Toorak Uniting Church

Previous Page

Next Page

To Kill and Mockingbird

Matthew 15: 21 – 28
Rev. Vladimir Korotkov
14 August 2011

Miss Maudie explains to Scout Finch: "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but ... sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

1. Symbolic ethics, engaging our embedded-ness in contested context.
Harper Lee's novel, To Kill and Mockingbird, and the story of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15: 21- 28, seek to inspire us to make human life in community more human.

At first reading, they may overwhelm us with the human reality of the power of exclusion and injustice. As the poet T S Eliot wrote in Prufrock, "Human voices wake us and we drown."

That is not their full intent! Our two stories present brave and courageous characters that decide to take a stand for a more compassion and inclusive society, for what is right. Even further, though, Spinoza would suggest, in the spirit of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, writes Terry Eagleton,1 that when we learn to really see and address the socially constructed nature of our world we become champions of symbolic ethics.

Now while Spinoza's thought and philosophy is more complex than this, aspects of his legacy provide us with important insights. For him, "The coordinates of popular knowledge ... are those of the imaginary: pleasure, passions, the senses, representation, the imagination, self-centredness, fantasies of [social and cultural] coherence."2 Such a romantic notion of a world ordered around one's own culture is only able to persist by "repressing, forgetting or mystifying the true determinants of our being"3. For Spinoza this is a confused and mutilated form of knowledge, a "world of smudged meanings and ambiguous objects"3. Symbolic ethics alone redeems us from unjust social constructions when it engages us in the maturity of the symbolic. There is always "more" to language and our symbolic social constructions of community.

Our two stories involve symbolic ethics because there is a disclosure about the truth of the ways in which we are all embedded and implicated in our contested contexts, symbolic worlds.

To Kill a Mockingbird, set in the small, sleepy Alabama town of Maycomb, displays a symbolic world in 1932, a structure of fixed roles and relations, where whites consider their race superior, and the African Americans inferior. "The symbolic order is a matter not only of difference, but of exclusion and prohibition", notes Terry Eagleton.4 In the court-room speech of Atticus Finch, which we have just heard, Harper Lee seeks to draw the reader into an awakening about the symbolic worlds we inhabit!

2. The historical Jesus was embedded in the Jewish culture and learnt inclusiveness
In our story of Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman, in Matthew 15: 21-18, we find a comparable symbolic order of exclusion and segregation between her and the community of Jesus. She becomes the subject "both excluded from and represented in" another symbolic system. Eagleton writes, "To enter the symbolic order is to submit to a kind of exile"4.

Most shocking and surprising is Jesus' silence and initial refusal to show compassion to a distressed and needy non-Jewish woman. This rejection is even more disturbing than the disciples who tell Jesus to send this pleading woman away.

Granted, as a Canaanite, this woman belonged to a culture that had been an enemy of the Jews as much as the Romans. Yet is seems Jesus and his community colluded and perpetuated the ethnic, gender, socio-economic and political barriers that existed between these two peoples.

So what is going on in this story? Was Jesus actually inclusive, yet for teaching purposes, pretended to be exclusively Jewish? Or, was Jesus really embedded in his culture and therefore had to enter a learning process to change and become inclusive.

My view is that the historical Jesus was a human being like all of us. This does not diminish her unique understanding of and relationship with God. Humans beings are shaped by the discourse of their context. The historical Jesus was embedded in his own cultural Jewish context. He too had to struggle with his socially constructed world, with the rigid identities of gender, race, class, and religion. This is always a journey of symbolic ethics, as illustrated in this particular encounter with difference.

This is one of the most disturbing encounters between Jesus and others. This woman argues back, which is culturally inadmissible. Jesus continues point by point to put his case for not healing her daughter. She accepts all the positions of disadvantage. As Judith Gundry-Volke writes:

She does not appeal to any right. Jesus does not allow for any right of the Gentiles to the fruits of his mission, and she does not argue to the contrary. She accepts the position of "dogs" in contrast to "children." She cannot assume a position of strength over against Jesus. She is a woman, entreating for another woman, a double gender disadvantage in the context of male/female relations of the day...5

Yet, she persists on the right for the healing from God for even the most insignificant being. Judith Gundry-Volke suggests that her belief in divine compassion, which knows no cultural bias, changes Jesus' view of mission.

Ched Myers describes another aspect of the cultural transformation that Jesus experiences, status-equalisation.

