Harry Potter, Humanity, and Empathy
I believe in stories. This isn’t a bold or new statement by any means, but it’s important for me to unpack here, in this space. Narrative is, I believe, the key to unlocking our images of God and the Gospel. If we understand life, church, and relationship as narratives and metanarratives and conflicting stories of events, we step closer to honoring the individual dignity of each person. Self-narratives, theology narratives, Gospel narratives, life narratives, policy narratives – all are vitally important to understanding the depth and breadth and pluralistic nature of humanity. We honor people by understanding their stories first.
But we also interpret and understand ourselves through the stories we read. That’s why Jesus told parables instead of polemics. Why we tell the Bible in chunks of story rather than polemics and apologetics. Why apologetics, as a practice, is still just a practice and real conversion, you find, happens in stories and narratives and in the messy bits between discussions.
CS Lewis, many will say, had been argued into faith, proving the purpose of apologetics – but even he would tell you that it is not the strength of an argument but the action of the Holy Spirit, pointing him to the idea – to the narrative – of Christianity as capital-T True. He wasn’t argued into it; he was seized by the narrative.
Much of my own personal story in understanding the Image and Community of God revolves around stories and narratives. It was the reading of the Left Behind series that signaled the beginning of a fervor for being “the right Christian,” for throwing myself not only into church life and somewhat charismatic and legalistic understandings of the Gospel, but into the right wing politics that were part and parcel of that understanding of God.
And it was “secular” narrative that was, in many ways, instrumental in dragging me back out of that. One narrative in particular (one of many, all of which have had varying degrees of impact on my spiritual life) stands out as important to examine in terms of understanding the possibilities of redemption that the Image of God carries. That narrative happens to be the Harry Potter series.
When I mentioned this on twitter yesterday, I got a number of replies happy that Harry Potter was being incorporated into this series. So I hope it’s safe to assume that many of you know the basic plot and characters of the series and I’ll spare you the summary (spoilers for book seven here, but if you’re worried about being spoiled on Harry Potter…really?).
At the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, there’s a scene that is deceptively simple. The Dursleys are being forced to leave their home – for their own protection – and Harry will likely never see them again. This is, in many ways, a relief – Harry has been tormented by them for nearly his entire life. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia had been outright abusive toward him, and Dudley, their biological son, had followed suit – he’d been spoiled from childhood and had been conditioned by his parents’ vitriol toward Harry.
In the first book, we first see Dudley on his birthday, trying – quite stupidly – to do the math on whether or not he got as many birthday presents as the year previous – 36 versus 37. He whines until his father promises to buy him two more presents while they are out in order to even up the difference. He is the center of his little universe.
This is of course in contrast to what we’re told Harry gets for his birthday – old socks, maybe a coin, if they remember at all. Harry’s home life is not good – indeed, it is downright abusive, which is why his escape to Hogwarts, and a home that accepts and loves him (eventually) is so important. He finds a new family, a new way of living, a new community that reflects grace, and love, and hope. It is everything he never had.
Rowling could have left the narrative of the Dursleys there. She could have let them remain the evil step-parents, the flat, fairy tale like caricature. But instead, she does her best to give them their humanity back piece by piece – showing us how hurt and jealous Petunia is of her sister, showing where the hatred of magic has come from. Petunia, after all, lost her sister to the world long before Voldemort took Lily’s life.
Rowling could have left the narrative with the Dursleys forever outside the community, forever flat "haters of magic."
But she didn't. In book seven, Rowling shows grace and the possibility of redemption within the Dursleys, through the person of Dudley. Dudley’s move is small, imperfect, and in many ways not even close to enough. As the Dursleys prepare to leave their home and their life – the home they have lived in for probably over 20 years and their "normal" life – they have every reason to continue to resent the magical world. And Harry points this out, saying to another wizard (in the presence of the Dursleys) that they think he’s a waste of space.
“I don’t think you’re a waste of space.”
Dudley quietly whispers, almost unsure of what he’s saying himself. But he says it. Petunia – more hardened in her hatred of Harry – embraces Dudley’s minute expression of feeling with tears and love, celebrating Dudley’s humanness but not Harry’s.
And yet, Harry, recognizing the complexity of the interaction, explains to the other witch, “Coming from Dudley, that’s like ‘I love you.’” He understands the gesture, even though he recognizes that it is not nor never will be enough to make up for the abuse of 17 years. He has empathy.
This does not mean that they are reconciled, or that Harry has even forgiven the family for what they have done to him, but that he recognizes the humanity of the Dursleys, despite having absolutely no reason to do so.* He knows they are human and that their humanity – as Muggles, as people naturally outside of his community – is worth trying to understand. He shows infinite grace in that tiny moment, grace that manifests itself later in the novel when he helps Snape in his dying moments and in his pleas for Voldemort to recognize his own humanity (“But before you try to kill me, I’d advise you think about what you’ve done…Think, and try for some remorse, Riddle…”).
This moment of empathy has meant a lot to me over the years. To me, empathy does not mean that you wash away all sins, or that you forget what a person did and be reconciled to them, but that you understand their story. It means that you see them as human - like Harry's hope for Voldemort, that Voldemort see himself as a human being, as well. (Keep in mind, too, when Voldemort refuses this opportunity, Harry does not let his empathy keep him from doing the right thing by defeating Voldemort - one can still be just while one is empathetic, something that the modern evangelical church misses when it pleas for people to "forgive" their abusers).
There’s still a lot to unpack about the image of God and community, which I’ll be doing throughout the year (we’ll get into some more academic theology, eg, Stanley Grenz, soon), but for now, I want to sit with the narrative, with the story that recognizing the humanity of others is what is important, that community is brought forth when we give others a chance to be human just as we ourselves are human.
*I want to be absolutely, fundamentally clear here: Harry gives no indication of forgiving the Dursleys, or even being willing to be reconciled to them – as far as we know, he never sees the Dursleys again after this. And Harry’s actions here are not a prescription for those who have survived abuse – rather they are a narrative of dignity, even in our enemies. Recognizing humanity does not mean we reconcile or even stop being angry at those who hurt, but that we do not base our anger at them on refusing to see them as human.