Those readers familiar with the short story, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson know that the title is misleading since money plays no role in this ‘lottery’. When discussing this story with a first-year English Composition class, students are initially confused by the outcome of the lottery. Like in the narratives of the Old Testament, the practice of stoning remains a custom for the villagers in the story as well as those living in neighboring towns. However the annual stoning is not a form of punishment but a tradition. And the lottery is the system by which a random person is selected. The ritual is so entrenched that the fact the lottery maybe abolished in a nearby town causes one elderly villager to pronounce, “‘Pack of crazy fools . . . ’” (Jackson 143). After being informed that some towns actually have ended the lottery, he states, “‘Nothing but trouble in that,’” (Jackson 144). As readers we sense the drama of the crowd’s marked silence which precedes the moment a family’s name is picked as well as the instance before a particular family member’s name is chosen. Yet the most powerful aspect of the plot comes towards the end when one person objects to this arcane and gruesome practice—prior to the first stone hitting Tessie Hutchinson, she repeats her earlier protest, “‘It isn’t fair’” (Jackson 145-46).
Certainly there are many interpretations of this piece of fiction, but the detail that is most striking to me is that the only person who verbally disapproved of the stoning was the recipient of the lottery. Although Tessie Hutchinson’s negative reaction is unsurprising, it is disturbing that no one else in the crowd expresses their displeasure about the tragedy that will occur shortly. The villagers’ “silence” on questioning the rationale for this annual custom is not merely a display of misplaced stubbornness or devotion to tradition, but the failure to choose to live a moral life. It is this same choice that Christians meet when considering what it truly means to emulate the life of Christ. If we want to practice Matthew 22:39, “. . . Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”, we cannot “sit in silence” while members of the wider human family suffer.
I was struck by the gravity of this statement when in September I received an email from Amnesty International entitled, “Do Not Sit in Silence”. The email went onto state, “When Amnesty speaks the world listens. Make that voice loud and clear”. While I knew that I was supportive of Amnesty’s philosophy, I was also painfully aware that I had not even expressed a squeak to elected officials, friends, or family about the multiple human rights violations that were accounted in these regular messages. And it was uncomfortable to admit that even though I had taught a literature class on the theme of human rights and had enthusiastically encouraged my students to agitate on behalf of those who could not advocate for themselves, I had not been following my own instructions.
Nor could I ignore the fact that as I was reading several research papers written by freshmen on the topic of homelessness in America that the overwhelming position taken by these students was one of compassion and not blame. This brought back an earlier memory of my friend Sara who while we were in graduate school made a concerted effort to know the names of the homeless people that she fed who she walked past every day. I remembered this as I hurried to the English Department on a cold morning passing a homeless man who asked me for some spare change.
In the textbook, Thinking Critically by John Chaffee, a philosophy professor at LaGuardia College he explains that the choice to live a moral life is “. . . both a daily and lifetime project” (399). So the realization that I had been neglecting “my neighbour” on a daily basis was sobering (Matthew 22:39). I was just as culpable as the villagers in “The Lottery” by choosing to ignore the suffering in my community as well as in the wider world; I had not been attending to the needs of others as taught by the Christian creed. But I also recognized that outside the traditional fellowship of the Church, Christ’s concern for the disenfranchised was being addressed. A non-governmental agency, my composition students at a non-sectarian university, and a Jewish friend nurtured my “. . . moral [and Christian] growth” by refocusing my attention on the personal challenges that others face (Chaffee 399).
Living a Christian life is not an act of spontaneity but a choice: “make your voice loud and clear”.
Chaffee, John. Thinking Critically. 10th edition. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2012.
Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Bedford Reader. Eds. X. J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Jane E. Aaron. 11th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 139-146. Print.
The Bible. [King James Version]
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4945