He liked comfort, the story goes. He wanted leisure, and quiet; he craved peace and plenty. He liked to sit and smoke his pipe, and to take his meals lavishly and frequently. He liked his days to be predictable, and for nothing unexpected to break in on them. Unforeseen demands and obligations especially he avoided when possible. He kept things easy and unentangled and comfortable.
He was acquainted with Dwarves, of course, or the idea of Dwarves. You saw them now and again on the roads or at the inns, doing a little trade or just passing through to or from the Blue Mountains. It had always been so, with the old East-West road running nearby. And if he had never made or maintained any close acquaintances among the Dwarves, it was hardly a surprise. They had their business and he his. But he had nothing against them, and was comfortable enough with them in the background, just passing by.
Until of course, that day a crowd of Dwarves inserted themselves into his life. Thirteen Dwarves—very nearly a throng—inviting themselves in, making themselves at home, expecting to be accommodated. Bilbo tried to be polite, but in truth it didn’t take long for friction to arise. The Dwarves had goals and purposes that meant little or nothing to him. They had a history that he didn’t share. They wandered and they adventured, and they weren’t his sort of folk at all. They were determined, and just a touch embittered, and they could seem hard or grim at times to a gentleman bachelor Hobbit. And for their part, the Dwarves thought little enough of him and his carefully-tended shelter of small pleasures—ignorant of suffering and privation, devoid of risk or real ambition, and happy to remain so. Politeness failed quickly, and there were doubts voiced on both sides about the other’s quality and character. Ungenerous, insensitive things were said.
It was a somewhat unpromising start to a relationship, but an understandable, even predictable one for such a mingling of contrasts. And yet after months of traveling together, the end of the adventure finds these characters much changed. They have depended on each other, saved each other’s lives and risked their own. They have won, lost, regained, and given away fortunes. They have suffered and endured. They now share some history, and more than that, they have learned to value each other aright. In parting from Thorin, the Dwarven leader, Bilbo can now say, “I am glad to have shared your perils.” To the Dwarves who once burst in on his quiet comforts and scattered them to the winds, he now offers a standing invitation to do so again: “If ever you are passing my way, don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time!” And the final words of Thorin the Dwarf are his praises of Bilbo. If more folk were like Bilbo and the Hobbits, he sighs as his eyes begin to dim, “it would be a merrier world.”
The Hobbit is such a familiar story to me, but reading it again, in this strange, unsettled year, I see new things in it. I see someone of one race leaving the safety of his familiar, hobbit-centric life and throwing in with companions of a different race to share in their struggles. And I see how remarkable that is.
Yes, I’m talking about race. I don’t want to. In fact, I’m really very fearful about it. I’ll talk Tolkien with you all day long, but the impulse telling me to shy away from the race conversation is very loud. For starters, I can’t think of a more densely packed minefield of a subject, especially right now. Any hope that I could navigate it—even to the distance of a short essay—without blundering into something explosive seems highly implausible. More than that, I feel I must surely be the least qualified person to offer a new or helpful perspective, a White man who grew up in a very White community, who has never worked in the field of racial reconciliation, and who has never even attempted the (extensive) required reading that’s now considered the starting point for discussion. But in another sense, that may be just why I can say something useful: because so many others are in the same situation. There are so many, many of us—White folks who don’t wish anyone any harm, who desire for all people to have the same safety, dignity, and opportunity… but who also haven’t wanted to think about the matter any more than we had to. And because we were White, we usually didn’t have to.
Increasingly, that way of being in the world feels too small, too inadequate. It feels a little like puttering around The Shire, blowing smoke rings and thinking about the next meal, letting “other folks” be about their own business, and calling that a life. The Shire sounds desirable, an enviable place to be, but in The Lord of the Rings we learn that the idyllic drowsiness of The Shire is only possible because non-Hobbits sacrifice and risk themselves to defend it, unknown and un-thanked by those they protect. Yes, the Shire is a beautiful, peaceful place, where many decent and simple folk cheerfully do each other small kindnesses daily. But it is also a bubble, insulated from the unrest and evils of the wider world, and even from dangers surprisingly near at hand. And the Hobbits not only don’t know the troubling reality beyond their gates, they don’t want to know.
Living out my own version of Bilbo’s Shire-life begins to feel like a responsibility ducked, but more than that, an opportunity missed.
Bilbo thought himself happy in his cozy little Bag End, but his adventures with the Dwarves turned out to be the best time of his life. For the rest of his days after his return, he talked incessantly about that journey to the point of boring anyone around him. When he pined for the mountains and distant halls (and eventually abandoned The Shire to go back to them) he wasn’t just remembering an adventure, but a specifically Dwarven-flavored adventure. His experiences were shaped by his fellow travelers and by seeing the world through their eyes, and even if he had traveled the exact same road but with different companions, it would have been a different road. Bilbo came back a bigger soul than he left, not just because he’d seen new places but because he’d entered into the minds and hearts of people different from himself.
But once we’ve decided we not just “ought to” but desire to pursue this bigger life, how to go about it? Where do we start? These aren’t rhetorical questions; they are real, practical problems I need to solve. While I haven’t consciously avoided sharing my life with a more richly varied group of people, I also see how acting unconsciously on this level tends to perpetuate the status quo. Staying within our “comfort zone” largely means treading the same, well-known ground over again. A deep rut generally requires intention and effort to leave.
I have to acknowledge as well that my current ideas and questions might seem painfully belated, insufficient, or even skewed to some readers who are ahead of me on this. And that I myself might look back in ten years, or five, or even one year from now, and wince at my own naiveté. I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done about that. There’s no shortcut to that future me, just my present position and the steps immediately before me. I offer these thoughts not as the final word on the matter, just as the next word in a long conversation.
