11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” – Exodus 3:11
In the face of the new calling on his life, with God’s voice in his ears telling him exactly what to do, Moses takes full advantage of this personal conversation with the creator of the universe. “Who am I?,” Moses asks. This was probably a question Moses asked every day. We see the effects of a narrative Moses had been given throughout his life. The God of the universe is telling him he has been tapped for an incredible purpose and Moses’s first reaction is self-doubt.
You see Moses was a man caught between cultures, with a mishmash of an identity, carrying the weight of past failures. When God tells him he will be the deliverer of the Hebrew people Moses balks citing his lack of identity, lack of knowledge and spirituality, and lack of gifts and skill. Basically, Moses is asking what is the use in trying, Lord? I’m just Moses, a nobody, a murderer, a shepherd, and that’s all I’ll ever be. God’s answer is one that can carry even us through the deepest valleys of self-doubt, but before we get there…let’s go to Zootopia because in Disney Animation’s newest film that very same question is posed. What’s the use in trying?
Zootopia is a story with battling narratives. The narrative printed across the brand of Zootopia, a city where eons of predatory instincts in the animal kingdom have been squashed in the name of peace and prosperity, is that “You can be anything.” In reality, though, written on the faces of the older generation is a different narrative. “You can be anything…as long as it aligns with your zip code, species, gender, and place in the food chain.” No one whose worldview is based in reality would ever truly believe that first narrative. Enter a young Judy Hopps, a rabbit from a rural area that has bought into the brand of Zootopia.
Despite there never being a bunny cop, in the face of pressure from her parents to accept her fate as a carrot farmer, Judy remains a trier. The question of what’s the use in trying has never crossed her mind. Judy is a beacon of hope in the world of Zootopia because not only is the film her story, a story of trying, but it’s also the story of how the roads of this world are paved with the broken hearts of triers everywhere.
This fact is hidden behind the smiley façade of Judy’s parents and it is emotionally told through the life story of Nick Wilde, a sly con-fox, who fails to understand where Judy gets her optimism. With these characters in place we get to see the narratives of Zootopia played out from beginning to end.
In Judy’s parents we see the end of the story, a life lived believing reality says there are limits to what you can accomplish based on your class, species, and culture. In Nick, we see a character with a fresh break in his heart. We get to hear his story of trying only to have culture slap a muzzle on his predator snout. He even says at one point he’s stopped trying to be anything other than what other animals see him as. Then there is Judy who is in the midst of having her heart broken. We get to witness the process in action, the world beginning to break her down. It’s through these stories you start to realize Zootopia isn’t about animals at all…it’s about us.
Disney is the crew that brought us the line, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in a most delightful way.” The sugar of Zootopia are the stunning graphics, adorable cartoon animals, self-aware jabs at Frozen, and the fun, pop beats of Shakira. The medicine is a hard look at the state of race/gender/class relations in America. These same narratives battling in Zootopia are at war in our reality every day.
The narrative painted across the brand of America is that racism is a non-issue, that we’ve moved past the dark marks on our history. You can be anything you want to be in America. There is a narrative at war with this, though, and we can see the effects in minority communities. Across the board, people of color are less likely to apply to top institutions even when academically qualified, less likely to choose fields with top starting salaries like STEM majors, and less likely to come into higher education prepared for academic differences between high school and college.
We are at most two generations removed from the civil rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s and our current minority communities are still lacking opportunities and environments to establish economic and academic success. This is a situation that is crying out for a different narrative. There is a moment in Zootopia where Judy breaks through the narrative Nick has built in his life. She tells him that he can be more, that his story isn’t over yet. This changes Nick’s life.
Recently, I attended the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh, and there I got to hear Dr. Brian Bantum, author of “Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity,” speak on diversity in higher education. His story is unique. Someone late into his academic career broke through the narrative of his life and told him that he had the knowledge and the gifts to become a PhD. And he did.
Dr. Bantum went on to say that had he not had professors of color, compassionate mentors, and others in his life guiding him, achieving the academic success that he has would have had to be a “pure act of imagination.” Without a different narrative he might have answered those encouraging him with doubts. He may have even asked them, “What’s the use in trying?” or even “Who am I to be a PhD?”
That leads us back to Moses and the answer he received to his doubts. Over and over again, in different ways, with different words God repeats to Moses, “I am God. You are mine. I will be with you.” Maybe you will never be whatever you want to be. My window of being the first astronaut to play electric guitar on Mars is closing more and more every second. There are some limitations to what we can accomplish but at the very least God tells us that we are all created in His image. We have the power to achieve amazing things in that image. We can flourish. In America, we really can’t be anything that we want to be, but no matter what your race, culture, or gender is you should have the opportunity to at least try.