"I trust that you also noticed that Tom Riddle was already highly self-sufficient, secretive, and, apparently, friendless? . . . He preferred to operate alone. The adult Voldemort is the same. You will hear many of his Death Eaters claiming that they are in his confidence, that they alone are close to him, even understand him. They are deluded. Lord Voldemort has never had a friend, nor do I believe that he has ever wanted one."
I am reluctant to play the Voldemort card; it's something like today's commentators jumping directly to "Hitler," "socialist," or "fascist" in every argument. But Rowling does construct her story in such a way that Harry -- who is formed for good by his community -- and Voldemort -- who is formed for evil by his unwillingness to sacrifice any of his autonomy -- are presented as direct contrasts to each other. What Tom Riddle's example tells us is that, at its extreme, the desire not to be tread upon can go far beyond being individualistic; it can become solipsistic. One can forget about all others except those for whom one cares and claims responsibility (if one, indeed, cares for anyone else). And people can simply become tools to be employed in the desire to act without being acted upon.
"Don't Tread on Me" can become, simply, "It's All about Me."
I don't claim that this is true of everyone who wants to be left alone by the government, or that Libertarians or Tea Partiers are any more selfish than the average citizen. But I do believe that our American controlling narrative of personal freedom and responsibility allows me to more easily excuse my lack of concern for the homeless, for drowning Pakistanis, for those people who live on the other side of town, because I am working hard to take care of myself and my family -- harder every year, it seems. (And I am, just as many of you are.)
But Harry Potter -- and Stanley Hauerwas -- remind us that if all are to be taken care of, if all are to have a place in the world, we will have to work together and even to suffer together.
I'll explore next week what that might look like in our lives, but will close now with these conclusions. Hauerwas writes that we need something that calls us to suffer, something that releases us "from the prison of our own interests" (Peaceable Kingdom, 9). The Harry Potter story constantly reminds us that self-sacrifice may be the only way we survive and thrive together; at the same time it reminds us that excessive individualism is the path to disaster. And Jesus, in the Gospel of John, tells us that our great call is to self-sacrificing love for each other; in John 13, we see this symbolically as Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. We also understand it as commandment when he tells his followers they are to love each other as he has loved them: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn. 13:25, NRSV).
How do we live with love for each other? How might this love shape us into people willing to sacrifice and suffer together? And what does all this have to do with religion and politics? These are the challenging questions we'll begin to explore next week.
Greg Garrett writes a weekly column (Thursdays) at Patheos on Religion and Politics.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including the forthcoming The Other Jesus from Westminster John Knox Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.
Read other articles by Greg Garrett at Patheos: