“It is hard to see what we are.”
~Uncle Jack Finch, Go Set a Watchman
As David Brooks wrote in a recent op-ed piece for The New York Times, “The last year has been an education for white people.” Beginning perhaps slightly earlier even with the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent non-indictment of “neighborhood watch captain” George Zimmerman in 2013, the media floodgates seemed to burst wide open with a deluge of painfully similar narratives: Jordan Davis, 17, shot and killed by Michael Dunn; Renisha McBride, 19, shot and killed by Theodore Wafer; Eric Garner, 43, killed by the chokehold of officer Daniel Pantaleo; John Crawford, 22, shot and killed by officer Sean Williams; Tamir Rice, 12, shot and killed by officer Timothy Loehmann. The common denominator? Unarmed black victims; white offenders. And then there was Charleston. “I can’t breathe,” “Hands up, don’t shoot,” #BlackLivesMatter, and, most recently, #IfIDieInPoliceCustody became watchwords and rallying cries of protest.
At some point, the persistence of racism in American hearts, minds, and, indeed, law enforcement and judicial systems became impossible to ignore.
Or did it?
Before Go Set a Watchman had even hit bookshelves, it was attacked from a variety of bizarre and diverse angles
In the midst of this “education,” in the early months of 2015, Harper Lee—the novelist who has presented half-a-century’s worth of American school children with the ideal of courageously fighting racial injustice—announced a second novel. Go Set a Watchman, like its predecessor To Kill a Mockingbird, would also deal with race. In fact, it was professed to be a sequel of sorts, narrating the life of an adult Scout Finch who has returned to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama from New York City in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision to visit her now-72-year-old father Atticus and chronicle the small town’s reaction to the early moments of the civil rights movement and their resistance and slow awakening to the future of racial equality in America.
It would seem the novel’s publication could not have been more timely or important. But, as scholars of scripture and civil rights movements alike know well: no one likes a prophet.
Before Go Set a Watchman had even hit bookshelves, it was attacked from a variety of bizarre and diverse angles ranging from challenges to the sanity and judgment of the author and her intent to publish (despite a full ethics investigation) to efforts to distress and disgust Mockingbird lovers with the threat that our beloved Atticus, now elderly, had become a Klansman and virulent racist.
No wonder Lee “chortled” the day before Go Set a Watchman’s release date in response to the early reviews.
Because, as it turns out, Go Set a Watchman is right on time. Culturally-penetrating and painfully relevant, it presses right on in to all the nerves of racial injustice that are already twinging or on full blaze all across America. There are several swords in particular that Go Set a Watchman asks us to swallow:
We are called to ruthlessly interrogate the prejudice in our own hearts.
While To Kill a Mockingbird offered us a clear and easily-assented-to portrait of racism in the undeniably unjust trial of Tom Robinson, Go Set a Watchman presents a more complex picture. Atticus Finch is an exemplar of how “good people,” people who even proclaim belief in racial equality and fight against injustice struggle to navigate seeing their own privilege and the racism inherent in inherited traditions and systems. In the “crisis moment” of the novel, for example, Scout secretly attends a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council (of which Atticus is a member) where she hears the racist ravings of Grady O’Hanlon, the day’s speaker and a traveling advocate for white supremacy and is furious that her father—who she knows as a man of the highest principle and character—sits by in silence. Atticus responds to her righteous indignation by explaining that this man’s views do not represent his own and that silence does not necessarily imply complicity. He later justifies his segregationist position in more detail by deferring to an ethic of careful hesitation and progressive reform (strikingly not unlike that of the white preachers to which Dr. Martin Luther King wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”).
The depth of human sinfulness and pride is always deeper than we imagine
Though it is easy to stand back—six decades beyond the events of the novel and cry “Racist!”—the reality is more complex. Atticus is a figure who forces readers to recognize how it is possible for one man to be awake, half-asleep, and entirely unconscious of cultural and personal prejudice all at the same time. The world is full of Atticuses, people who see through a glass darkly, “Men of substance and character, responsible men, good men,” as Scout says, who nevertheless have dangerous blind spots. The results, however, can be devastating and the consequences of complicity via association and silence come to the fore when Scout visits Calpurnia, the black cook who raised her, and is rejected in a heartbreaking scene in which Calpurnia cries out “What are you all doing to us?”, a painfully generalized condemnation that forces Scout to reconcile her childhood caregiver with a woman who now “sat there in front of me and…didn’t see me, [who] saw white folks.” What Lee makes readily apparent in Watchman is that humans tend towards thinking highly of ourselves. We tend towards gentleness and laziness and nonchalance in addressing the “logs” in our own eyes. The depth of human sinfulness and pride is always deeper than we imagine, and Lee calls us to a willingness to see it and pull it back, layer by recalcitrant layer.
The power of speech as activism should not be underestimated.
