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To Mock A Killing Bird

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By DONALD DeMARCO

I was chatting with a high school English teacher recently and asked what she was using at the moment in her classroom. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” she answered, “and the students love it.”
Harper Lee’s 1960 novel has been immensely successful. It won a Pulitzer Prize for its author and the film version won three Academy Awards, including best actor for Gregory Peck. In 2005 the British Institute included it in its list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14. Atticus Finch, the protagonist, played by Peck, is widely considered as the most convincing cinematic image of racial heroism.
Perhaps, I suggested, the novel is even better suited for a class in moral philosophy. It exposes, in a most dramatic fashion, the evil of racism. “Yes,” my friend concurred. The pedagogical problem, though, I said, is that we often have 20-20 moral vision looking at the evils of the past, but are severely myopic when it comes to a moral vision of the present. What novel could you use to help students see the moral problems that surround them?
Maybe someone should write, I conjectured, not entirely facetiously, To Mock a Killing Bird. The pseudonymous author could call herself, “Lee Harper.” Pro-abortionists who routinely kill the child in the womb (the symbolic bird) misinterpret any reasonable criticism of their position as “mocking.” My friend agreed, and while chuckling, thought it would be an adventurous idea.
As we spoke, the traveling Anne Frank exhibit was being shown at one of our local high schools. Anne Frank, a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl who died in 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, provoked thoughts about how this kind of horrific evil could be avoided in the contemporary world.
One student stated to the press that “people are people regardless of what their religion, race, or beliefs might be.” Her statement made no reference to age, a significant omission since euthanasia for the elderly and abortion for the very young are prevalent in Canada. “We try to learn from history as much as possible,” commented an eleven-year-old girl.
What we learn from history, it seems, is that we realize the errors of history without applying them to the present day. We travel through life looking at reality through a rear-view window. Yes, the concentration camps were denizens of great evil, but how can we understand why so many members of the Third Reich zealously participated in them? What was in the air that goaded them into going along with such a moral monstrosity? How can we sense what is in the very air we breathe?
A friend of mine took his young son to the Holocaust Exhibit in Washington, D.C. Ironically, the boy was refused admission because he was wearing a pro-life T-shirt. The slogan, “never again,” was contradicted since abortion is a continuation of the very philosophy that was at the center of the Holocaust. My friend pointed out the incongruity to the admission attendant, but in vain. What has the Holocaust taught us — anti-Semitism is condemnable but aborting children in the womb is acceptable?
The words of Christ, “The truth shall make you free,” is often jarring to people. Flannery O’Connor knew this well, which is why she remarked that “the truth shall make you odd.” Try telling a citizen of the contemporary world that abortion is a form of domestic violence. The expected reaction, even at the Anne Frank Exhibition, will be a firm and angry denial.
The agreed-upon sentiment of the teenagers is that it is “important to listen to youth and not discount what they are saying.” But youth does not speak with a unified voice. We know of young people at various universities who have been violently opposed to pro-life displays. In some instances, professors have lost their jobs or failed to be promoted because they chose to defend unborn life.
“I urge you to remember and learn from the past,” commented the local mayor. But the great problem is how can we understand what is going on in the present? The moral environment in which we live tends to be invisible to many, as it was to the Nazis.
Media guru Marshall McLuhan emphasized how difficult it is for people to see what is going on in their own environment. As a Catholic, he knew that it is the perennial ideas that we need to judge by, not the ones that happen to be trendy. The perennial ideal that was violated at Bergen-Belsen, “Thou shall not kill,” is routinely ignored in today’s world.
Concentration camps represent Hell on Earth. They are not being repeated as such. But a new kind of horror has replaced them. In his Preface to the 1962 edition of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis maintains that the greatest evil in the contemporary world is not in concentration camps. Rather, he states, “it is conceived and ordered (moved and seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with while collars and cut fingernails and smooth shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”
Hence, his concept of the new Hell on Earth is a “bureaucracy.” The modern abortuary, approved by elected politicians and the beautiful people of Hollywood, exemplifies what C.S. Lewis had in mind.
“There is much work to be done,” according to the teenage proprietors of the Anne Frank Exhibit. This, of course, is a truism. But what is the nature of the work that needs to be done? It is understanding what is going on in the present world and recognizing the inclinations toward evil that are present in each one of each. We are fallen creatures and cannot exempt ourselves entirely from what is wrong with the world. We should all make the strenuous effort to become instruments of peace.
My friend thought the idea of discussing “To Mock a Killing Bird” was something she would use in her class, if she had the opportunity. As a substitute teacher, however, that opportunity might not arrive. And so, I thought I would fly it as a trial balloon hoping my reading audience would find some merit in it.
The writer is not confined to the classroom. He has a broader audience, but one that may include other English teachers.
(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest books, How to Navigate through Life and Apostles of the Culture of Life, are posted on amazon.com.)

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