Lessons from the life of Atticus Finch: a man to imitate


Atticus Finch is the fictional lawyer in Harper Lee's Pullitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was made into an Oscar-winning film, starring Gregory Peck, just two years after it was published. Atticus Finch is arguably the main character of the book. Indeed, the author saw him as being so central to the work that she originally entitled the book Atticus. Now, nearly sixty years after the publication of the novel, Atticus Finch continues to play an influential role in the American legal profession. Lawyers cite him as inspirational in their choice of career; he has been the subject of, or referred to, in nearly five hundred academic legal articles and in 1997 the Alabama Bar Association even erected a monument to him. In a country where lawyers are renowned for getting a hard press, the Michigan Law Review has claimed that, "No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession." Who was Atticus Finch and why does he have such an enduring influence? 

Harper Lee once described Atticus as "a man of absolute integrity with as much good will and good humour as he is just and humane." But perhaps we get closer to the truth with the comment from Alice Hall Petry, an American scholar, that Atticus has "Christ-like goodness and wisdom." This Christian quality to his character is recognised by the author when, towards the end of the novel, another character says, "We're so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are we've got men like Atticus to go for us." In this article I would like to explore what it is about Atticus that sets him apart as a Christian lawyer. However, before we look at Atticus, let me briefly summarise the plot.

The novel is set in the sleepy, rural town of Maycomb, Alabama in the mid-1930s. Atticus is a middle-aged lawyer, descended from a white, Southern family. His wife died in 1928, leaving him to raise his two children, Louise (a.k.a. 'Scout') and Jem. The book is narrated by Scout and is brilliantly evocative of childhood. However, this device also enables Harper Lee to skilfully highlight the eccentricities, humour and tragedy of life in Maycomb. The novel takes place over three years in the life of the Finch family. It begins in the summer of 1933 when Scout is five years old and her brother is nine. The children spend the summer making friends with Dill, the boy who lives next door, and daring each other to approach the house of Boo Radley, the mysterious town recluse.

Atticus is assigned by the Maycomb Court to represent Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. From that point on, Scout and Jem are met with bullying by children in the school-yard ("My folks said your daddy's a disgrace an' that nigger oughta hang from the water tank!") as well as adults in the street ("Your father's no better than the niggers and trash he works for!"). Scout, against her natural instincts, heeds her father's warning that she should not retaliate.   

Eventually, the trial day comes, and Scout and Jem sneak into the upstairs gallery in the court room, which is reserved for black people, to watch the proceedings. In evidence, Mayella Ewell claims that Tom Robinson came into her house grabbed her and attempted to rape her. Bob Ewell, her father, testifies that he heard a scream, ran to the house and saw Tom Robinson running away. As the trial progresses, it becomes apparent that the Ewells are lying; it was Mayella who tried to seduce Tom Robinson and the injuries she received to her face were inflicted by her father in his rage at his daughter's conduct. Of course, for Tom Robinson to be acquitted all that is needed is that the jury find that there is a reasonable doubt. To Scout and Jem the verdict is clear. However, incomprehensibly, the jury return a verdict of guilty. Jem is disconsolate. How the jury could reach such a decision in the light of the evidence is unfathomable, however, to the rest of Maycomb, that anyone should believe the word of black man over a white woman is unthinkable. The final tragedy in the story of Tom Robinson is that he is shot and killed while attempting to escape from prison. He had a crippled left arm, which would make scaling any fence slow work, and yet he had been shot 17 times. For Atticus the situation is made more tragic because Tom Robinson had good prospects of succeeding on appeal:  "We had such a good chance…I guess Tom was tired of white men's chances and preferred to take his own."

It is essential to the book's central message that it is written from a child's perspective. Children, in their innocence, have an ability to see things as they really are, unsullied by prejudice. The death of the mockingbird in the title of the novel is a reference to the death of that childlike innocence. This message is alluded from the outset of the novel, beginning as it does with a quote from the English essayist, Charles Lamb, "Lawyers, I suppose were children once." When the Finches arrive home after the jury have found Tom Robinson guilty, Jem turns to his father and says, "How could they do it?  How could they?" To which Atticus replies, "I don't know, but they did. They've done it before, they did it tonight and they'll do it again and when they do it seems that only children weep." Only children weep. The truth was so obvious but it took a child to see it. Earlier in the day, after Dill had burst into tears as he watched the prosecutor's derogatory manner when cross-examining Tom Robinson, the children left the courtroom and came across Dolphus Raymond, an eccentric. Dolphus explained to Jem and Finch why Dill was so upset, "Things haven't caught up with this one's instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won't get sick and cry. Maybe things'll strike him as being – not quite right, say, but he won't cry, not when he gets a few years on him."

