Harper Lee’s harshest criticism of Christian church practice can be found in the missionary tea meeting in chapter 24 of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the candid scene where the town women gather in the Finchhome to discuss the work of a missionary (J. Grimes Everett) and the recent events of the Robinson trial. The women in this living roompersonify the racism and bigotry they have adopted as part of their religious practice. It can be dangerous when people of faithtake onthe views of popular culture (a blog for another Monday). The despicable ideas expressed by the ladiesabout people of other colors and cultures is often noted by readers of Lee’s novel, but it is frequently overlooked that their intolerance and lack of true compassion begins in the graceless way they interact with one another. This church “event” is devoid of any relational transparency.
There are so many profound lessons that people of faith can take away from the Missionary Tea. In this particular excerpt from The Mockingbird Parables, I consider whether the church can ever be authentic and truly practice the compassion to which theGospel calls us, without the transparency of confession:
There is a quote often attributed to writer Brennan Manning in which he says there is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are—and this cuts skillfully to the core of the missionary circle’s dilemma. The pretending that takes place at the meeting is nothing new to religious practice.
It has been part of religious culture since the time of Jesus to put our best foot forward and hide our weaknesses and faults. Jesus responds to this practice by the church folks of His day saying,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. . . . On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:25, 28 niv). He was talking about using our religion as a cover, saying we should be cognizant of the One who sees beyond our latest devout and righteous-looking appearance. When hiding ourselves behind religiosity becomes the order of the day, grace is left by the wayside; without being honest about our own sin, we will never show compassion toward others. If we are to adorn ourselves with anything, it should be with compassion and honesty—the foundations of connecting to our community.
In a clear reference to the apostle Paul’s letter to Timothy, Scout tells us that her aunt and the missionary circle had been fighting the good fight all over the house. It is an oft-quoted
Scripture; Paul tells Timothy, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses”
(1 Tim. 6:12 niv). Scout’s sarcastic reference to this famous verse makes it clear: while the meeting is being done in the name of faith, the true spirit of the “good fight” is exactly what is missing from the scene. The ladies at the meeting are busy hiding behind religious language. Absent from the missionary tea is Paul’s prerequisite for that good fight: the good confession. It is by recognizing and confessing our own sin that we acknowledge the overwhelming element of God’s grace extended to us. We often spurn confession and grace in favor of hiding ourselves in nice clothes, adorning ourselves with gossip, or masking our deficiencies behind the faults of others. Like the Maycomb women, we can’t practice compassion for those beyond our own tribe when we are too busy running from grace. Transparency and compassion are missing from the missionary circle.
Do you experience authenticity in church? Do you think there is a connection between confession (transparency) and our ability to be communities of compassion?