie came has much more to say. The Finch family has a maid, a woman named Calpernia, who was essentially a mother to Jem and Scout. Cal, as she is called, is an engaging character not merely a prop. She raises Jem and Scout. She is the means by which the children encounter an unknown world of black lives hidden away in the corners of Maycomb County. Without this strong influence of Cal in the book, the movie depiction of the character is an afterthought.

This is also true for the depictions of class: town versus country, high versus low. The book is set during the 1930s with the Great Depression simmering in the background. We do not hear much in the movie about this, nor about the illiteracy and poverty, drug abuse and alcoholism.

For example, there is a cantankerous old woman down the street named Mrs. Dubose who in the movie is just a crazy old coot. In the book, we discover that she is a morphine addict fighting with her last breath to shake off her dependency even as it kills her, even as it leaves her last days on earth in pain. This may not excuse her rank racism, also more clearly expressed in the book, but the literary depiction offers a window into her suffering. The movie uses her for comic effect.

Eventually, in the book and the movie, the trial of Tom Robinson comes up. The defendant was kept at another courthouse for safekeeping but is brought back on the eve of trial. A group of men come at night to get him, to exact the rough justice of the lynch mob. Atticus is waiting at the door of the jail, unarmed except for a book and a reading lamp.

Jem and Scout are there watching and run over at one point. Jem realizes that his father is in danger, while Scout is less aware. She suddenly begins chatting with a member of the mob, the father of one of her classmates who also happened to be one of Atticus’ clients. She sends her regards to the boy and his honest but desperately poor family. In the movie, the conversation inexplicably turns to mob around. In the book, though, you get a sense of the connections among the people, the small town-ness of the setting, and the power of a community in the midst of crushing poverty and racial fragility.

This week has not been an easy one. There have been ongoing protests and at times rioting in Charlotte, North Carolina in response to a deadly incident involving the police and a black man, Keith Scott. There are allegations from the police that he was armed and there are allegations from the family that he was carrying a book.

There was another similar incident in Oklahoma. A man named Terrence Crutcher was shot and killed by Officer Betty Jo Shelby. We know the officer’s name because she has been indicted for manslaughter, the district attorney quickly calling for charges after only a few days of deliberation.

In one notable bit of footage, a police helicopter is videoing the Oklahoma incident from high above. At one point, one of the police officers in the helicopter offers an opinion that Crutcher looks like a “bad dude.” There is little detail visible in the footage. You can make out that Crutcher is wearing white and that he has his hands in the air. You can also make out that he is a large black man. Which of these details would lead someone to declare he was a bad dude? Would it be presumptuous to imagine that the dead man’s race factored into the opinion?

Now, I know very little about what went on in either Oklahoma or North Carolina this week. So maybe it would be presumptuous, or at least premature to say anything. So I will consider a more local matter, one from Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling that was reported in the news this week. The Court invalidated the conviction of a man for illegal gun possession.

The case involves a reported crime. Three black men were seen running away from a house that had been burglarized in Roxbury. The description given was minimal – three black men, one wearing a red hooded sweatshirt (or hoodie), one wearing a black hoodie, and one wearing dark clothing. Three men, one, two, three. These men had stolen a backpack.

It was a cold night in December, few people on the street. Twenty minutes later, a police officer sees two black men walking about five blocks away from the crime scene. Two men, one, two. One man wore a dark hoodie. There was no backpack. The officer had a hunch and called to the men to question them. They ran away. The officer called it in, saying he saw three men who matched the description given. Three men, one, two, three. The police found these two men elsewhere and the men ran away again. Finally a third encounter led to the two men being detained. A search found a gun in the yard of nearby house. The men were arrested.


Running away from the police has been a traditional factor in determining the reasonableness of a police stop. You run away, it looks suspicious, suggesting perhaps a sense of guilt or at least something to hide. But the Court did something unusual. It broke with tradition.

The Supreme Judicial Court examined the chain of events. First, the Court considered the extremely generic descriptions, of three black men in sweatshirts. If you did not know it, Roxbury happens to have a sizeable African-American population. Finding black men in hooded sweatshirts, a common item of clothing, is not exactly unusual.

And there were two men, not three. Two men without a backpack walking five blocks away twenty minutes after the crime. The Court overruled the lower court and declared the police did not have reasonable suspicion to stop these men for that burglary. But the Court kept going. The Court looked at criminal data collected by the Boston Police.  The Boston Police reported that black men were subjected to more frequent encounters with police than would otherwise be expected. The conclusion of the Boston Police was that black men were being profiled, forcing black men into encounters with police again and again without cause.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled, and I am quoting, that “black males in Boston are disproportionately and repeatedly targeted for [police] encounters [which] suggests a reason for flight totally unrelated to consciousness of guilt. Such an individual, when approached by the police, might just as easily be motivated by the desire to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled as by the desire to hide criminal activity.”  Massachusetts courts must now therefore consider the possibility that the police are unfairly targeting black men.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch at one point offers a piece of fatherly wisdom, wisdom from which the title of the book was derived. Atticus says that at some point a boy might decide to take a shot at birds with a gun. And that a boy can feel free to shoot all the blue jays he wants but that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. It was a sin to kill a mockingbird because all mockingbirds do is make music for us. They never do harm.

