To Kill a Mockingbird examines southern religious practices and beliefs, revealing the tension that exists within a society that discriminates against select neighbors rather than loving them. Atticus uses Christian values to raise Scout and Jem. Serving as their primary example, he teaches the children to be ethical, moral, and just. He demonstrates compassion, morality, and forgiveness. Atticus encourages Scout and Jem to forgive relatives, classmates, and neighbors who make offensive remarks about him. Yet, Scout struggles to refrain from pummeling anyone who decides to hurl insults at her. When Bob Ewell spits in Atticus’s face, it affords Atticus the opportunity to show Jem and Scout what he has tried to teach them all along: A Christian must turn the other cheek.
As a lawyer and state representative, Atticus is respected in the community and known for his honesty and moral standing. Judge Taylor purposely chooses Atticus to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman, because he knows Atticus will work hard to prove Tom’s innocence. This case places Atticus is the position of being a Christ-like figure, bearing the sins of the community. “Let this cup pass from you, eh?” Atticus’s brother says. Miss Maude argues, “We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.” Critics suggest that Atticus’s courage to defend Tom stems from his strong spiritual foundation and his need to make the truth of Tom’s innocence evident to the community.
Lee also uses the action around the case to illustrate the tension between Christianity, bigotry, and hypocrisy. Hypocrisy and hatred are learned behaviors, suggests Lee, just as love and compassion are. Tom feels compassion for Mayella, a poor, uneducated young woman physically abused by her father. Similarly, Atticus shows love and friendship to Tom when he helps protect him from a mob intent on hanging him for a crime he did not commit. Compassion sets both men apart from other members of the community and is the catalyst for most of the conflict that surrounds them.