Take the First Step

Raya and the Last Dragon is the latest Disney-princess film, one that highlights just how much the idea of a Disney princess has evolved since Snow White premiered in 1937. Raya is not a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by a handsome prince. She is a brave warrior in the spirit of Moana and Mulan, who, like those princesses, seeks to save her people.

Raya’s father, Chief Benja, invites the tribes of the once-unified Kumandra to the Heart tribe, in an attempt to reunite the fractured people. Raya befriends Namaari, daughter of the Fang tribe’s chief. In an act of trust, Raya shows Namaari the location of the dragon gem, a magical stone which had been used to defeat the evil Druun five hundred years ago. Namaari betrays Raya, attempting to steal the gem for the Fang tribe. This leads to a battle between the tribes, in which the dragon gem is broken and the power of the evil Druun returns. This outcome leads Raya to seek Sisu, the last dragon, and to reassemble the five pieces of the dragon gem from each of the tribes.

Raya’s innocent trust followed by Namaari’s betrayal, and the lack of trust between the peoples of Kumandra, highlights the two major themes of the movie: trust and tribalism.

 

Trust
In the opening scenes of the movie, we see Raya switch between two extremes regarding trust. Raya innocently trusts Namaari and shows her new friend the location of the dragon gem. After Namaari betrays this trust, Raya adopts the philosophy of trusting no one. Surely both extremes are unhealthy. Knowing how much to trust others is definitely a difficult task. Raya wants to help her father unite the fractured tribes of Kumandra, so she befriends a girl her age from Fang. This was a wonderful step to take, especially since the adults were so suspicious of each other. However, Raya also had a responsibility to keep the dragon gem safe and her innocent trust of a complete stranger had disastrous consequences.

Boundaries are important and we must be wise with whom we trust. Sadly, there are people in the world who seek to befriend us only to use and betray us. But we cannot take the alternate extreme, choosing to trust no one and not letting anyone get close for fear of being hurt. This will only cause us to be isolated from and suspicious of everyone around us. This affected Raya on an individual level, and it also shaped the people of Kumandra on a tribal level.

Tribalism
After Sisu defeated the Druun, the people of Kumandra divided into five factions who fought over  possession of the dragon gem. While viewers may wonder, “Why can’t these people just share and get along?” we must also ask the same about ourselves. Throughout history, humans have divided into groups and fought over land, natural resources, religion, and many other things. But tribalism is not relegated simply to differing nations. In our own communities people are divided by many things, from ethnicity to political views. Tolerance and diversity are two of the most popular “virtues” of our society, yet our culture is becoming less tolerant of those with differing beliefs and is less accepting of a diversity of views.

How do we overcome this? Although the people of Kumandra were divided into tribes, they still shared a common ethnic heritage, as well as a reverence for Sisu the dragon. They were one people who had become divided, and it took the heroism and trust of members of each tribe to eventually reunite the broken dragon gem and the fractured people of Kumandra. Their similarities overcame their differences.

What about us in the real world? We do not all share the same ethnic heritage. We have different political, social, and religious views. What hope do we have of overcoming the anger, hatred, and division within our society? This is becoming increasingly difficult, as many voices within our culture are advancing a postmodern view that we are not simply members of varying groups, but we are defined by our group membership. According to this view, there is simply no way to ever achieve trust and community between members of different groups. Thankfully, there is hope.

Draw a Larger Circle
Dr. Pauli Murray famously said, “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.” She was speaking specifically about racial segregation, during the time when it was still legal, yet the principle still applies today. As both Chief Benja and Sisu advise Raya, the only way to achieve societal unity is to take the first step ourselves. We must draw a larger circle and remember our shared humanity. As Christians, we know this goes even deeper than our biology. We are all descendants of Adam and Eve, created in God’s very image (Gen. 1:27). This means that we do have a shared heritage, as well as a shared responsibility to steward creation. We are also all sinners(Rom. 3:23) who have a common Savior, Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 4:10). Once we truly understand this, the artificial barriers we have constructed against each other will melt away and we can take the first step in reconciling with our fellow image-bearers.

Conclusion
Raya and the Last Dragon teaches important lessons about trust and the dangers of tribalism, themes that are extremely important in our current culture. On an individual level, we need to learn how to trust others again, even if we have been hurt or betrayed. While we must have appropriate boundaries, it is not healthy to be overly distrustful and suspicious of others. This applies not only to individuals, but also to groups and communities. Our country is divided along racial, political, and various other lines, and we have lost the ability to truly listen to those who differ from us. The only way to heal our society is to “draw a larger circle,” one with God firmly in the center. We must stop thinking of others as them or those people, and start thinking of everyone as us: fellow image-bearers of the Almighty God. We must remember what makes us similar: our shared communities and common human needs. Christianity takes this even farther, teaching us that we have a common Creator and Savior, a God who loves us and wants us reconciled not just to himself, but also to each other. Once we understand this, we are equipped to begin healing our broken relationships and fractured culture. . . And the only way to do that is to take the first step.

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Timothy Fox

Timothy Fox has a passion to equip the church to engage the culture. He is a part-time math teacher, full-time husband and father. He has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University as well as an M.A. in Adolescent Education of Mathematics and a B.S. in Computer Science, both from Stony Brook University. Tim lives on Long Island, NY with his wife and children. He also blogs at freethinkingministries.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @TimothyDFox.