There are at least two proverbial mockingbirds in the story, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. Tom Robinson is a good man accused of a terrible crime he could not have physically committed – one of his arms was severely damaged from a childhood accident, making the crime as described an impossibility. It was impossible and yet he is convicted of the crime. Tom later tries to run away from his jailers, the account varying in detail from book to movie. The movie offers little embellishment. The book specifies that Tom was shot 17 times as he was trying to climb a fence using one arm.

In the scriptures this morning, there are many themes. Themes of salvation and repentance, the wrath of God and the love of God. They are also about where to look. Look up at the bronze serpent so you do not die. Look up at Jesus lifted on the cross so you might live always. In both cases, notice, that God does not take away suffering. The people are still attacked by the snakes, still bitten. But they will be saved in spite of that pain. And the people will still suffer though they might live eternally through Jesus Christ. We might live if only we know where to look, how to look.

So, now I would like for you to look. Look in front of you at one of the hymnals. Pick one of them up. Open the front cover. One or more of you might see something there – a blue piece of paper. What does it mean? You are special. Or, maybe, you are different.

Human beings have a special ability. They can quickly sort different things into groups, differentiating characteristics and qualities. We are particularly keen on doing so in social situations, us versus them. Experiments have been performed in which people randomly assigned into groups will quickly inhabit that group identity, even favoring one group over another when it comes times to give out benefits. Arbitrary groupings, arbitrary as receiving a piece of paper. Now imagine it is college roommates randomly assigned, grade school classmates sitting alphabetically. More influential groups, I would guess, more formative in their effects. People in one town versus another, one church versus another, one race versus another. More and more facets of identity.

In the book, the reader gets a sense of these nuances, the lay of the land and the feel of the environment, the scope of class issues and poverty and the ever present tension of race running through it all. The movie is long but still does not have time to convey the complexities of these characters.

Eventually, the rape case becomes a test of the truth, comparing the word of an ordinary black man against that of a white scoundrel. You get little of that in the movie, that the black man is well-regarded and the white man universally reviled. And yet the jury listens to the scoundrel. The truth becomes secondary – to the culture, to the traditions, to the ongoing trajectory of slavery still hurtling on long after a war and the law supposedly declared racism’s end. The movie makes a dramatic statement, while the book tells us the story.

What do I know about anyone? I see clothes and faces, I maybe hear the way a person speaks or read their bumper stickers. Where do I slot them? What are the shorthand ways I judge people because of how they are dressed, how they act, or what they look like? Their religion or race? Does it still happen like that?

Well, I have heard many people say, I am blind to race. I do not see it. To me all lives matter. Trying to be colorblind in a world filled with enduring issues relating to color does not make those problems go away. You can look at the bronze serpent but everyone is still getting bitten.

In the book, there is a moment after Tom Robinson is convicted and then killed when a group of white church ladies get together. They talk about the problem they are having with maids and farm hands, all black, being sulky about the incident. Sulky. They need to get over it. And the idea of being a good forgiving Christian is trotted out.

Look at the bronze serpent, not at the snakes biting your feet. Look at Christ suffering on the cross, not Jesus loving and healing and caring for people in the world. Do not look at the bad things, the uncomfortable things, the unfair things. Look somewhere else.

We are frequently presented with stories about race, including encounters between black men and the police. Some of those encounters turn deadly. Videos showing arrests, sometimes clear but often grainy or far away. Quick, chaotic, confusing. Hard to tell a blue jay from a mockingbird.

It is a lot to expect someone to look and quickly assess the situation. It is a lot to expect of police in the moment, without question, but it is also a lot to expect of black men. Black men who the police, at least in Boston, have admitted are singled out more than others. Black men, who the highest court in Massachusetts unanimously held might have a good reason to run away from the police.

None of that was decided in the moment. The Court looked at the facts and found them lacking. The Boston Police looked at themselves and found the picture wanting. They found that when some police officers look at black men they do not seem to be seeing mockingbirds. Perhaps some of them see blue jays?

Some of you have pieces of paper, blue paper. What does that mean? Is it a little blessing, a bright burst of color on Sunday morning?  Is it a cautionary reminder that so very little can be spun into far too much? A place to write down a note that it is a sin to shoot a mockingbird? And that the problem of color is there even when we fail to see it?

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Let God sort out who is a blue jay. For us, best to assume everyone is a mockingbird.



Author: Rev. Mark J.T. Caggiano

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