In the Hobbit Galadriel asks Gandalf why he has chosen the eponymous Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to join such a perilous quest. His answer is fascinating and forms one of the hinge-points of the drama. He tells her “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.” As far as I know this is not an original Tolkienian dictum, but it quite perfectly captures the essence of Gandalf’s approach through the corpus of stories.
This is for me a fascinating perspective on the Gospel. The church has for much of the past 1,700 years taken the same approach as Saruman in Gandalf’s view. The church has sought to hold back evil by its exercise of great power. This imperial mindset would have been inimical to the earliest church, but became quite beguilingly attractive following the Constantinian shift of the fourth century. In this Christendom model it made sense for Christian states to have Christian governments, Christian rulers and Christian armies. It made sense for the church to hold the levers of power because after all, they had God’s truth and anyone who opposed the state must be the enemy of God, right?
Well we all know some of the darker moments of Christendom’s project, and my point is that those crusades, library burnings, slave regimes and inquisitions are not the unfortunate exceptions, but rather the expected by-product of a totalising approach to power. Christendom was not good news if you were female, black, poor or different.
Gandalf rejects this need among those on the side of good to also be the ones holding the strongest power. He instead recognises the weakest, the smallest as his instrument of hope. Gandalf’s Anabaptist move is to recognise the power of the small acts of ordinary people, the humble deeds of love and kindness. In this vision it is in the weakness of small acts of love that the powerful are resisted, and indeed overcome. Gandalf does not take this all the way to a renunciation of violence, which would have made it a much harder fantasy to tell, but throughout the stories it is never the clash of overwhelming force that saves the day. Violent power is therefore never redemptive. Power is never a focus of hope. And if power is never a focus of hope then by that same measure the Powers can never ultimately be a source of despair, because there is always an opportunity for one more small act of hope filled love and kindness.
There is a lesson for us today as we grapple with contemporary issues. It is so easy to take the colonial approach of laying claim to the absolute truth of our revelation which relativises all other claims as at best partial. If you already possess the power of truth then what is the point of listening, of hospitality, of embracing the other. The way of Gandalf suggests we leave behind, or at least shelve, the grand powerful truths of our faith and instead look to the small and everyday acts of kindness and love. This is a choice of authenticity over perfection, of small weak actions over grand mighty truths, of the way of Jesus over the ways of Ceasar, Herod the Temple and all the other great powers of their age.
The gospel of Gandalf is one in which the small brave acts of the little people are seen through the lens of history as far more decisive than the mighty deeds of kings and soldiers, one in which the life and death of a manual worker from an obscure northern region might have more impact and significance than those of the commander of thirty legions. One in which we find God made flesh in a stable, not a palace. One in which the spirit of God flows through every member not just the powerful elite. One in which the mission of God is placed in the hands of the humblest, not just the most learned, confident or mighty.
I think the old wizard might be on to something…