During one of the flashback scenes in Go Set a Watchman, Scout recalls Calpurnia instructing her that there “Ain’t anything in this world so bad you can’t tell it.” In many ways, racism is perpetuated through rhetoric (as evidenced by the convoluted, twisting, and tangential “explanations” Scout’s boyfriend Hank, the ladies at Scout’s coffee party, and Uncle Jack—in defense of his brother—offer in an attempt to explain their worldviews). By the same turn, however, it can be dismantled through rhetoric. And the power of the right word spoken to the right audience at the right moment should not be underestimated, which is why it is so encouraging and empowering to find Go Set a Watchman conclude with Scout choosing not to—at least not yet—leave Maycomb. It is where she, with her willingness to aggressively confront racial injustice, is most needed, as various sympathetic characters, including the town grocer and Uncle Jack remind her. Over the course of the novel we see Scout move from the desire to keep her fury quiet in hopes of keeping the peace with her family to engaging in painful and explosive conversations in which she confronts Hank and Atticus to furiously packing her bags and determining to leave Maycomb forever for the safety of her likeminded community in New York to determining to stay a while longer and speak and show truth to the people whom she loves and knows best.
We are called to listen to the sisters and brothers who have suffered as a result of racism—to believe them when they say they have been—are being—wounded
The line from Isaiah from which the title Go Set a Watchman comes—“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, ‘Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth’” (Isaiah 21:6)—empowers the reader for such work. We are called to watch out for our brothers and sisters, to uphold God’s standard for their humanity as well as to point out their blind spots. This must, at least in part, involve speaking truth into darkness.
We must never lose hope.
The exposure of racism in individual hearts and in the systems around which we have built our lives is not unlikely to be painless. When Scout recognizes that Hank is among the attendees at the Citizens’ Council meeting, her pain is visceral: “Every nerve in her body shrieked, then died. She was numb.” It is painful to see evil in the people and worlds we love even more so perhaps when they remain intractably unwilling to see it in themselves. There are characters in Go Set a Watchman—the society ladies of Maycomb in particular, epitomized by Aunt Alexandra—who seem absolutely disinterested and impenetrably committed to the status quo and their own pristine positions at the top of the social ladder, heartbreakingly so. But as Lee reminds us: “Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal…it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition.” And we are called to love them all. We are called to listen to the sisters and brothers who have suffered as a result of racism—to believe them when they say they have been—are being—wounded, to endure alongside them, to help them in the ways that are most humanizing, most loving, most Christ-like. And we are called to love those who seem blind to racism entirely, to present them with truth and, yes, to move along in progress without them if necessary. As Uncle Jack instructs Scout: “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”
Christians, however, do have a common watchman, that is, a common standard of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to govern our beliefs and actions, and if there’s one thing we can confidently assert, it’s that when the fullness of God’s kingdom comes there will be racial reconciliation and justice. When we work to any degree to dismantle Lee’s imagined “Hell [as] eternal apartness,” we are doing kingdom work. It is not an option, it is a vocation, and it is not for some, it is for all. The church in Maycomb is a sham of this vision, concerning themselves with the “war on sin, Coca-Cola, picture shows, hunting on Sunday; war on the increasing tendency of young women to paint themselves and smoke in public; war on drinking whisky,” a model to avoid and a portrait of how—if humans are expert in detracting from real, heart-level, serious concerns of sin—institutions serve to magnify, inscribe, and “normalize” these tendencies into our worlds on a much greater scale.
Now, there are legitimate lines along which Go Set a Watchman might be critiqued—for its esteeming of “colorblindness” rather than clear-eyed racial justice, for the hopeful assertion that the generation comprised of Atticuses and Aunt Alexandras is the last of its kind, for Scout’s lack of insight into her own position of privilege, for its lack of “resolution” or specific advisement on how Maycomb might move forward. But I will say this: if you come in to Go Set a Watchman looking to confirm a non-indictment of your own heart, you will probably find it. It is always possible to hone in on someone who seems “worse” than us and point and say “Now that’s racism.” The 1950’s white men and women of the American South bucking against integration? Now that’s racism. Or, sixty years later, as I am writing this very review, coverage of the KKK rally in Charleston, South Carolina flashing across the television? Now that’s racism. Yes, Charleston was racism. But not me. I’m educated and liberated! My family never owned slaves! I’m a Christian for heaven’s sake! I have lots of black friends…
But Harper Lee says: Look in the mirror, Friend. It is hard to see what we are.
Go Set a Watchman offers a way into the tangles of your own hearts, and if you can stop wrestling and defending and staking your claims for a moment and let the vision penetrate, don’t be surprised if you find yourself, like me, heart-broken, saying:
“I am Atticus.”
Oh, God. I am Atticus.
Once we can say this, we have arrived at the starting line. From here, change is possible.