I love reading novels. Sure, sometimes it is because I crave a bit of escapism. But it is also because I enjoy thinking about the human condition, immersing myself in stories, and because I take pleasure in good writing. As a moral theologian, I recognize also that fiction has a way of shaping our moral imaginations.
One of the ways I coped with the U.S. presidential election was to reread the seven-part Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As one of the candidates was mocking disabled persons, bragging about sexual assault, retweeting white supremacists, claiming he was smart to have avoided paying taxes, and talking about building a wall as an answer to a broken immigration system, these novels gave me a way of processing my anger and challenging my complacency. As I read the books this time, I was struck by the way in which Rowling offers criticism of unjust social structures and broken institutions, inviting readers to reject apathy and instead follow the example of Harry and his friends as they resist evil. If you want to follow Harry’s example, here’s what you need to do to resist evil.
- Don’t go it alone.
Harry’s story is not just Harry’s. From the first book, Harry’s friendship with Hermione and Ron becomes a source of great strength and companionship. We see a model of authentic friendship here. They are honest with each other. The friends do not always agree, and yet they are willing to speak their mind and offer correction to each other. They engage in mutual discernment, arguing pros and cons of the alternatives before them at any given time. It takes Hermione a long time to convince her friends of the principles behind the House Elf Liberation Front, but their friendship doesn’t end as a result of not immediately agreeing on this issue. They care for each other and work together throughout their adventures, each having different strengths that contributes to their success (and each having weaknesses as well). As the story unfolds, more join the resistance movement. The common room of Griffindor is no longer the only home base for their mounting resistance efforts. Dumbledore’s Army brings together friends from different houses in solidarity against the larger threat of the Dark Lord. Harry never achieves anything on his own. Instead, he is an important player in a larger social movement. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione are searching for horcruxes, Ginny and Neville are challenging the abuse of power at Hogwarts. As true friends, they encourage each other (think, for example of Hermione’s faith in Harry during those long nights in the tent when they were discerning together how to find the next horcrux; or of how Luna’s Patronus gave Harry enough hope to keep fighting when all hope seemed lost). They share the same values but need each other to realize them. As true friends, they are willing to endure suffering in order to help a friend. Their sacrifices for one another–and willingness to die for a just cause– ensure that Harry can complete his mission. But not before Neville makes it possible.
2. Know what you’re up against.
Throughout the series, Harry Potter and his friends have intellectual curiosity. Sometimes their curiosity gets them into trouble. But in general Rowling portrays their desire for knowledge as a healthy appetite. They ask questions. They explore. They read books (well, Hermione does anyway). There is a very interesting commentary on educational policy in Book 5: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which contains a subplot about Professor Dolores Umbridge, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, with close ties to the Ministry of Magic. On the first day of class, Hermione Granger asks why they would not be using defensive spells in the class. Professor Umbridge explains: “Wizards much older and cleverer than you have devised our new program of study. You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way.” Harry and Hermione know that such a course of study is meaningless for them. It would only serve the interests of those in the Ministry who would like to keep them disempowered. But if they are ever going to actually mount a resistance to Lord Voldemort, they need to practice defense against the dark arts. Even if such a course of study carries risks. Indeed, one could argue that real education always carries risks. Embedded here is a critique of education akin to Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed. Does education serve the oppressor or the oppressed? The corrupt Ministry of Magic or the student? Harry, Ron, and Hermione continue to seek truth, and this truth-seeking ultimately leads to their victory (since information about the wands became so important in the end).
3. Don’t believe everything you read in the paper.
Book 4 contains an extended critique of journalism that continues through the series, exemplified in the character of Rita Skeeter, who writes for The Daily Prophet. Wizarding families assume that news coverage in The Daily Prophet is reliable and accurate, but Harry and his friends know otherwise. Harry is upset after Hagrid appears in one of Skeeter’s stories, and she tells him “Our readers have a right to the truth, Harry.” But then she goes on to twist and distort the truth. Later in the story, Hermione confronts Skeeter:
Rita gave Hermione a long, hard look. Then, leaning forwards across the table towards her, she said in a businesslike tone, “All right, Fudge is leaning on the Prophet, but it comes to the same thing. They won’t print a story that shows Harry in a good light. Nobody wants to read it. It’s against the public mood. This last Azkaban breakout has got people quite worried enough. People just don’t want to believe You-Know-Who’s back.”
“So the Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear, does it?” said Hermione scathingly.
Rita sat up straight again, her eyebrows raised, and drained her glass of Firewhiskey.