May God save us from "things catching up with us." Jesus calls us to be like little children. Indeed he says that it is only when we become as little children that we will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In part this means that we must have a childlike simplicity in our walk with Jesus so that we remain tender-hearted to the touch of His Spirit and can see those truths that our prejudices or hardness will otherwise obscure. Tozer once wrote that "The Bible was written in tears, and to tears it yields its best treasures." May God save us from a dry-eyed religion!

Only a very few of Maycomb's citizens weep over the injustice of Tom Robinson's conviction. Other townsfolk, such as the ladies' missionary circle, are shown to be hypocrites who seem concerned for the plight of a remote African tribe but are unable to love their black Christian brothers and sisters who live on their own doorstep.  Atticus stands in sharp contrast to such attitudes. Scout says of him that he, "…don't ever do anything to Jem and me in the house that he don't do in the yard." This view of Atticus is confirmed by the comment from Miss Maudie, a neighbour who lives across the street, who sums Atticus up as, "…the same in his house as he is on the public streets." He is a man of the utmost integrity. It is said that if you want to know what a preacher is like you should ask his wife and children. It is in the home, behind closed doors that you will see the real man. Atticus is just as kind, loving and courteous in his relationship with his children as he is with his neighbours. This integrity demands that he cannot be hypocritical in any area of his life.  It is perhaps this aspect of his character that makes him stand head and shoulders above the other citizens of Maycomb. What is it that gives him such integrity?  It is that he is obedient to a conscience which has been taught in accordance with Biblical truth. When challenged that most of the townsfolk think Atticus is wrong to defend Tom Robinson, Atticus replies, "They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." He is true to his conscience. We must be true to ours. In Atticus's words, we must be able to live with ourselves. The conscience is not itself the voice of God but as it is taught, as it is brought into line with His Word and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, it will guide us as to how we ought to live. As Christians, we ought to be obedient to our consciences. Doing so should affect every area of our lives, including our courtroom practice. Following a discussion amongst the children about the prosecutor's discourteous cross-examination of Tom Robinson, Scout thinks back to how Atticus cross-examined the prosecution witnesses and concludes that Atticus is, "…the same in the court-room as he is on the public streets."

Other characters, while concerned about justice, do not take Atticus's public stand. A good example is Judge Taylor, the judge who presides over the trial. He appoints Atticus, a respected lawyer rather than the usual public defender because he suspects that the charge is trumped up and wants to ensure that Tom Robinson has a good lawyer. However, at no stage do we hear about Judge Taylor taking a public stand against the problems in the town. The day before the trial, Tom Robinson is moved to the town jail. There's a danger that there might be an attempt to break him out of jail so that he can be lynched. Atticus quietly slips out that night and drives to the jail where he sits protecting his client from the mob. That confrontation is the one time in the novel when Atticus is in fear for his safety. Atticus has tremendous courage but what lies at the root of his courage?  It is his compassion. Such is his compassion for Tom Robinson that he is prepared to put his neck on the line for him. Jesus tells us that there is no greater love than that a man will lay down his life for another (John 15:13). In Atticus's actions there are faint echoes of what Jesus did at Calvary.

One of Atticus's foundational qualities is that he is a conscientious lawyer, providing the best service he can for his clients. His career didn't start too auspiciously ("His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County jail") but by the time of the novel he is widely respected in the community as a diligent lawyer. Miss Maudie says confidently of him, "…he can make somebody's will so airtight can't anybody meddle with it." Even though Atticus has a "profound distaste" for criminal law, he still puts his all into representing Tom Robinson.  It is important to note that being a good lawyer is not a virtue that God looks for, but being a conscientious worker is. The Bible tells us that we should work for our employer or client as if we were working for God Himself, we should seek to please Him in what we do, not men (Colossians 3:23-24). We can't all be a David Pannick Q.C. or a Michael Mansfield Q.C. but we can all work as though working for Christ and so bring glory to Him. Our work, although perhaps a little dull and humdrum at times, should be part of our worship to God.

Finally, Atticus has empathy for his clients. Cynicism is a disease that is prevalent in our society and, in my view, particularly so at the Bar and among solicitors. After a few years of practice it is frighteningly easy to treat a client as 'just another case', as a commodity. We lose sight of the fact that our client is a real person, with a life that extends beyond this case and this courtroom. We treat them much as a cab driver treats another fare.  We feel confident in our own ability to take them through the complexities of the legal system but we forget that our client is a person. Would Jesus ever have treated someone in this way? Atticus didn't. He once told Scout, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." You need to take time to understand a person, their background, their life aside from the case you are dealing with. If you take time with your client not only will you begin to really understand them, which will enable you to better prepare for your case, but you will be able to touch them with the love and concern that Jesus showed to those he met. You will be able to bring something of God into that person's life.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a remarkable, powerful and touching novel. Its main character is not only a good lawyer but a godly man, and I hope I have shown that the former is the fruit of the latter. On four occasions Paul urged those to whom he was writing to be imitators of him. Why?  Because he was imitating Christ. As you enter the legal profession might I urge you to be imitators of Atticus, even as he imitates Christ?

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