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In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is a symbol of dominance and power. Although some modern Christians would like us to think otherwise [1], Tolkien was a noted Christian [2], and The Lord of the Rings is a metaphorical story about Christianity’s mission in championing peace and freedom. Most importantly, the fate of the One Ring is a prophetic message: a warning that the power to dominate–whether for evil or for good–is a trap that we must avoid if we truly wish to be defenders of freedom. Sadly, that warning has not been heeded and we are still very much in danger of being enthralled by the power of the One Ring.

In The Lord of the Rings, the great enemy is Sauron, a malevolent spirit seeking to dominate and/or destroy the free people of Middle Earth. But the ultimate threat to Middle Earth isn’t Sauron himself. It is the One Ring: an evil relic that bestows to its wearer the power to dominate others. The ultimate threat is that the Ring will find a powerful agent willing to use it. This is spelled out for us in two very important passages in the novels. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo humbly asks Gandalf to take the ring from him for safekeeping.

“No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly. […] I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused.  The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.”

Later, weary of the burden of carrying the Ring without using it, Frodo offers the Ring to Galadriel, oldest and highest of the elves in Middle Earth.

“In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

[…] Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

“I pass the test,” she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

Of course, readers (and movie viewers) rejoiced when Sauron’s armies were defeated. But the wise in Middle Earth–Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Galadriel–knew that the armed conflict was only a side-show: a physical manifestation of the spiritual war in play. The true victory was the destruction of the One Ring. Yes, it was good that Sauron didn’t enslave Middle Earth. But it was just as important–more important, in fact–that no one else did, either. What J.R.R. Tolkien saw in his prophetic vision was that in our world, victory will only come when the ability to use power to dominate is destroyed.

To those who see The Lord of the Rings as a metaphor for the victory of good over evil in World War II, I’ve got some sobering news: in the real world, we failed the test. We defeated Sauron (the totalitarian regimes of the Axis powers), but in accomplishing this, we claimed and used the One Ring (nuclear weapons) to enforce our will on others. Now, the use of power to dominate is running rampant throughout our world. We’ve been corrupted by the ultimate weapon and have failed the test of wisdom. We’ve succumbed to the temptation to use our power to dominate others, and evil is everywhere in the headlines.

It’s a problem of hierarchy and domination. This simple statement could easily be about The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dune, or Game of Thrones. But in fact, it’s most compellingly a statement about us: humanity. For some unknown reason that might have something to do with our evolutionary history, our brain structure, or who-knows-what, humankind seems hardwired to demand social hierarchy and dominance. [3]

The most common shape this takes is tribalism: organizing ourselves and others into groups (tribes) based on whatever criteria we can think of: skin color, eye color, hair color, place of residence, inheritance, language, allegiance, folklore, school attendance, religion, place of employment, field of study, favorite commercial brands, political platform, and on and on. Our tribes organize and structure our interactions with other individuals. We interact more often and more meaningfully with others within our tribe than with those outside our tribe. [4] Each tribe has an internal hierarchy (leaders, followers, workers, priests, defenders) and tribes that come into contact with each other struggle for positions in the external hierarchy. There are theories about the optimal sizes of tribes based on anthropological history or psychology, but it’s pretty clear that the general model is right: people get along best when they’re organized into tribes that limit individual interactions and that facilitate hierarchy and dominance. It’s the way of the world. [5]

The most striking feature of Jesus’s teachings, as documented in the Bible, is the command to treat one another with mutual respect and dignity. [Matthew 7:12, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 6:31] I disagree with St. Thomas Aquinas [6] and assert that Jesus clearly meant this to apply beyond one’s tribe. [Luke 10:25-37] In fact, some have argued that Jesus disregarded the whole idea of tribes. [Galatians 3:23-29] Whether Jesus himself was that extreme or not isn’t clear, but what is clear is that Jesus didn’t consider tribal allegiance to be a sufficient excuse for refusing to interact with others or refusing to treat others with respect and dignity. The teachings of Jesus are anti-hierarchical and anti-dominance.

In the present day, Christianity itself is a tribe. In fact, there are many Christian tribes: the Roman Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox church, the Anglican churches, and myriad Protestant churches. [7] Ironically, many of these Christian tribes now find themselves in a position of power and even dominance. This is no accident. Three centuries after Jesus, the Roman Emperor Constantine became a powerful patron of the Christian church, ended its persecution, raised it to prominence in the Empire, established his capital in a largely Christian city (Byzantium, renamed Constantinople), and began taking a hand in resolving disputes within the church leadership. (Whether Constantine himself ever converted to Christianity or not is still under debate by historians.) Was this the moment in which Gandalf (the Christian Church) put on the One Ring of Power (the power of the Empire)? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly initiated centuries of corruption for Christian churches, in which the message of Jesus–resisting hierarchy and resisting dominance of others–became intertwined with the Roman Imperial culture of extreme domination and worldly power.

