"How to Train Your Dragon"
If you haven’t seen the Dreamworks animation film How to Train Your Dragon, I highly recommend it. The moral of the story is not about dragons- training them or slaying them- as the title of the film suggests. It is a story about taming our deepest fears in order to slay the prejudices that we inherit. When Hiccup, the young awkward, misfit Viking boy protagonist, who desperately wants to grow up to be a great dragon hunter like the much admired boys and men of his village, looks into the eyes of his first flying, fire-breathing nemesis, he sees something vastly different than the violent gospel of his Viking village.
“Three hundred years and I’m the first Viking who wouldn’t kill a dragon. I wouldn’t kill him because he looked as frightened as I was,” Hiccup confides to a friend. “I looked at him and I saw myself.”
Hiccup and the dragon soon become close friends, forgiving one another’s prejudices and bonding with one another through acts of compassion and kindness. Toward the end of the film, Hiccup gathers enough courage to show the elders of the village what he has learned about the dragons they hunt. As the village elders look on, Hiccup drops his sword and his shield and extends his hand not in fear, but in friendship. The fire-breathing dragon relaxes his stance and responds in kind. “We don’t have to kill them,” he says.
It is a life lesson far greater than that of 3-D animation. It contains a universal truth mirrored in those first words from the book of Genesis; “And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image…So God created humankind in God’s image.” Human beings, no matter who we are or where we come from, each contain a spark of the divine within us, and are thereby creatures of dignity and value, deserving of love and respect.
It is a truth that endures despite the world’s aggressive attempt to teach us otherwise. It was true during the Holocaust, the South African Apartheid, the Rwandan Genocide, and the War on Terror. Hutus and Tutsis, Israelis and Palestinians, Americans and Iraqis, Republicans and Democrats, socialist, capitalist, communist. No superficiality or prejudice or fear can withstand the truth of our inherent goodness, our common spark.
During my time at Princeton, I spent a good bit of time engaged in the work of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, working to dispel Islamaphobia in the wake of September 2011. One of the most important lessons from that time was something that we called, “a dialogue of life.” It was a way of forming interreligious and intercultural relationships by first finding common ground in our shared humanity, honoring the spark of God in one anther. It is amazing what fears and prejudices get slayed in the face of that kind of beginning.
This week a friend drew my attention to the work of activist and reporter, Greg Barrett who teamed up with a group of American Christian peacemakers working in Iraq. The story of their work together has been published in a book, “The Gospel of Rutba.” Barrett now is traveling the U.S. to promote the book and talk to groups about lessons learned from the story of Iraqi Muslims helping American Christians.
In an interview with the Charlotte Observer, Barrett said Americans could take simple steps to get out of their comfort zones and get to know people who are different. “Keep an open mind, first of all,” Barrett said. “Read a nonfiction book you normally wouldn’t read. Watch a type of movie you normally wouldn’t watch. Even better, he said, have dinner with someone from a culture you’re not comfortable with.
It’s a pretty simple, but pretty revolutionary idea. An idea that I think Jesus meant when he asked his followers to, “love their neighbors as themselves.”
How to train your dragon? Stare into the soulful eyes of an enemy and find a friend. Keep looking and you will discover that that friend is, in fact, family. Stare longer and the reflection will stop you in your tracks. In the reflection of the other, you will find yourself.