Monday, October 24, 2011

Mayella's Dilemma is Everybody's Dilemma

My daughter has to read To Kill a Mockingbird for English. Apparently, everyone has had to read that novel for English. I never did. We had to read The Godfather and other intellectually stimulating books of that kind when I was in High school. I may have seen the movie with Greg Peck, but I don’t remember the story; so I decided to read the book.

I can see why TKMB won the Pulitzer Prize; it is a beautiful piece of writing—penetrating in its understanding of the human condition, and tragic in its exposé of racism in 1930’s America. Yet even in that, TKMB is not heavy-handed, but attempts to gently guide both the interested characters and readers out of the darkness of prejudice; TKMB makes its case from a Christian worldview. The protagonist father and lawyer, Atticus Finch, is perhaps the best definition I’ve come across of what Jesus meant when He said, “Blessed are the meek.”

It would be only a few years after TKMB hit the bookstores that the Civil Rights Movement ushered in a new America. Interestingly, TKMB wasn’t cynical of such a future event, but presented itself with an undercurrent of optimism for love triumphing over hate. It perhaps could have been no other way because the story was told from a child’s perspective. It seems TKMB saw something good in people, and accurately foretold a new era of openness and equality in our great country. I worry, though, that the specter of racism still lurks just beneath the surface of American society. I hope I’m wrong.

But as important as it is to stamp out racism, that is not the topic of this posting. Nor do I believe TKMB was written solely as a polemic against racism; it is far too good a work to be that mono-dimensional. A recurring theme in TKMB, and one we should all take heed, is trying to walk in the shoes of another person before we jump to hasty conclusions and judgments of him/her. Another way to state this is we need to try to see everyone as God sees them. And this I intend to do with the character Mayella Ewell.

In case you are like I was up until a few days ago and have never read TKMB or it’s been too long, I will reprise the situation with Mayella for you. She was a poor illiterate white nineteen year old who was forced by her equally white and illiterate father to trump up rape charges against a poor but gentle African-American man named Tom Robinson. What really happened was Mayella, in the manner of the Pharaoh’s wife with Joseph, hungry for love and attention, made advances at Tom. Her father witnessed this, and in the confusion Tom ran away; Mayella’s father beat her, and then fabricated the rape to save face.

Tom ends up in court looking at an electric-chair with his name on it, defended by Atticus Finch. Mayella is on the witness stand, and Atticus is questioning her.

Here is a brief snippet of what transpires:

After the prosecuting attorney referred to Atticus as “big bad Mr. Finch,” Atticus opens his questioning.
“Miss Mayella,” he said, smiling, “I won’t try to scare you for awhile, not yet. Let’s just get acquainted. How old are you?”
“Said I was nineteen, said it to the judge yonder.” Mayella jerked her head resentfully at the bench.
“So you did, so you did, ma’am. You’ll have to bear with me, Miss Mayella. I’m getting along and can’t remember as well as I used to. I might ask you things you’ve already said before, but you’ll give an answer, won’t you? Good.”
“Won’t answer a word you say long as you keep on mockin’ me,” she said.
“Ma’am?” asked Atticus, startled.
“Long’s you keep on makin’ fun of me.”
Judge Taylor said, “Mr. Finch is not making fun of you. What’s the matter with you?”
Mayella looked from under lowered eyelids at Atticus, but said to the judge: “Long’s he keeps on callin’ me ma’am and saying Miss Mayella. I don’t hafta take his sass. I ain’t called upon to take it.”

Isn’t Harper Lee a brilliant writer; you get sucked in with even that little piece of her novel.

What we must see is that Atticus was not patronizing Mayella. He was doing his job, but his treatment of Mayella was genuine; Atticus treated everyone with respect and decency, in and out of the courtroom. Mayella knew his reputation, so she knew in her heart that he wasn’t stroking her. So why did she react the way she did? That’s the question I want to answer because it says something about all of us.

Mayella was a squashed person. Any self-respect or self-worth she may have had had long been beaten out of her by a vile, angry, ignorant, cruel man called her father. All she wanted was to be loved and desired and respected. Of course she did; we all want that because God created us to walk in love and holiness. For this reason she threw herself at poor Tom. Now Atticus was offering her genuine respect and worth, and she pushed it away; she never confesses the truth of what happened that hateful afternoon. If she had, she would have opened up for herself the love and respect she sought. People would have forgiven her, even Tom, I have no doubt. Her father would have probably come down hard on her, but I suspect the town folk would have rallied around her—certainly Atticus would have; she’d have been safe, and young enough to make something of herself. Yet despite all that promise calling out to her, Mayella didn't confess; she didn’t because she was afraid.

Here’s my point (long in coming, I know). Mayella feared a beating, but she feared being wrong even more. To admit she was wrong meant giving up her last vestige of control; she must be seen as right, or lose her precious self-sufficiency. Her dilemma was either to take hold of the hand of love extended to her and start down the road to being an authentic human being, or forfeit it all for her pride--to find the love she desperately wanted and needed by loving Tom, or turn it inward to harden into hate.

Mayella faced the same dilemma we all face. God extends His hand to each of us in love for us to become the authentic humans He created us to be forever with Him in love and holiness; all we need do is admit we have been wrong in our selfish-ambition and turn back to Him and love Him by obeying Him.

Will we turn back to a faithful and loving God and truly live, or will we cast our lot with Mayella and die with our alleged self-sufficiency?

Listen to what the Scriptures tell us:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
“Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks! “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of testing in the wilderness. “There your fathers tested me and tried me, and they saw my works for forty years. “Therefore, I became provoked at that generation and said, ‘Their hearts are always wandering and they have not known my ways.’ “As I swore in my anger, ‘They will never enter my rest!’”
Hebrews 3:7-11 (NET)