Movie for Lent, Week 2 – Conviction (To Kill A Mockingbird)

Scripture Interpretation

The following is an interpretation of Luke 22:66-71 and Matthew 26:69-75 to bring out the themes being discussed this week. Quotes are interpreted from the CEB.

Christ was arrested at night, but it’s morning before his trail begins. The news must have spread int eh pre-dawn hours–”Hey! Wake up! We got him! We got the Galilean! Come down to the courthouse for his trial. It’ll be something to see!” By the time the trial starts, everyone has gathered: the priests, the community elders, and the legal experts. Any man with any authority in the Jewish community is there.

And they are all angry. There are parts of the Bible that seem edited for general audiences, and this is one of them. As Christ stands before his accusers, you can almost hear the invectives flying through the air. With each question, the tumult seems to grow. First “they” try to convict Christ of blaspheme, or rather, try to get him to incriminate himself.

“It does me no good to answer you,” Christ says, “You don’t respect me enough to listen.” And then, Jesus quotes the first part of a verse from Psalm, a verse that promises that the enemies of the Son of God will be made his footstool. Christ implies he will eventually have authority over the authorities currently condemning him.

Christ doesn’t quote the whole verse though. He lets them finish it for themselves. They do, and they are enraged all the more. Like hornets stirred up, “they all” question him now, “Are you God’s Son then?”

Christ, ever cagey and likely knowing his was a lost cause before he ever set foot it the room, turns their question back on them, accusing them of either worship or blasphemy themselves. “You say that I am,” Jesus coyly replies.

“We’ve heard enough! Take him away!” they cry. Other Gospels depict men ripping off their robes in their rage. Christ stands condemned.

Meanwhile, Peter is facing an ersatz trial of his own in the courtyard outside. Unlike Christ, Peter isn’t as up to the task. First a few women, then everyone around him convicts him of being one of Jesus’ followers. Like the authorities inside, his emotions rise with every accusation.

First, Peter flatly denies the accusation and walks away.
Then, he swears an oath like a pious man.
Finally, he curses at his accusers and shouts them down.

Immediately, a rooster crows reminding Peter of Christ, the passionate allegiance Peter so recently promised, and the claim Christ made against Peter that before the rooster’s morning call, Peter would deny Christ three times. Convicted by the cock’s crow, Peter escapes the courtyard and cries uncontrollably.

Thematic Reflection

Last week, the first week of Lent, we focused on betrayal–the betrayals Christ experienced in Gethsemane, the betrayals that form the bedrock of Casablanca, and the betrayals each of us has experienced both as betrayer and betrayed. Perhaps, as you reflected on the betrayals you have experienced, you were tempted to respond to those betrayals, either toward others or toward yourself, with our second week’s theme–conviction.

Unlike betrayal, conviction isn’t inherently nefarious. After all, the convictions leveled against Peter aren’t untrue, and even Christ warned him of his impending fault. The crowd’s accusations of Peter in the courtyard are just dangerous given what’s happening at that moment in the story. Conviction can be in service of good when, tempered by mercy, it calls sinners to repentance.

Regardless of its truthfulness though, conviction untempered by mercy become vicious as it conspires to kill either another person’s physical life or their public life by destroying their reputation or self-esteem. The authorities in Jerusalem are eager to kill that morning, and so their convictions of Christ take on a deathly pallor. The people in the courtyard convict Peter of following Christ, and, likely fearing for his life, he denies it. Instead of their conviction though, he hears the cock’s and earns his own condemnation, and he runs out of the courtyard to mourn it.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, the people of Maycomb, Alabama—both child and adult—are as fond of convicting each other as the people in the Biblical story. As the movie is begins, Scout and Jem gossip with their new neighbor Dell all about the people who live on their street. Their gossip is a combination of fact and rumor, but true or not, gossip is a form of conviction–it assigns guilt for breaking societal codes. The people they gossip about—Boo, their father, Boo’s father, the rest of their neighbors—stand convicted in their and Dell’s minds.

