The title of Harper Lee’s recently released book, Go Set a Watchman, comes from Isaiah 21, a prophecy against the luxurious city of Babylon. In the passage, the prophet posts a lookout (“set a watchman”) to report on the destruction of the city. Finally, the watchman cries, “Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground.”
“To the poor oppressed captives,” this call “would be welcome news; to the proud oppressors it would be grievous,” wrote Matthew Henry, the great 18th-century Bible expositor.
The cry that the imposing edifice of segregation has begun to crumble comes as welcome news to Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, but not to her father. She’s as horrified as fans of To Kill a Mockingbird to learn that Atticus has become a member of the white Citizen’s Council. For them, the cry of the watchman is a grievous one, foretelling the destruction of their entire way of life.
In the novel, the Methodist pastor Mr. Stone gives a sermon based on the “go set a watchman” text in Isaiah. Although Jean Louise makes “a sincere effort to listen to what Mr. Stone’s watchman saw,” he drones on and on, and all she makes out is this milquetoast:
A Christian can rid himself of the frustrations of modern living by…coming to Family Night every Wednesday and bringing a covered dish…abide with you now and forevermore, Amen.
Another scene illuminates the religion of Jean Louise’s hometown: a flashback in which Jem, Scout, and their friend Dill play at having a revival, a staple of church life in Maycomb summers. “Revival time,” the narrator tells us, was “a time of war”—on sin, which included drinking whiskey, drinking Coca-Cola, seeing movies, hunting on Sundays, and, for women, using makeup or smoking in public. The children take turns railing against various things, speaking of a heaven that’s full of their favorite foods and a hell that’s not much worth imagining.
Christianity, for people of the Finch family’s class and position in Maycomb, means maintaining the mores of yesteryear and being respectable in accordance with their august family history. Religion requires them to get rid of the “frustrations of modern living” and bring a covered dish to church now and forevermore. It justifies maintaining the way things are (or were) by keeping people’s minds focused on sins like drinking Coca-Cola and seeing movies and good deeds like “coming to Family Night” every Wednesday.
Jean Louise both is the Watchman and longs for a Watchman—having lived in New York City, she has a perspective on the movement toward racial equality that’s broader than her father’s. Yet the novel’s tension (and readers’ sense of calamity) grows out of her sense that she can’t believe what she sees and hears. She struggles to reconcile her own breadth of thinking and acting with her father’s bigoted perspective and yet seemingly justice-motivated defense of the character we meet in Mockingbird as Tom Robinson.
“I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point,” Jean Louise tells Atticus. “You love justice, all right. Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief—nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief.”
This may as well be a concise version of the kind of religion espoused and preached in Maycomb, too—religion that’s concerned about the appearance of the cup and the platter and the washing of hands and the wearing of certain clothes but remains content to deny black citizens the right to vote and other weighty matters of justice. “You love justice all right—abstract justice” could be a commentary on James 1:22, which tells believers to be doers of the word, and not just hearers thereof.
Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, which is, as numerous critics have demonstrated, riddled with flaws as a novel, is nonetheless an important American literary artifact. If nothing else, it reminds us that even a novelist who has produced something great didn’t do so on her own, and didn’t hit her every attempt out of the park.
But even in its title, Watchman also reminds us of something crucial about religion in American life: often enough—especially around the question of race—some Christians have been more concerned about matters relating to personal piety, like women wearing makeup or smoking in public than about larger, systemic sins, like segregation and violence against people of color. How many churches—and individual Christians—have had more to say about whether it’s a sin or not for women to wear yoga pants or bikinis than about the killing of unarmed black men by police and the fact that black children in America are twice as likely as their non-Hispanic, white peers to live in poverty?
We, too, can set a watchman on the lookout for the causes of righteousness and mercy, so that when he reports on what he sees, we do not find ourselves condemned by our complacency—or complicity.
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