This wasn’t the only time that Christianity and worldly power were confused and mixed up with each other, of course. The history of western civilization since the Holy Roman Empire is filled with “Christian Triumphalism,” the strange idea that God’s power in heaven must be reflected on Earth as the domination of all by the Christian tribe. (Even more peculiarly, it’s supposedly our responsibility, as Christians, to make this happen. As if to suggest that God is powerless in the world of God’s own creation?) We see this idea playing out today in myriad ways: attempts to religiously influence public schools, defense of “religious freedom” to discriminate against others or force our beliefs on others, religious tests for public office candidates, skirmishes over mosques and statues and posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses.

Christian Triumphalism is simply another guise for tribalism. [8] It’s yet another sneaky outlet for our hardwired instincts for limited interaction, hierarchy, and domination. It’s the One Ring corrupting the wise and turning them into the problem instead of the solution. It’s the Ring as wielded by Gandalf or Galadriel: an irresistible, blinding force demanding complete allegiance, unconditional love, and ultimately despair, with the penalty for refusal being complete obliteration.

To avoid this fate, followers of Jesus must reject the tribalism and triumphalism of modern Christianity. We must never seek to dominate others. Evangelism must never become compulsion. Christianity must never become enmeshed in government or dominance. Christianity can never be a valid justification for war. Religious freedom–freedom of all religions–is essential to the survival of Christianity. At the same time, the separation of church and state is essential: not to protect the state from Christianity, but to protect Christianity from the corrupting influence of the state.

So the Ring is being wielded with a vengeance in our world. That’s pretty clear. Does that mean that evil is dominant? I don’t believe it is, actually. I believe in a higher power “beyond the sea” that will ultimately claim dominance, no matter what happens in our world. I agree with Gandalf’s view (from the Peter Jackson film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey): “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.” But that doesn’t mean it will be pleasant for us here in the meantime.

Please don’t misunderstand my viewpoint: I’m no more anti-Christ or anti-Christian than I am anti-Gandalf or anti-Galadriel. I’m not suggesting that Christianity must lose! But, like Gandalf and Galadriel, I can see that no one is wise enough to be entrusted with the power to dominate, and that putting Christianity on a throne is the surest way to subvert and destroy it.

To have meaningful lives with dignity, we must struggle against evil: the instinct to seek power over others and to dominate by force. We must do what we can to erode its influence over ourselves and the great powers in our world. We must find new ways to live together without resorting to dominance. Ultimately, we must find a way to destroy the Ring–the power to dominate–instead of claiming it for ourselves.

Does that sound like Christianity to you? If it does, congratulations: you’ve seen past the false idols of power and dominance. It not, you might consider where the disconnect might be between Christ’s vision of peace without dominance and the kinds of Christianity that you’re familiar with. I suspect you’ll encounter the same paradox that J.R.R. Tolkien, George Lucas, C.S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, George R.R. Martin, and so many others have found: God can’t lose, but Christianity mustn’t win.

[1] Banning Gandalf – The Challenges. Website, viewed Jan. 9, 2016. (http://banninggandalf.weebly.com/the-challenges.html)

[2] Birzer, Bradley J. “Tolkien: The Man Behind the Myth,” Christianity Today, Dec. 13, 2012. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/december-web-only/tolkien-man-behind-myth.html)

[3] Wilson, Edward O. On human nature. Harvard University Press, 2012.

[4] Simon, B. Identity in modern society: A social psychological perspective. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0-631-22747-4 pbk.

[5] Arnhart, Larry. Darwinian natural right: The biological ethics of human nature. SUNY Press, 1998.

[6] Aquinas, S.T. Summa Theologica Part II (“Secunda Secundae”) (Extended Annotated Edition). Jazzybee Verlag, 2012. (ISBN 9783849620899) (Specifically: Question 44, Article 8, Reply Objection 3)

[7] Christian denomination. (2016, January 5). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 10, 2016. (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Christian_denomination&oldid=694312374)

[8] “Pope Francis: triumphalism is a temptation of Christians.” News.va: Official Vatican Network, Apr. 12, 2013, viewed Jan. 9, 2016.(http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-triumphalism-is-a-temptation-of-chris)

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