“The Prophet exists to sell itself, you silly girl,” she said coldly.
And there we have it: an indictment of the corporations that sell us our news today, for a price.
The contrast between The Daily Prophet and The Quibbler is a fascinating — the one that is assumed at first to be “utter rubbish” becomes the vehicle for truth-telling. How could a family who believed in the Blibbering Humdinger and Crumple-Horned Snorkacks actually produce quality journalism? Through a combination of unusual means of sourcing stories at the same time people were hungry for the truth and tired of the lies in The Prophet.
4. Empathize with the enemy.
In Book 6, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore takes Harry on a journey to understand the motivations of Tom Riddle. By understanding his family history and his early childhood, Harry can begin to put the puzzle together. Why would a half-blood become such a bully? What does he hope to gain and how far is he willing to go? By introducing him to the complex story of Tom Riddle’s life (and, similarly, of Severus Snape’s background), Rowling helps readers explore the very difficult lesson of empathy. Harry has to learn how to think about issues from Voldemort’s perspective and to see reality from his point of view. Only then can he understand what Voldemort’s true aims are and, ultimately, defeat him. Of course, the sadness here is that Tom Riddle has never experienced true love and resists it. He understands only a power struggle and not the possibility of self-sacrifice out of love. Voldemort continues to bully, berate, and abuse his followers, a leadership of fear and hate: “There is no good and evil. There is only power, and those too weak to see it.” This is the ideology that Harry is fighting. This is what it is all about.
5. Adopt a spiritual practice.
In Book 5, Harry begins to learn Occlumency with Professor Severus Snape. Occlumency “seals the mind against magical intrusion and influence.” Since the Dark Lord can practice Ligilimency with ease, meaning the ability to extract feelings and memories from another person’s mind, Harry practices Occlumency so that he can “shut down those feelings and memories” that the Dark Lord wants to manipulate and exploit for his dark purposes. When Harry starts to study Occlumency, he begins to recognize his inner spiritual life. He learns how he his supposed to close his mind to the Dark Lord, but his is often tempted not to do that. He becomes aware of the dangers of his mind’s inner landscape. At first, studying Occlumency is terrifying. Over time, Harry develops greater self-awareness and emotional maturity.
With time, Harry begins to explore his inner mind with less anxiety. It reminds me of the work of Martin Laird, author of Into The Silent Land, who discusses meditation and contemplation. Harry journeys towards wholeness but continues to stumble along the way. Laird’s analysis describes a gradual process.
“The doorway into the silent land is a wound. Silence lays bare this wound. We do not journey far along the spiritual path before we get some sense of the wound of the human condition, and this is precisely why not a few abandon a contemplative practice like meditation as soon as it begins to expose this wound; they move on instead to some spiritual entertainment that will maintain distraction…. The key is to move from being a victim of thoughts (the commenting, chattering mind) to being their witness (the heart’s stillness) . . . Typically we spend many, many years being their victim. We are imprisoned by the chattering mind. Gradually we learn to distinguish the simple thought or emotion from the chatter and we discover an inner stability that grows into the silence of God.”
6. Join the fight.
Of course, at the end of the day, Harry doesn’t watch from the sidelines as other good people work against a corrupt Ministry and Dark Empire. As MT Davila has already commented on this blog, readers of the Harry Potter books are challenged to ask what we are doing in the fight against injustices. Dana Dillon has analyzed the motif of love in the series, and about how Harry learns what love requires in his own context. I think it is worth noting here that the series presents a thoughtful analysis of the use of force. Harry and his friends are not pacifists. But, unlike Voldemort and followers like Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry and his friends apply proportionality in their overall approach to violence. And their goal is a lasting peace rooted in justice. At every turn they want to limit harm to innocent Mugbloods, but they are not afraid of using force when it is necessary to combat the Death Eaters.
“Dark times lie ahead of us, and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” – Albus Dumbledore
Sometimes it takes a fictional character to help us makes sense of real life. I continue to be impressed by the layers of wisdom and social commentary embedded in the Harry Potter series, and I hope it moves other readers (young and old) to think with courage and conviction about how each of us can make a difference. I think all six of these strategies for resisting evil can be adapted in our own context. We may not carry wands to work with us, but we can think critically about how corporations produce media content that generates money for their bottom line. We can ask who benefits, and resist fake news. We can join social movements in our own day, put time into cultivating lasting friendships rooted in shared values, and adopt spiritual practices that broaden our self-awareness. We should empathize with those on the other side. Try to understand where they are coming from. And always, always love. Love is the strongest magic there is.