There are likely a number of reasons we resist thinking hard about race, and one of them is how convoluted and turbulent that society-wide conversation has been. It looks daunting to step out into the Wild without a reliable guide, and kindly, resourceful Wizards have become hard to find. There seems no end to the missteps we can make. The whole subject of racial equity seems like a labyrinthine maze, with branches and side-trails that look promising but lead to dead ends, or even around in a circle. We have seen that we can talk our way around the subjects of slavery, internalized racism, bias in the justice system, public assistance and the Black family, whether the presence of racism is determined by the intentions of this person or the perception of that person, police shootings, controversial monuments, “cancel culture,” White privilege, and White guilt, and after all that, we may find ourselves depressingly close to where we started.
It’s not that we never get anywhere following these threads, it’s just that as a culture we never seem to get where we need to go. What if the answer isn’t found at the bottom of any of these, no matter how deep you plumb them? What if the true road starts in different territory altogether?
For His followers, the answer to every question starts in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus said that He did only what He saw the Father doing—that all His activity was the mind and heart of the Almighty made manifest through a human life (John 5:19). And what we see is His radical acceptance of all sorts of people. It bewilders and galls Jesus’s critics that He looks past all distinctions, divisions, and categories. On the same day He might visit with a religious councilman and with a criminal. He strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan and reveals His identity to her. When a centurion seeks Him out—an officer of the same army that enforces the hated Roman rule over Israel—Jesus helps and praises him! At His table, blue-collar fishermen break bread with a tax-man for the Roman oppressors. How do all these unalikes come together in unity? It’s as if the single common ground of sharing Christ outweighs all differences. He’s a strong enough hub to gather all the contrasting elements in around him. He is a Head to unite a tangle of opposing forces into a body of varied members. In Him, the incompatible are revealed to be complementary and interlocking pieces of a whole.
But He doesn’t accomplish this through blindness to differences or pretending there is no conflict. He recognizes and acknowledges all that has gone before to create division. To the Samaritan woman at the well, He reviews the points of contention between her people and the Jews, the way their paths have diverged. And then He says, but now everything will start to be different. That’s the secret, the idea that whatever has gone before doesn’t have to hold the future hostage. A fresh beginning can be made that nothing in the previous life would ever have bloomed into. Grace. Something new is happening. What was once impossible is now available. It’s how a tax-collecting traitor can become a brother to those he bled, how a murderous enemy of Christ can become His new spokesman.
It’s how a new Word dropped into the Jewish people can ripple outward until “every tribe and people and language” is included.
It seems to me that this is a crucial ingredient to resolving racial tensions both individually and collectively. The ugliness of the past needs to be understood and lamented by everyone, but the past and future need to be severed from each other and then re-knit together by a present outworking of grace. Unearned and unmerited goodwill—a movement not proceeding logically from the history that led up to it but breaking out of the old pattern into new possibilities. Does this just sound like a member of the dominant culture asking for absolution from his own culpability? To be let off the hook for anything in my own life that doesn’t measure up, or for benefiting from a system that works more in my favor than it does some others? If so, I’m not asking it just for myself, or for the people who look most like me. When we met Christ, He showed us that we all need to be unchained from our past, every one of us. And having received it ourselves, He asked us to offer that fresh start to everyone around us.
Let us return to Tolkien, this time to The Lord of the Rings, which continues and further develops The Hobbit’s interplay of races. This time, representatives of four peoples are joined to pursue a common goal, and two of them, Elves and Dwarves, have a particularly snarled history. Yet the improbable odd-couple friendship of Gimli and Legolas is one of the delights of the tale. Early on, they’re both ready to assign fault for the enmity between their kindreds and are rebuked by Gandalf the wise, who’s acquainted with their ancient wars but knows that apportioning blame is most certainly a dead end.
Legolas and Gimli go on in toleration, not setting aside their grudges and suspicions but holding them close and in silence. Friction arises anew when the company passes the boundaries of Lothlorien, the heart of Elvendom in Middle-earth, and Gimli is unfairly singled out by the border-guards as a potential threat. One of the sentries acknowledges this, saying “In nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.” When the Fellowship comes before the leaders of Lothlorien, the Elven lord, out of habit as well as fear of the darkness and uncertainty of the times, begins to speak words of blame against the Dwarves. But then the Lady Galadriel, oldest and wisest of all Elves, intervenes and offers empathy. And Gimli, Tolkien tells us, “looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and he smiled in answer.”
I know this look. When I came to Christ, I found that same love and understanding, where I had looked for condemnation.
With this example of grace before him, Legolas offers Gimli a friendship that lasts the rest of their long lives: a friendship that not only allows for their differences in temperament, interests, and culture but is enriched by them.
This is my hope for my country, and for myself. I hope to look into those hearts that history would place “on the other side” and find love and understanding, and for them to see the same when they look at me. To share their perils and progress, and to someday look back over a life that was more and better than just comfortable. To see undone the Enemy’s estrangement that has too long divided even us who oppose him. To not just come together, but to come back together—for we are kindred. Tolkien’s “races” are essentially separate kinds of beings, with differing origins and seemingly even diverging destinies after death. But we humans are bound up together, all of us sprung from the same Father, whose image we reflect like so many mirrors—varied and uncountable as the stars. The great and lasting Fellowship needs all of us together, with every voice gathered in telling his or her part of the great tale the Author is telling through us, woven as we ever are into His own great Tale.
The featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her glad permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Matthew is fascinated by the use of story to create experiences that awaken us to powerful, redemptive Truth. Several years ago he took up a quest to own and read every book ever published by C.S. Lewis. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, four cats, and a smallish serpent who has thus far never endorsed the consumption of prohibited produce.