Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on July 28th 2013.)

Video: from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry seems to have been a hard one to fill.  Another teacher even suggested that the position was jinxed, resulting in its extraordinarily high turnover.  During Harry Potter’s first few years at the school, for instance, Defense Against the Dark Arts was taught, in turn, by one of evil Lord Voldemort’s minions, by a best-selling author who turned out to be a complete fraud, and by a closeted werewolf.  For Harry’s fourth year the school recruits a retired Auror (or Dark-wizard catcher) named Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody who had been single-handedly responsible for capturing many of the world of magic’s criminals.  Paranoid, eccentric and more than willing to defy the system, Professor Moody accepts the invitation to teach so long as he’s allowed to show his students the reality of the Dark Magic they might encounter.

[Moody demonstrates the three “Unforgivable Curses”: the Imperius Curse that controls another’s will, the Cruciatus Curse that induces terrible pain, and the Killing Curse.  Harry is the only person who ever survived the third.]

Anthem: “Double Trouble” by William Shakespeare and John Williams (from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”)

Sermon: “Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil”

I’ve had something of a soft-spot for the “Scottish Play” since studying it as part of my high school English Literature class.  You may have recognized some of Shakespeare’s lines in our anthem, which was composed by John Williams for the Hogwarts choir.  (Our version, sadly, lacks the part scored for toads, which some of the students at Hogwarts keep as familiars.)  In the original play, of course, these lines are chanted by the three witches as they prepare their cauldron for a visit by Macbeth.  “By the pricking of my thumbs,” the second witch intones when they are ready, “Something wicked this way comes.”  And that is Macbeth himself, of course, knocking at their door.

I remember being taught in that English Literature class that Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy because Macbeth, while capable of both good and evil, chooses the latter as the way to fulfill his ambitions, but given the results of his choices he eventually loses everything, including his life.  The witches, who are certainly practicing the Dark Arts if the list of ingredients they add to their cauldron is any guide, don’t actually tell Macbeth what to do — his bad decisions are his own — but in their fortune-telling they do give his ambitions a nudge, sinking the whole kingdom into chaos.

J. K. Rowling has acknowledged that the Scottish play may well be her favorite of Shakespeare’s, and so its influences can be found within the Harry Potter stories.  The band that played at the Yule Ball during Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts, for instance, was named the “Weird Sisters”, part of their weirdness being, no doubt, that all eight band-members were actually male.  More significantly, perhaps, one of the themes driving the story arc through all of the books is the tension between fate and free will, particularly in terms of the danger that comes from knowing one’s destiny.

So Shakespeare’s Macbeth murders King Duncan because the witches have predicted that he will “be king hereafter”.  By similar logic, Rowling’s Voldemort attempts to kill the baby Harry Potter because of a prediction that one of them “must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives.”

Where the comparisons between Macbeth and Voldemort break down, however, is that while the Scot was driven by his ambition for power, the wizard, much as he hungered for power, too, was really driven by his fear of death.

We find out in a later books that, while still a student at Hogwarts, Voldemort learned that there was a way to safeguard a piece of his soul by storing it in some other object, such that even if his body was killed, he would not actually die but could be resurrected.  While granting the wizard immortality, such magic comes at a terrible price: as explained by a former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, it requires the wizard to commit murder, which, as “the supreme act of evil […] rips the soul apart.”  That is a price, of course, that Voldemort is willing to pay, and in the end it costs him everything.

From the very beginning of the stories, Rowling makes it clear that in the epic struggle between good and evil, Voldemort’s primary opponent has been Albus Dumbledore, whom Harry knows as the Headmaster of the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

At first, Dumbledore comes across as something of a kindly old eccentric, with a twinkly goofiness that hides his true power.  He genuinely loves his students and does everything he can to protect them, but in doing so, Dumbledore demonstrates the inevitable tension between being good and being kind.  In his struggle to prevent Voldemort’s ultimate designs, Dumbledore discovers he must, in some cases, withhold the truth from those who otherwise have a right to know it and, in others, resort to various forms of manipulation, to the extent that Rowling described him as “quite a Machiavellian figure”.

If Dumbledore is Harry’s mentor, then Potions Professor Severus Snape is Harry’s antagonist, at least amongst the grown-ups.  The two get off on the wrong foot right from the start, with Snape apparently taking delight in tormenting Harry and never failing to malign the memory of Harry’s father, and with Harry casting Snape as his first suspect in every sinister plot, in spite of the number of times that Dumbledore vouched for him.

