For Yom Kippur: Go Set a Watchman

Illustration by Tom Clohosy Cole made for The Guardian in anticipation of the release of Harper Lee's second book in 2015.
Illustration by Tom Clohosy Cole made for The Guardian in anticipation of the release of Harper Lee's second book in 2015.

For the sin we have committed against You by running away from the chance to do good in order to make our lives easier.[1]

“I can’t live in a place that I don’t agree with and that doesn’t agree with me.”[2] How many of us have had such a thought? How many of us live in neighborhoods of agreement? How many of us safely stay in our like-minded bubbles to avoid conversational conflict?

These particular words are spoken by Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, near the end of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Jean Louise has spent most of the book appalled by the blatant racism she sees swelling in the people of her home town, Macomb Junction, Alabama in 1954. She is ready to run back to New York and be done with the South forever.

Her Uncle Jack stops her. Macomb Junction needs her, he says. “The time your friends need you is when they are wrong.”

“There’s room for you down here,” he says. “You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side.…The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more.”

Living in a place where everyone agrees with you is easy. But that makes echo-chambers, not change. If we want change to happen, then we have to engage people with whom we disagree. And in order to engage people with whom we disagree, we have to live and work near them.

Challenging beliefs

For the sin we have committed against You by passing judgement.

If we want change to happen, then we need to do more than condemn other people’s opinions as wrong. If all we do is attack their opinions, then we are passing judgment on them. Judging people is not engaging people.

Change does not happen when we are passing judgement. Change does not happen when we fail to listen to people. If we are not listening, then they won’t listen either.

“What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions?” Uncle Jack asks Jean Louise. “He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.”

If we stay rigid in our thinking and lash out when someone expresses an opinion with which we disagree, then we are acting like bigots.

Uncle Jack has more advice for us, though. “What on earth could I do?” Jean Louise asks him. “I can’t fight them.”

“I don’t mean by fighting,” he responds. “I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.” We can make the most difference by simply being ourselves, by being a voice for what we believe is right, and by speaking with respect and understanding.

Sometimes effective change is about being in the right place at the right time and quietly acting to make a difference.

Perspective taking

For the sin we have committed against You by our arrogance.

In our arrogance, we often think that our perspective is the only right one. We can be so stiff-necked that we believe people who disagree with us are simply wrong-headed. Before we can change someone’s opinions, we need to understand them. We need to introduce the other person’s perspective into our thinking.[3] Change happens when we learn to see the world through each other’s eyes.

When Go Set a Watchman was published, many people complained that the Atticus Finch in this book is significantly more racist than the one from To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’ attitude in Go Set a Watchman is a fascinating study in how one’s perception of identity can shape one’s beliefs, especially when that identity appears to be under threat. In his case, he fears that integration threatens his people’s position.

Atticus identifies himself as part of a Southern white culture that he perceives to be under threat by outsiders. “I’d like very much to be left alone to manage my own affairs in a live-and-let-live economy, I’d like for my state to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP, which knows next to nothing about its business and cares less,” he tells his daughter.

Atticus’ beliefs have become more radical because of his perception of a threat from seemingly uninformed outsiders. He feels that outsiders cannot understand Southerners, white or black, and do not understand the reality of the situation. “You must see things as they are, as well as they should be,” he tells Jean Louise. “Can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?”

Understanding how identity shapes beliefs is essential to understanding how people can believe things we consider unthinkable.[4] We can only understand if we begin to look at things from the other person’s perspective. Yes, some beliefs should be unacceptable. But if we want to challenge and change them, then we have to understand where they are coming from.

Go set a watchman

“Thus has the Lord said to me: ‘Go, set a watchman, let him announce what he sees.’”[5]

In these troubled times, as in times past, we must be the watchmen for our society. We must be willing to make ourselves uncomfortable in order to repair the world. We must seek to understand each other so that together, we can change our society for the better.

When we step outside our like-minded bubbles, we often find more people who agree with us than we expect. We find more avenues of agreement than we realized were possible. Respectful communication leads to collaboration, which leads to change. Through compromise and collaboration, through engagement and civility, through listening and the quiet respect of understanding, we can change the world.

For transgressions against G-d, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.[6]

[1] Adapted from the Al Cheyt confession of sins from the Yom Kippur liturgy.

[2] Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee, Harper Collins Publishers, 2015. The quotes from Jean Louise and Uncle Jack are from pages 264 to 273. Atticus’ quotes are from pages 242 to 247.

[3] Letty Cottin Pogrebin gave a nice description of this idea on the Clear + Vivid with Alan Alda podcast, 7 August 2018, http://www.aldacommunicationtraining.com/podcasts/

[4] “Facing History and Ourselves” (www.facinghistory.org) has some nice resources on teaching about identity in this context.

[5] Isaiah, 21:6.

[6] Maimonides, Laws of Repentance. From the Yom Kippur liturgy.

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is President of the Teach the Shoah Foundation and Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. You can sign up to hear about her new blogs at www.teachtheshoah.org/#optin.
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