Death or Mercy?
The third novel in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, climaxes with a confrontation between protagonist wizard Harry and his friends—Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley—and three school friends from their parents’ generation—Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew. The three friends of the older generation, however, have suffered an erosion of trust because of Peter’s traitorous service to the Dark Lord, Voldemort, Sirius’s attempt to kill Peter for his treachery, and Lupin’s suspicion that his former best friend Sirius is a murderer who has joined Voldemort’s side and is trying to kill Harry. As the group learns the truth of Peter’s betrayal and Sirius’s loyalty, Lupin and Black agree that Pettigrew deserves to die for having facilitated Voldemort’s murder of Harry’s parents, James and Lily Potter:
“You should have realized,” said Lupin quietly, “if Voldemort didn’t kill you, we would. Good-bye, Peter.” …“NO!” Harry yelled. He ran forward, placing himself in front of Pettigrew, facing the wands. “You can’t kill him,” he said, breathlessly. “You can’t.”
Black and Lupin both looked staggered.
“Harry, this piece of vermin is the reason you have no parents,” Black snarled. “This cringing bit of filth would have seen you die too, without turning a hair. You heard him. His own stinking skin meant more to him than your whole family.”
“I know,” Harry panted. “We’ll take him up to the castle. We’ll hand him over to the dementors…. He can go to Azkaban… but don’t kill him.”
“Harry!” gasped Pettigrew, and he flung his arms around Harry’s knees. “You—thank you—it’s more than I deserve—thank you—”
“Get off me,” Harry spat, throwing Pettigrew’s hands off him in disgust. “I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it because — I don’t reckon my dad would’ve wanted them to become killers—just for you.”
It’s been five years since my friend Dana Dillon first alerted me to this passage and its impulse toward promoting a culture of life. And Rowling wrote these words long before 9/11 and the “War on Terror.” Reading these words today, however, they resonate all the more poignantly as I continue to observe a culture whose imagination is held captive to violence and death as a solution to the problems facing it today.
The Bondage of the Imagination
Violence captured the American imagination long before there was organized government on this continent. From the beginning, the colonial settlers ensured their survival, gained independence, and sought prosperity by killing off or driving away the land’s original inhabitants and anyone else who challenged their rights of ownership and self-governance until the sovereignty of the United States government stretched “from sea to shining sea.” This history continues to impact the American imagination positively as well as negatively. For example, it has resulted in many immigrants achieving the “American Dream” of economic stability for their families and a pervasive “can do” attitude. Indeed, in President Barack Obama’s May 1 address informing the nation of the raid that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death, he cited the operation’s success as evidence that “America can do whatever we set our mind to.” Even conceding that Bin Laden deserved death (as all of us sinners do), it is not an occasion for celebration. Contrary to recent New York Times articles by Jonathan Haidt and Benedict Carey, celebrating Bin Laden’s death is neither justifiable because a government brought it about, nor “only human”—the “natural” catharsis of revenge satisfied. It is, rather, an occasion for mourning the continuing cycle of violence, the impossibility of reconciliation with an enemy, and the distorted smallness of the American imagination. That America could imagine and bring to fruition the killing of its most ruthless and elusive adversary is far from impressive—this country has always done that. If, however, President Obama’s words account accurately for America’s abilities, I humbly suggest that America set its mind to something else.
I wonder what would happen if America set its mind (and all other resources currently devoted to fighting terror and crime) to the concerted cultivation of friendships that cross cultural, political, national, racial, and socio-economic lines. Can we even imagine a world where such friendships are the first line of defense and comfort in the face of violent attack, poverty, disease and every other source of pain and sorrow? Changing the way things are demands the ability to “see” what is not yet realized. America’s first task, therefore, must be the development of a vibrant imagination. Cultivating the imagination can occur by many and multifarious means, but well-crafted stories that speak the truth belong among the most powerful tools for such important work. And they have the added benefit of providing entertainment. Knowing that stories have such power, however, one must choose wisely which ones to internalize.