And yet almost at the very end of the entire series, we find out that Dumbledore was right about Snape, when his great secret is revealed in what is surely the most powerful scene in any of the books or movies.  If you don’t know what that secret is, I won’t spoil it for you, but I will tell you that Rowling always planned for Snape to find redemption, and in the end Harry sees the good in him and forgives him.

Harry’s antagonist amongst his fellow students, of course, is Draco Malfoy, and there’s a whole psychology thesis’ worth of material contained in the antics of the Malfoy family.

Draco first appears as a thoroughly arrogant snot of a boy, and he quickly becomes a typical school bully.  We gain some insight into Draco’s character when we meet his father, Lucius, a condescending bigot who doesn’t hesitate to abuse his power over others — or to do whatever he can to save his own skin when someone else has the power.  Another family member is Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco’s aunt, and she’s simply insane.  Utterly faithful to Voldemort and trying to find out what had happened to him after he failed to kill the baby Harry, Bellatrix had tortured Neville Longbottom’s parents with the unforgivable Cruciatus Curse and was sent to Azkaban prison.  Bellatrix’s sister and Draco’s mother, Narcissa, on the other hand, is far more concerned with the welfare of her own family, to the extent that she lies to Voldemort in order to protect her son and then, in the final battle between Voldemort and Harry, simply stays out of it, taking both Draco and Lucius with her.

Now if you’ve never read any of the books, nor even seen any of the movies, I hope that this quick survey of some of Rowling’s principal characters at least shows some of the complexity that she brings to her portrayal of the epic struggle between good and evil.  In the first book, sure, it’s pretty simple to identify which characters are good and which are bad, and though there are still a couple of surprises, the lines separating them are fairly clear.  But as the books progress, some of those lines become rather blurred.

Rowling herself made it clear that, just as Harry and Neville and the other students got older through the years, so would her stories invoke more mature and more challenging themes.  Sure, Voldemort is as evil as it gets, but we discover that Dumbledore is willing to lie and manipulate if that’s what’s needed, and we get confused about whether Snape is really bad or good a double-agent or perhaps even a triple-agent, and we even find that we can feel, as much as we might resist it, just a little bit of pity for Draco, if only for a short while.

That adds to the appeal of Rowling’s stories, of course, since an essential part of growing up is realizing that the world is never neatly divided into red and blue, but consists of all sorts of shades of purple.  As Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote during his time in the Soviet Gulag, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.  This line shifts.  Inside us, it oscillates with the years.  Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.  […]  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” Solzhenitsyn lamented, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Now “evil” isn’t a word you’ll hear used very often by Unitarian Universalists.  Aside from being one of those words that’s been used to hurt and oppress, or at least to promote a world-view that seems at odds with our claim of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it’s all too easy to reduce evil to the cartoonish images that have become embedded in our culture.  One of those images, which I’m sure has already popped into your head, consists of a figure all in red, with horns and cloven feet and a spiky tail and a probably a pitchfork, but unless it’s a costume worn by our own J— to preach his sermon about the subject, you won’t see that image on display within this Sanctuary.

And yet a number of Unitarian Universalist theologians have observed that in refusing to use the word “evil”, in failing to challenge the cartoonish imagery left to us by the Dark Ages, we short-change not only Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition, but also our individual spirituality.  Cutting out a part of the religious vocabulary to which we have just as much a right as anybody else, we only make it harder for ourselves to address brokenness and pain and hatred and suffering.  As Dumbledore cautions Harry when he struggles to choose between referring to Voldemort by name and using the common euphemism of “You-Know-Who”, “Call him Voldemort, Harry.  Always use the proper name for things.  Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

So let’s face this business of how Unitarian Universalists might use the word “evil”.

First, let’s deal with the First Principle — you know, the one that is usually taken to say that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.  How do we reconcile that with the reality that people lie to one another, hurt one another and generally screw up, whether intentionally or accidentally, just about all the time?

Sometimes it’s much worse than that, but we don’t have to invoke the likes of Hitler to call the First Principle into question; we just have to pick up the newspaper or watch the evening news.  But the First Principle isn’t some existential claim that everybody is really a saint, or a requirement that we should permanently attach rose-colored glasses to our faces, or a demand to never call anybody on bad behavior.  The First Principle, in fact, is precisely about how we ought to treat one another — particularly when, inevitably, we screw up — and for that matter about how we ought to treat ourselves when we realized we’ve screwed up.  So how do we “affirm and promote” someone’s inherent worth and dignity?  We hold them accountable for their actions, and we insist that others hold us accountable for our actions, too.  If we are to take all of the other Principles seriously, particularly the Seventh in its announcement of the interdependent web of all existence, then such accountability is essential.

