Is not Atticus, in many ways, a figure of John the Baptist? Atticus can be seen as a man proclaiming the truth even in the face of persecution, misunderstanding and ridicule. Like John the Baptist, he proclaimed and held to the light even in the very midst of darkness. Both men faced the same temptations – the temptation to remain quiet, to keep ones head down, to not make waves. Both also faced the temptation to proclaim oneself.
Throughout the play, Atticus is a soft spoken, humble man even as others talk about all his achievements and abilities. In his final speech in the courtroom Atticus does not proclaim his own skill as a lawyer nor his gift of rhetoric; rather, he proclaims and points to truth and justice for Tom Robinson. It was a proclamation to those gathered in the courtroom just as pointed as the cry of the Baptist in the wilderness.
John the Baptist also faced this temptation to proclaim self. The people were streaming toward John from all over the countryside, there was a deep yearning for the messiah – John knew this and he could have seized all that energy and power! But he didn’t. “I am not the Christ,” said John. “I am the voice of one crying in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord … I am not worthy to untie his sandals.”
John the Baptist was able to do two things extremely well: he was able to look away from himself and he was able to look toward God. In this he was able to recognize the truth of who he was – a man in need of a savior – and therefore he was able to recognize the true savior when he came (in contrast to the Pharisees). “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, who sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:27)
What John the Baptist and the figure of Atticus proclaim to us is that truth and justice do not lie inherently within ourselves as if they were our own possessions. They are not part of our constitutional makeup that we can either summon or dispose of at will. Rather, truth and justice are acquired by us only insofar as we place ourselves in relation to truth and justice itself – whom we proclaim to have a name and a face: Jesus.
As we place ourselves in relation to Christ, we both learn to see anew with eyes enlightened by faith (judging rightly) and our own dignity is found. The words spoken by the black preacher to the children of Atticus might then be applied to any one of us, “Stand, your father (mother) is passing, a good and just man (woman).” Whether victorious or not in the realm of worldly success and opinion; could there be any higher compliment?
Come, Lord Jesus and do not delay and, in all things, may we testify to the light!