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The Rise of Dolores Umbridge: The Nature of Evil in a Rowling World

I recently engaged in an fascinating Facebook exchange on Exvangelical -- an online community (and podcast) for those who have left evangelicalism/ fundamentalism to share stories of their experiences (and to support one another as they process) with others in a safe, affirming, private space. As I was scrolling my homepage, I came across a post from a woman who's child was reading the Harry Potter books (what I would give to experience them anew just one more time). She had posted a discussion question on the topic of Dolores Umbridge, stating that while Voldemort was an obvious allegorical character for evil, Dolores Umbridge also seemed extremely important in regards to how J.K. Rowling was discussing evil/evil people.

Welp, the pop-theologian in me came out and a group of us chatted for a bit. Nothing makes me happier than a bit of Potter-theologizing. And as the days have passed, I have been chewing more and more on how much we may need a "come to Jesus" moment with Dolores herself.

For those who don't know, I wrote my M.A. thesis on J.K. Rowling's theology in Harry Potter (trust me, I realize both the stupidity and privilege of my studies--but I am who I am). One thing that has always struck me about Rowling’s writing was how she addresses the “duality of natures” that lives in all of us. Her multi-dimensional characters are constantly tested in the face of evil (in its many many forms) and much like our world today, this evil is not always a clear-cut enemy in a dark, ominous robe. Rowling's trio did indeed have to face Voldemort, but they also had to confront bullying and blind ambition in Rita Skeeter. They had to defend the rights of house-elves from not only Lucius Malfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange, but also from Ron's own internalized racism--effectively having to face themselves. Harry had to face the apathy of his family, Hermione had to confront non-ending muggle-phobia.

And yet, while every aspect of Rowling's deconstruction/reconstruction of evil in her books is fascinating, no character has captured my imagination and philosophical heart in 2017 quite like Dolores Umbridge--the unimaginably cruel and complicit (#hiivanka) headmaster in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. As we discussed on Exvangelical, Voldemort is clearly an overarching evil character in the Potter books. He is the evangelical (I use that term loosely--more to denote an approach to Christianity than a denomination) embodiment of evil. He is devoid of nuance or humanity. He just is evil (though even this is a much larger conversation for another day). Rowling has said that she modeled her universe and it's struggles on Nazi Germany and WWII. If Voldemort is Hitler (which he is), Dolores Umbridge is your average lower level officer in Hitler's army--completely unaware of the bigger picture and yet a very much needed and effective cog in the machine.

I can't help but wonder, as we have seen the destructive power of so many "Dolores" this year (looking at you Congress--enabling sheer madness with the sour twist of cruelty), how did we miss the mark on who builds up cartoonish figures of evil so that they can effectively do harm? Why are we placing so much blame on the facade of evil when the foundation is ten times as powerful?

As we await news of the special election in Alabama, I am struck by the absolutely eerie interviews with Alabama women, ironically dressed in “Dolores pink” on the steps of a courthouse defending a known pedophile in the name of "values". While they may not see themselves as complicit and actively engaging in evil, they most certainly are. In the age of information and connection (no matter how much the fake news siren wails), it is no longer an excuse to say complicit = unaware. If this year has taught us anything, it is that complicit = willfully ignorant.

I don't have some bow-wrapped ending for this post. I am scared that I am seeing more and more Dolores Umbridge's everywhere. At first, it was fringe crazies online. Then it was news stations. Then it was politicians. Then it was our aunts and uncles. This wretched pink plague is spreading...

But I don't want to end this first post on Harry Potter with some sort of implied pat on the back for those of us who think we are above acting in a Dolorish way. As I was rereading the series recently, I came across a line from Severus Snape that took on a new life. Snape, when warning his Defense Against the Dark Arts class in Half Blood Prince about the dangers of evil, gives great insight into how easily we all fall into darkness and how easily we can become complicit. And Snape is the right person to sound the alarm. He himself was lured away from love and friendship by his own internal demons and biases. Snape says to his students, “The Dark Arts…are many, varied, ever-changing, and eternal. Fighting them is like fighting a many-head monster, which, each time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even fiercer and cleverer than before. You are fighting that which is unfixed, mutating, and indestructible .” What Harry (and myself) originally interpreted as Snape's love for the Dark Arts now feels more like a sad foreshadowing of Snape’s downfall, but more importantly an understandable respect for his past. Snape was always keenly aware of how dangerous his own brokenness was, lurking in corners with apathy, loneliness, and rage, waiting to grab hold. He had to be ever vigilant--and ever vigilant we too must be.

We are all Severus Snape — one wrong turn away from turning into a Dolores Umbridge. But what matters most when looking at Snape (and ourselves) is the idea of choice. We know Harry had a choice to be good or bad. Dumbledore had a choice. Voldemort had a choice to be good or bad. Voldemort continued to have this choice until the end. When you re-read the final chapters of Deathly Hallows, you see that Harry, right up until Voldemort’s final moments, tells Voldemort he can repent for his actions—he can choose to change. Every person in Rowling’s world carries good and evil nature within them. Harry himself carries a piece of Voldemort within himself (is it still a spoiler alert ten years later?). For Rowling, there is no human experience--no human nature--that is not a mixture of good and evil. And as cliche as it sounds, the truth is that good and evil is defined by our choices, not our nature or circumstances.

The truth is, most of us will never be faced with a Voldemort, but every single one us deals with a Dolores (or two or three) each day.

Some days we ourselves are Dolores.

But we always have a choice to be someone else--to reach for empathy, kindness, humility, and knowledge. We have a choice to break cycles of oppression and harm.

Choose to do it, ok? Choose to do it one moment at a time. Those moments will add up. #wearetheresistence


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