One of the great moments of American literature is in To Kill A Mockingbird. Tom Robinson, a black man in 1930s Alabama, is in jail awaiting trial for the alleged rape of a poor white woman Mayella Ewell. Sheriff Heck Tate has left town for the evening and a lynch mob has gathered at the jail to hang Tom. His lawyer, Atticus Finch, sits on the porch with a shotgun in his lap to defend his client. The situation is tense and the chance of violence runs high. Out of nowhere Atticus’s elementary school age daughter, Scout (Miss Jean Louise) shows up having slipped out to check on her Daddy. Innocent of the nature of the situation, she greets the leader of the lynch mob:
“Hey Mr. Cunningham.”
The man did not hear me, it seemed.
‘Hey Mr. Cunningham, how’s your entailment gettin’ along? . . .
Don’t you remember me? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one time, remember?” I began to feel the futility one feels when unacknowledged . . ..
“I go to school with Walter,” I began again. “He’s your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?”
Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He knew me after all.
“He’s in my grade,” I said, “And he does right well. He’s a good boy.”
And so the lynching was stopped, the crowd dispersed, the peril diffused by a child reminding a man of his humanity, reminding him that we are connected by intricate organic bonds of social intercourse.
Something like that happened on social media last week. There was a social media frenzy rushing to judgment of Heather Cook, Suffragen Bishop of Maryland, over a traffic accident in which bicyclist Thomas Palermo died. Partly because I know very little about the accident, and partly because I am Bishop Cook’s coach in College for Bishops (all new bishops get coaches), I do not intend to comment on what happened in Baltimore, but only on what subsequently happened in social media. Opinions came fast furious, filling in the blanks of the story with imagined facts.
Enter the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, who posted an article on her blog, not defending Bishop Cook, not saying what the facts are or what the outcome should be, but simply appealing for a measured search for truth instead of an emotional stampede to retribution. She challenged Episcopalians as Christians to step back and think. Her critique of the social media response is essentially captured in this sentence: The conjecture and supposition, assumption and presumption – not to mention evidence of a very active imagination – have been second only to the mean spirit in which they are written. Rev. Kaeton implored us to allow the investigation to proceed instead of writing a dark tale out of the imaginations of our hearts.
When I read her post, I heard a voice saying Hey Mr. Cunningham. Don’t you remember me? I go to school with Walter. Rev. Kaeton was calling us back to our identity as humans, as Christians, and as Americans. For that reminder, she has now been pilloried in social media along with Bishop Cook.
Her words – amounting in my mind to Remember who you are -- bring me up short. They make me think of what it means to be an American. When I was in school, from grade school to law school, we learned that the Bill of Rights was central to our identity, that due process of law, trial by jury, and presumption of innocence all distinguished us as a people. We still sing about the land of the free. But today the land of the free imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other developed nation. We imprison 707 out of every 100,000, as compared to 492 in Rwanda and 470 in Russia to name our closer contenders or 118 in Canada and 211 in Mexico to name our neighbors. We have a passion for incarceration, which no longer even seriously attempts rehabilitation but seeks instead to satiate our need for retribution. Whenever the basic principles and processes of justice that have traditionally defined the American way so much as temper or even slow the gratification of our vindictive impulse, we are ready to abandon them without blinking. These principles and processes are the things I understood our warrior heroes killed and died to protect and our statesmen heroes forged from the wisdom of history and philosophy. In short, they are important. They are definitive for our very identity as a people. So, speaking strictly as an American, I am grateful to Elizabeth Kaeton and anyone else brave enough to remind us who we are.
But Kaeton writes most explicitly as a Christian and is most concerned about the spirit in which people are so hell-bent on condemnation that there is no room for a compassion that might see a complex tragedy that cries out for healing. Where is Jesus in this story? That may be Kaeton’s implicit question and, if so, that is the most inconvenient question whenever we are too sure we know what should be done. There is a strong Zoroastrian streak in us. Our films and books are full of it. We divide the world up into the good and the evil so that we may violently destroy the evil. That dualism finds its way into Christianity too, particularly in Revelation. But Jesus was no Zoroaster. He said Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be like your Father in heaven who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends the rain to the righteous and the unrighteous. Matthew 5: 44-45. When we are eager to label and condemn, Jesus is inconvenient. Judge not that ye be not judged. Luke 6: 37 When the Pharisees demand punishment, what does Jesus do? John 8: 2-11 This is not to say that secular justice must not be administered to preserve the order of the state. But the spirit of vengeance ill-becomes the Christians among us. So Kaeton says to the Christians in the social media world, Remember who you are.
Because of who Kaeton and her primary audience are, there is a particular reminder here to Episcopalians. Among Christians, we are particularly inclined to thoughtful moderation. In the bloody 16th Century, when the Elizabethan Settlement was formulated, we adopted an ethos of measured restraint. Our piety was the Book of Common Prayer, which gave birth to the poetry of the Caroline Divines. Perhaps today, when feelings are so readily manipulated by spin-doctors, there may be a special need for thoughtful Christians with the capacity to reserve judgment and hear more than one side. So as an Episcopalian, I am glad to be reminded who we are.
Having begun this reflection with one Southern author from yester year, Harper Lee, I will conclude with another Southern author from today, Donna Tartt. One of her less popular, but to me most important, books is The Little Friend, which I read as a cautionary tale about narrative theory. Like Scout, Harriet Cleve Dufresne is a little girl in the South. All the situations that define her family life have coherent stories, except one – the murder of her little brother. It is an unsolved mystery. Tormented by a grief that has no meaning, no narrative structure, Harriet assembles a bit of evidence, does a cursory child-like investigation, and creates a narrative to identify the culprit so she can bring him to justice. The plot turns out rather badly and in scary ways because, quite simply, Harriet’s narrative, though coherent and even compelling, is not true.
A quick simplistically contrived narrative gives us a sense of order in the world. How much better if it is the familiar Zoroastrian order of good guys and bad guys! How reassuring to know we are on the side of good and that evil can be vanquished through the unleashing of our pent up anger and violent urges! We live in a time when the standard of righteousness is too readily invoked to do harm. These are times in which it is more important than ever for Americans to remember that we are Americans, for Christians to remember that we are Christians, and for Episcopalians to remember our value of thoughtfulness, deliberation, and restraint. Thank you Elizabeth Kaeton for reminding us who we are.