In the dark theater, the audience watched in anticipation as the movie reached its climax. On the screen, the antagonist hung precariously over the ravine and as the hero clutched the bad guy’s arm, he contemplated his choice. Would he rescue his enemy or would he let him fall to a death he deserved? While the audience held their breath, anticipating the hero’s decision, the silence was pierced by a little boy’s shrill voice hollering out his own judgment on what should be done with the villain:
I was that little boy. Now while I do not think of myself as a violent person, that story reminds me how all humans hunger for justice and punishment. As children, we cry out in protest if something isn’t fair. As adults, we claim that we want people to get what they deserve… well, maybe we want other people to get what they deserve. This, though, is not the gospel story. While we serve a God who is just and has promised to one day bring an end to evil, we also believe that the King of the Universe is full of grace. Jesus’ final words on the cross included a request for mercy for his persecutors, not justice and punishment. In walking with Christ we are called to learn to say with him, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”
This is a hard teaching. What does it mean for our children? How should Christ’s grace shape the way they deal with bullies, for example? Is it possible to cultivate in them an inclusive imagination that drives them to find ways to incorporate everyone (including their enemies!) into God’s good story? Those are difficult questions and they lead us to wonder where, outside of the biblical stories, we can find help for modeling ways that evil can be meaningfully engaged and redeemed.
Thankfully, a doctor is on call, waiting patiently for us on most children’s bookshelves.
My wife, Rachel, loves the ending of Dr. Seuss’ book, Horton Hears a Who!. Horton the elephant is on a journey to secure a home for a people so small that their voices can only be heard by his large ears. An influential kangaroo does her worst to stop his silly quest to save the ‘imaginary’ people. In the end, though, (spoiler alert!) she finally hears their voices and has a change of heart. Then in a surprising turn, Horton includes her in his mission to find a safe place for the Whos. (In the recent movie version, Horton even shares a cookie with her!)
In this Seuss tale, instead of ending up alone or destroyed, the antagonist ends up redeemed.
This is startling because in most of our popular stories, the ‘bad guy’ gets what he or she deserves in the end. Rarely does an antagonist experience a change of heart and often that occurs shortly before their valiant death (see: Vader, Darth). Only in exceptional cases are villains both redeemed AND included into a meaningful existence alongside the protagonist. That’s why Horton ranks as one of our family’s favorite children’s characters – because he serves as a sign of the Kingdom of God.
Horton’s example led my oldest daughter and I on a hunt. Like detectives looking for clues, we scoured Seuss’ canon searching for two things: (1) signs of grace in the ways that his characters treated their antagonists and (2) how those antagonists turned out at the story’s close. Here’s what we found:
After Horton Hears a Who! (1954), Seuss’ next big hit was The Cat in the Hat (1957). In that story, the antagonist, an extroverted feline, injects chaos into the lives of two little children, but the Cat ends up being the one to provide a solution to their mess. Then in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957), the Grinch is surprised by the grace of a little girl and as a result, his shrunken heart actually grows larger. Even though he has tried to do them all harm, the townsfolk accept the Grinch into their community and give him the place of honor at Christmas dinner. In Green Eggs and Ham (1960), Sam-I-Am’s antagonist is worn down by his persistence and ends up expressing deep gratitude for having learned to love something new. And then in The Lorax (1971), the Once-ler confesses his role in the destruction of the forest and entrusts the last Truffula seed to a boy, asking for his assistance in making things right.
Theodor Seuss Geisel’s personal history is complicated. Like the rest of us, Dr. Seuss seemed to struggle with sin and grace. During WWII, he produced political cartoons and racially charged war propaganda that painted his enemies in crude and graceless ways. Interestingly though, in switching to children’s books later in life, he set those simplistic solutions to evil aside and took on a more sophisticated and grace-filled approach. It seems that Horton Hears a Who! launched him down a path where his characters were free to respond creatively and redemptively to their antagonists. His children’s stories were nuanced experiments, exploring the possibilities of redemption in a variety of situations.
Certainly, Dr. Seuss’ stories find their primary value in encouraging our children to love reading, but I also believe they have a subversive power to enhance their imaginations. Horton and his crew provide inspired examples for redeeming the ‘bad guys’ that we ourselves may face.
In most of our culture’s stories, main characters work towards breaking bad with justice and punishment. These are the narratives that our society consistently rehearses. But, these Seuss stories are refreshing in the way that they line up with God’s trajectory – one that moves us towards breaking bad with grace.