Jesus allows himself to be "shamed" (becoming least) in order to include this pagan woman in the new community of the kingdom; so too [the ancient church] will had to suffer the indignity of redefining its group boundaries (collective honour) in order to realise that gentiles are now welcomed as equals.6

In my view, this story illustrates the critical value of cross-cultural learning and change. When we first meet the Canaanite woman in our story, she is not human being as far as Jewish society is concerned. She is situated by certain dominant Jewish discourse of that ancient time with dogs. Such was her meaning and identity.

This constructed cultural knowledge was a truth that had the power to contain her view of herself, in mind and heart, and direct her behaviour. She refused to comply. She breaks the rules of truth, power and knowledge and approaches Jesus directly, cleverly disagreeing with him and claiming her rights for her daughter.

3. We are always invited to critical reflection on our ordered life and contexts.

This story and Jesus role in it functions like Socrates, and all great philosophers, novelists and poets. It attempts to draw listeners into a critical dialogue so they can become deeply aware of the way life is symbolically structured and really lived. The French philosopher Alain Badiou expresses the same intention as Jesus and Harper Lee when he reminds us that:

Plato once said that philosophy is an awakening. And [Plato] knew perfectly well that awakening implies a difficult break with sleep. For Plato already, and for all time, philosophy is the seizure of thought of what breaks with the sleep of thought.7

Badiou is talking about social sleep, that which represents a socialised, commonsense mind. Living comfortably within group identity as it is. Accepting and believing that common sense knows what is going on, and avoiding examining causes.

Renata Saled puts it this way:

... we don't notice the forms in which our lives are constructed. Society functions as something obvious, something given, almost natural. In order to understand hidden imperatives, the codes of being, the secret requirements that philosophers call ideologies, we need to remove the veil of obviousness and given-ness. Only then do we notice the bizarre but highly ordered logic we obey, unthinkingly, in our everyday lives.8

Atticus Finch in the courtroom speech in the book To Kill a Mockingbird exposes the bizarre, highly ordered logic of early twentieth century southern American culture. A logic that can even infect and bias the courts. Yet the constitutional vision remained, that all people are equal!

3. Open to the God of the future: Waking from social and spiritual sleep.
Waking from social sleep is always a complex process. Our stories act as catalysts for the process of transformational change. Critical reflection is not just a matter of rational choice. Or of simple faith. It is an ongoing process of learning, self-correcting and self-generating.

Critical reflection is required of us regularly. And part of this means that we need to engage in self-understanding and personal work; to understand ourselves and our faith and why we cling to the past ways of church and understanding God. (Michael Gecan, Going Public, preface).

4. Conclusion.
The Faith that Jesus is looking for, I suggest, is a real holistic expression of compassion and commitment to the whole of life and to all people; it's an openness to the God who always lures us on into new things, from the future. Such holistic, future-lured faith is unafraid, like the poet T S Eliot suggests, to critically reflect on what lies beneath our structured personal and group life:

.., the essential advantage for a poet is not, to have a beautiful world with which to deal; it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.9

Constructive and creative action doesn't just happen, but requires education, as the community organiser Michael Gecan reminds us:

Rosa Parks didn't wake up one morning [in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to comply with the Jim Crow law that required her to give up her seat to a white man] and spontaneously decide to sit on a seat near the front of a bus. She thought about her non-violent but high-risk action and debated it with other leaders. She trained at the Highlander Folk School, in the mountains of Tennessee, where civil rights leaders and organisers systematically educated themselves on the strategies and tactics of others in history who sought social change.10

Finally, courageous acts of power in situation of powerlessness require us to continually learn about ourselves, to grow in self-understanding, in emotional intelligence, the way we set up power in our congregation and our homes and lives. Without this work, we can not truly engage in compassionate transformation of our self, church or world!

Again, I want to remind us of the indispensable personal and cultural value of self-knowledge through an instrument like the Enneagram. To discover how we collude with or symbolic order, to limit and diminish ourselves or others.

End Notes Of Interest
"It's a sin to kill a mockingbird," Atticus says, explaining the film's title, "because it didn't do anything but make music for us to enjoy."

______________________________________
1 Terry Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A study of Ethics, 90.
2 Eagleton, 95.
3 Eagleton, 95.
4 Eagleton, 85.
5 Judith Gundry-Volf , Spirit, Mercy, and the Other, Theology Today, 1995, 521.
http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jan1995/v51-4-article2.htm
6 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 204
7 Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, Philosophy in the Present, 15.
8 Renata Sated, Choice, 9.
9 T S Eliot, The Use of Poetry & the Use of Criticism, (1933).
10 Michael Gecan, Going Public, 53.

© Rev. Vladimir Korotkov, 2011


Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.