In the story with which I began, Harry Potter recognizes that killing someone has a high cost—it results in a negative transformation of the one who kills. The consequences of Harry’s intervention initially appear devastating. Pettigrew escapes and returns to Voldemort as his minion—slavishly constrained to do his master’s will. But Harry’s mercy has the unintended consequence of ensuring that he and his friends can slip through Voldemort’s clutches with precisely the artifacts that they will need to ensure the Dark Lord’s ultimate defeat. But even Voldemort’s demise comes about not through the skilled use of weaponry, but through Harry’s surrender to death and his refusal to kill even when he has the power of the unconquerable Elder Wand. Up to the very end Harry offers Voldemort the chance to change his ways, but his mind cannot even conceive of remorse. The only victory Voldemort can imagine is his enemies’ death, and so he makes one last attempt to kill Harry. The assault backfires because of magic beyond Voldemort’s understanding—the power of love and loyalty stronger than death—and kills him instead of Harry. So there is no final reconciliation and transformation of the enemy into a friend. But J. K. Rowling’s fantastic world offers a glimpse of the indomitable power of friendship, loyalty, and self-sacrifice to withstand deadly attacks and endure even beyond death. The arc of Harry Potter suggests that even if enemies cannot ultimately be converted, there is no true victory unless the people who would promote freedom, friendship and flourishing maintain their integrity in the face of opposition. The battle is not won if the victors come to resemble the enemy. Such is a fate worth than death.
Rowling’s tale owes obvious debt to another well-known epic fantasy—J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Like Rowling’s story of the Boy Who Lived, Tolkien’s tale takes place at the climax of a war between those who advocate freedom and flourishing, and a Dark Lord who would enslave all others for the advancement of his own power. The lines between good and evil seem sharply distinguished, but the free peoples’ leaders— Galadriel, Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, etc.—all recognize that the armies of Sauron far outstrip them in both numbers and collective power. Middle-earth’s free alliance cannot possibly defeat Sauron on his own terms. They must strike at the root of his power by destroying the One Ring that supplies it, and they must rely on the smallest and most obscure of their ranks to carry out this mission. Middle-earth’s flourishing beyond Sauron only has a chance because Bilbo Baggins found the Ring and showed mercy even when Gollum threatened his life, and because of the unshakeable loyalty between Frodo Baggins, the Ring-bearer, and Samwise Gamgee. Even more than in Harry Potter, the mercy shown to a pitiable enemy proves indispensable to the victory of good. When the time comes for Frodo to cast the Ring into the molten innards of Mount Doom, his will breaks under the strain of his burden and he claims the Ring for himself. Out of nowhere, Gollum attacks Frodo, wrests the Ring from him and trips over the precipice, destroyed along with the Ring that ruled his existence and sealing Sauron’s defeat. As Gandalf had predicted, Bilbo’s pity for Gollum came to rule the fate—indeed, the survival—of many. Again in this story, no ultimate reconciliation occurs, but it still shows that true victory has its roots in mercy, friendship, loyalty and endurance.
Certainly there are more stories that portray similar virtues. One of them is Brad Bird’s film, The Iron Giant. The film merits its own post; indeed, it speaks for itself. Like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, it is especially compelling for its themes of friendship and self-sacrifice. Indeed, friendship and self-sacrifice form the heart of the story that shapes most definitively not only the human imagination, but the course of all history—the Gospel story of Jesus. Stories like these command attention because they resonate with the truth revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus; namely, that love and forgiveness inhere in the structure of God’s world. These stories help to cultivate the imagination necessary to live well in God’s world. Surely these stories have their limits—the reconciliation in them remains incomplete and the faithful suffer heavy losses. But they consider the losses worth their integrity and maintain hope in their grief. The remnant of grief bespeaks the not-yet-resurrected moment of our time where sin, violence, and death still hold us captive.
I will not dispute that Osama Bin Laden deserved to die. All human beings do. Only one man in history did not deserve death, and only his death redeems the world. Bin Laden’s death is, therefore, not to be celebrated as a victory. I have no rosy notions that transforming members of al-Qaeda into friends would be easy, pleasant, or even that efforts at it would have an immediate effect. Undoubtedly the cost in human lives would be high, and irrevocable (and perhaps unpleasant) changes in the American way of life would inevitably result. But the war on “terror,” a conflict to which there is no end in sight, has had the same results and has escalated America’s addiction to violence. America has even stooped to torture. It is time for America to set its mind to something else. It is time to imagine the world differently. Perhaps then, by the grace and power of God, we might truly “be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:1).
 J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, (New York: Scholastic, 1999) 375-76.