Harper Lee died this year, but she left a huge piece of her spirit in To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that has inspired readers everywhere since its debut in 1960. In spite of the fact that it contains some expressions of white liberal imagination, the overarching theme of this historical novel is still pertinent to this day. Repeatedly, through critical characters and events, Harper Lee pushes us to evolve our consciousness beyond hatred of the outsider in our midst, to tolerance, and even to love.
Tolerance has been our political buzzword for decades. The Teaching Tolerance Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center is an award-winning program that has provided critical educational materials since 1991 with the noble goal of enhancing “respect, acceptance, and appreciation” for all the diverse ways our humanity is expressed. But even they admit on their website that “tolerance is surely an imperfect term.” They go to great lengths to broaden its definition to include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s reference to the Greek word, agape: God’s love for humanity and our capacity for benevolence.
It’s remarkable that the best noun we can invoke to express this natural human response is tolerance. As consciousness has developed, tolerance has come to mean an open-minded attitude toward ideas and practices that differ from one’s own. But it remains an imperfect expression because its Latin root is tolerare: “to endure without repugnance, to put up with,” leaving me always longing for a better word, believing we can evolve beyond tolerating the other in our midst. We can be curious, empathic, compassionate, and caring. We can love.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch was fearless about this stance. After Scout had heard the gossip and opinions around Maycomb, she returned home and innocently asked her father, “You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?” He was unflinching in his position: “I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody.” Of course, he explained to her that this description was an “ugly” one, but it didn’t change who he was—a man trying to show compassion to everybody, and attempting to teach his children, and all of us to do the same.
Today, we don’t walk around town and get the modest thoughts and opinions of the neighbor anymore. We turn on our television sets, where the twenty-four-hour broadcasts sensationalize every offense and grievance, stoking outrage and paranoia. Anyone who dares to watch the news could use a reminder of Atticus’s message. The hate-filled speech coming from some of our politicians and pundits teaches the vulnerable observer that the other is repugnant and untrustworthy.
Sadly, the television is the primary way that many in our country experience the world, receiving these antagonistic messages as factual. In recent days, governors in two states have moved the calendar backward over fifty years, signing bills that permit discrimination against untold American citizens. There is a great irony that the recent legislation in Mississippi and North Carolina has been created to protect religious freedom. Did they forget that all the great spiritual teachers gave instruction similar to that of Jesus when he said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31)?
Father Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and writer said, “True spirituality is about expanding your realm of freedom, which is expanding your capacity for love. You can’t love unless you’re free.” For thousands of years, enlightened teachers have opened the cage doors of bigotry for us, but we have struggled to pass wholly over to the other side into love. It takes great courage to step outside of our fear-based prisons and embrace the mystery of diversity of all beings on our planet. Perhaps that is why the earth contains such vast diversification—to force each one of us out of our comfortable – albeit confined – narcissistic world view. It is only then that we will evolve beyond hate, even beyond tolerance, to find the grace of emancipation in love.
Go to this site to explore how all the major religions address the critical lesson of, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”