Jem and Scout are children, and so their gossip is kind of endearing. It’s innocent. The convictions the adults in the town level against one another as the story goes one are not so innocent.

To Kill A Mockingbird is, on first glance, an innocent film. It is a coming-of-age film about a girl growing up. the film is more than just a coming-of-age story though. It is also a courtroom drama, a Western, a mystery, a civics lesson, a poverty drama, a civil rights movie, and even a horror film. To Kill A Mockingbird is all of childhood as understood by an adult.

Notice how the film shifts almost imperceptibly between the narrator’s point-of-view (Scout as an adult woman remembering the events of the story) and a child’s point of view (Scout, the young girl at the story’s center). The combined point-of-view gives the film an air of innocence and wisdom simultaneously. To Kill A Mockingbird understands that adults can sometimes act like children in the worst sense, and children often prove wiser than adults.

To Kill A Mockingbird itself stands as a kind of conviction for all the ways people in a community can mistreat each other, be that community as small as Maycomb, Alabama, or as large as the world. The film knows that conviction can be as sly as gossip or as bold as lying under oath. The film shows that the outcome of both is often the same–innocent people’s lives are destroyed.

As you watch To KIll A Mockingbird, watch for the convictions. Note the various forms they take. Consider the effects of those convictions on both the convicted and the ones doing the convicting.

Watch To Kill A Mockingbird. Stop the film at 1:50:01, right after Bob Ewell spits on Atticus. (You’ll watch the rest of the film on Easter.) After watching the film, read the rest of the reflection, and answer the questions.

Further Reflection and Questions

Tom is innocent. Nothing could be clearer, but he is not convicted for breaking a law. He does something much worse than rape Mayella Ewell. Tom has pity on her, and in doing so, establishes himself as better than her. Tom dares to break the societal code that says black people are inferior to white people.

Atticus now stands similarly convicted by the town for breaking the same societal code. He behaves as if people are equal regardless of their race. He convicts the town of their racism and calls racism unjust. As we stop the film, Tom is dead, Atticus’ has lost esteem, and the town itself has had their hidden sins revealed.

Is there no mercy? Are people from the time of Christ until now always petty and unjust? Do humans live to accuse, convict, and condemn? Are even the good people, like Christ and Atticus, doomed to destruction?

We certainly sin, and even stalwart Atticus Finch, were we to probe his past, would prove guilty of some indiscretion. Jem and Scout could gossip about any of us, and some of what they whispered would be true. We’re all guilty of breaking God’s laws.

But even if we weren’t, we’d still all fail to keep society’s codes. People create codes, like racism in To Kill A Mockingbird and religious law in the Biblical story, to determine who is better than whom. These codes are arbitrary. At some point, we’re all going to break them and accuse others of breaking them when it serves our interest to do so. We all deserve Bob Ewell’s spit.

Christ alone never broke God’s laws, and even he could not escape societal conviction. Christ was condemned, not for breaking God’s law, but for breaking his society’s codes.

We need mercy. We don’t deserve it, but mercy is the only escape from this cycle of condemnation we have created. We need to show mercy to others because we need it ourselves. Mercy frees us from the demands of laws we can’t keep be they God ordained or societally encoded.

This second week of Lent, remember the times you have falsely convicted others of breaking any kind of law. Remember the times you have been similarly falsely convicted.

1) When have you, like Jem and Scout and the people in the courtyard, gossiped about someone else?
2) When have you, like the people of Maycomb, Alabama, or the authorities in the Sanhedrin, chosen a societal code over true justice?

Also, recall the times you have truly been in the wrong. Recall your sin. Remember the times you have stood convicted and known there was no way out of your guilt.

1) When have you, like Christ and Atticus, broken a societal code and stood condemned for it?
2) When have you needed mercy like Boo, like Tom, like Atticus, and like Christ, and not received it?

When you stand before your accusers (even if that accuser is yourself), incapable of escaping their conviction, offer them mercy. Do not repay condemnation with condemnation. Break the cycle. To close this week, confess your sins to one another, offer each other mercy, ask for God’s mercy. Without it, we are all doomed.