Second, what do we mean by evil?

In classical theology, goodness is like the water in a fountain, welling up and out from the godhead and overflowing into the rest of creation.  Anything that blocks or removes that goodness is then evil.  Within Unitarian Universalism, we might think of it in terms of the interdependent web of all existence, where a higher quality of interdependence — as gauged by the health of human relationships, for example, and the sustainability of our relationship with the environment — corresponds to greater goodness.  Evil is then damage to the threads of the interdependent web.  Both natural events and human actions may break the threads, reducing interdependence and diminishing the web’s goodness.  Some evil is natural, part of what process theologian Catherine Keller notes is an inevitable part of the creativity of what she describes as “a living, whirling, open system of a world[, …] this real world of finite creatures who live, feed, risk, exult and die, a world of change and interdependence in which suffering is inevitable.”  And then we are faced with a choice: we can learn and grow from it or we can respond with further evil, because in refusing to realize our place in the web, we break the threads of interdependence, resulting in the violence of injustice, ecological damage and unhealthy communities.

Third, how do we respond to evil?

Well, if evil is doing damage to the threads of interdependence, then the good response is healing those threads, healing relationships, healing the community and healing memory.  We don’t need to be able to explain why bad things happen to be able to identify them and call them out, to respond to another’s pain and suffering, to address injustice wherever it takes place, and to find ways to live upon the Earth so that wholeness may be restored to the interdependent web.

There are a couple of aspects of this that, in bringing this sermon to a close, I’m going to lift up by referring back to the Harry Potter stories.

In the second book, havoc is wreaked at Hogwarts when Lucius Malfoy tries to dispose of a magical artifact that had once belonged to Voldemort, namely a diary in which he had stored a piece of his soul.  Malfoy slipped it amongst the schoolbooks being bought for Ron Weasley’s younger sister, Ginny, and soon enough she writes in the diary.  In doing so she awakens the piece of Voldemort’s soul and leads to the unleashing of a terrible serpent that had been hidden in the bowels of the school itself.  When Ginny disappears and Harry and Ron go to try to find her, Harry eventually succeeds in destroying the diary, but not before he is troubled by some of the apparent similarities between himself and Voldemort — like their ability to speak Parseltongue, the language of snakes.  Harry later takes it up with Dumbledore, in one of the sections of the book that Unitarian Universalist ministers love to quote.

“Professor,” [Harry said, “the] Sorting Hat told me […] I’d have done well in Slytherin.  Everyone thought I was Slytherin’s heir for a while … because I can speak Parseltongue …”

“You can speak Parseltongue, Harry,” said Dumbledore calmly, “because Voldemort — who is the last remaining descendant of Salazar Slytherin — can speak Parseltongue. Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he [first tried to kill you.” …]

“So I should be in Slytherin,” Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face.  “The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it …”

“[It put] you in Gryffindor,” said Dumbledore calmly.  “Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students.  His own very rare gift, Parseltongue — resourcefulness — determination — a certain disregard for rules,” he added, his mustache quivering again.  “Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor.  You know why it was.  Think.”

“It only put me in Gryffindor,” said Harry in a defeated voice, “because I asked not to go in Slytherin.”

“Exactly,” said Dumbledore, beaming once more.  “Which makes you very different from [Voldemort].  It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

It is our choices that make all the difference and, what’s more, we don’t have to make those choices alone.  Throughout the books, one of the two great themes is love.  The baby Harry Potter survives the Killing Curse because of his mother’s love in sacrificing her life to protect his.  Dumbledore, Snape, Narcissa Malfoy — they’re all motivated by love, and that’s where they find their redemption, too.  And Voldemort is ultimately defeated because he neither loves nor is truly loved.

It’s not for nothing that the Second Source of Unitarian Universalism consists of the “words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love”.  It’s no accident that the Unitarian Universalist campaigns for marriage equality and immigration reform and other interfaith public advocacy issues come under the heading of “Standing on the Side of Love”.

Love in our world may not literally be a mystical force that magically grants protection from evil, as it is in Harry Potter’s world, but it comes very close.  It is love that gives us strength in the face of suffering.  It is love that gives us courage to call injustice to account.  It is love that heals our relationships with one another and with our world.  So how do we respond to evil?  We choose love.

May it be so.

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2 Comments »

  1. […] July 28th: “Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil” […]

  2. […] every person.”  I’m not sure that that’s the only, or even the main reason, and in any case part of the First Principle is respecting people enough to hold them accountable for their actions, ….  As Cindy points out, there is a very real difference between welcoming all people, which is […]

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