People who love To Kill a Mockingbirdtend totalk about Atticus and his commitment to non-violence. It is one of the many reasons I am inspired by Lee’s protagonist. Known by many as the best shot in Maycomb County, he swears off ownership of a gun and dismisses his children when they ask him to carry one for protection from Bob Ewell’s threats. Atticus, knowing that a drunken lynch mob will come in the middle of the night, takes nothing but a light and a newspaper to the town square to sit outside the city jail and protect the innocent defendant, Tom Robinson.Later in the story, Bob Ewell meets Atticus on the post office steps, he spits in his face and challenges him to a fight. Atticus wipes the spit from his face and walks away, later explaining to his children that he hoped his choice not to fight back had saved Bob’s poor daughter from another beating. These are qualities of true courage. Everything in Lee’s novel seems to support a stand against violence until the final climatic event.
As the children walk home from a Halloween pageant, they are attacked by the drunken Bob Ewell who is armed with a switch blade. During the attack, Boo Radley hears the cries of the children and rushes from his home with a kitchen knife. Boo Radley kills Bob Ewellto savethe children.
It seems many of the people I deeply admire believe that pacifism is the only response to the Gospel. I wrestle with this at times. I wrote about this scene in “The Parable of Atticus Finch” and posed the question: When is violence necessary? The Gospel does present a clear message of radical non-violence; to look at it any other way is irresponsible, even dangerous. Those who followed Jesus in hopes of a revolution were let down when the soldiers arrived to arrest him in the garden. In one Gospel, He scolds Peter for attacking a guard and heals one of themen whohas cometo arrest him.
The scene at the end of Harper Lee’s novel clearly articulates my only issue with being a pacifist. When Boo Radley emerges from his home, he doesn’t come out with just a light and a newspaper. I am not sure the author ever intended the novel to be analyzed in this way, but I think the scene presents a clear depiction of why I cannot completely acquiesce to non-violence. I believe we should approach this conversation with some fear and trepidation, but I often wonder about the necessity of violent action when it is employed to protect those who cannot defend themselves. I think back to some powerful examples of faithful disciples involving themselves in violence in order to protect the innocent; chief among them, Bonheoffer’s association with a plot to assassinate Hitler. It is an interesting debate for people of faith and fans of To Kill a Mockingbird. Could Boo have saved “his children” any other way? What do you think?