Read this only if you’ve already seen all three seasons of the television series Avatar: The Last Airbender.1 My wife and I have been re-viewing this story on DVD, ending with the third season, “Book 3: Fire.” All over again we have been gripped by the powerful pictures of love and reconciliation so beautifully drawn in the series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko.
Avatar bends the dual assumptions that many people have about when and how we forgive — assumptions that I often encounter when discussing incidents of abuse and other sins.
- Therapeutic forgiveness. “I’ll forgive him because it’s wrong to hate, but that doesn’t actually change anything beyond my feelings. I’ll never have anything to do with him.”
In a recent article about an evangelical leader who is apparently unrepentant for spiritual and sexual abuse, one victim said, “I forgive him, but I have no wish to reconcile with him.” I suggested this doesn’t qualify as “forgiveness,” which according to Scripture is both feeling and action — and it is conditional on an offender’s repentance. That is, if the offender does not repent of his sin, there is nothing to forgive. Until then, Christians must avoid thoughts of vengeance (because vengeance is only the Lord’s), and love our enemies (Rom. 12), and we must long to be reconciled with a repentant offender — if not now, then in the New Earth.2
- Blatant revenge fantasy. “Forgiveness is for wimps. That person hurt me and those I love! So no matter how the offender now feels, JUSTICE demands I punish him forever!”
Is it my imagination, or are we seeing many more slasher movies that take the side of the story’s victims and give them carte blanche excuse to punish their offenders by any means necessary? Perhaps this is in response to incomplete views of “forgiveness” that seem to leave no place for justice. But the answer is not by endorsing sick parodies of “justice” that leaves audiences cheering for the most depraved and violent responses to sinful violence.
Instead the Avatar — and friends — bring balance to the world of mercy and justice.
Over this series I hope to explore what I mean, following the stories of three Avatar heroes: Fire Prince Zuko, Katara of the Water Tribe, and Aang, the titular last airbender.
Today Zuko is beloved by Avatar fans. He was recently seen in the sequel series The Legend of Korra, back on Nickelodeon this summer. But before he was Fire Lord and the Avatar’s ally, the Fire Nation prince spent all Avatar’s first season hunting Avatar Aang and friends.
Near the end of season 2, Zuko begins to change. The influence of his eccentric yet truly good Uncle Iroh is slowly winning over him. Imprisoned with Aang’s friend Katara, Zuko shows remorse and apparent repentance — and Katara is touched. She even offers to try to heal the scars Zuko received at the hand of his father, the evil Fire Lord Ozai.
But at the last moment Zuko turns again to his lifestyle of sinful self-love. His remorse was only a feeling, blasted away by his fiery and idolatrous desire for his own “honor.”
Only halfway through season 3, when Zuko has regained all of what he thought he ever wanted, does he truly begin to change. This time we behold his true and final repentance from sin and it is glorious. Zuko’s heart is changed as if by supernatural regeneration. He is at complete peace as he confronts his evil father and proclaims he will join the Avatar.
Over several stories fans watched as Zuko humbled himself and repented to his enemies. When they reject him, refusing to forgive, he does not fight back. He retreats and waits, in anguish but understanding their refusal. But circumstances force them to give him a try anyway, and Zuko proves this repentance is genuine. We see him serving the group in small ways — making them his uncle’s teach — and big ways — teaching Aang how to firebend. Zuko takes risky “field trips” with each member of Team Avatar. And perhaps most striking, when Katara angrily says she will never forgive him, he does not. Even. Try. To fight back.
Even after the group accepts him, Zuko laments seeing his own life and hatefulness brought to life by a Fire Nation theater troupe. The play is a farce. But at this part, he isn’t laughing.
Actress Azula: Well, my brother, what’s it going to be? Your nation, or a life of treachery?
Actor Iroh: Choose treachery. It’s more fu-un!
(Actor Zuko walks toward Actor Iroh.)
Actress Azula: No way!
Actor Zuko: (Pushes Actor Iroh over and walks to Actress Azula.) I hate you, Uncle! You smell! And I hate you for all time!
Katara: (To Zuko) You didn’t really say that, did you?
Zuko: (Quietly) I might as well have.3
Later during an intermission, Toph asks Zuko what’s wrong.
Toph: Geez, everyone’s getting so upset about their characters. Even you seem more down than usual, and that’s saying something!
Zuko: You don’t get it. It’s different for you. You get a muscly version of yourself, taking down ten bad guys at once, and making sassy remarks.
Toph: Yeah, that’s pretty great.
Zuko: But for me, it takes all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, and shoves them back in my face. My uncle — he’s always been on my side, even when things were bad. He was there for me, he taught me so much. And how do I repay him? With a knife in his back. It’s my greatest regret. And I may never get to redeem myself.
And Zuko never does — because despite the talk of “earning” honor, following one’s own destiny, and the usual catchphrases people may too easily dismiss in stories, it’s not any Eastern view of honor and shame but a purely Christian view of mercy that rules this story. In a scene that still brings tears to my eyes (and once again, please do not read this if you have not seen the series yourself), Zuko finds his uncle. The show’s creators in the DVD commentary directly admit they were inspired by the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
(Zuko sits nearby as Iroh wakes up and stretches. He glances back slightly and sees Zuko, but says nothing. We watch Zuko from in front.)
Zuko: Uncle — I know you must have mixed feelings about seeing me. But I want you to know … (Starts to cry) I am so, so, sorry, Uncle! I am so sorry and ashamed of what I did. I don’t know how I can ever make it up to you. But I’ll —
(He is cut off. Iroh pulls him into a hug, while starting to cry as well. Iroh starts to smile, but Zuko becomes shocked and confused.)
Zuko: How can you forgive me so easily? I thought you would be furious with me!
Iroh: I was never angry with you. I was sad because I was afraid you lost your way.
Zuko: I did lose my way.
Iroh: But you found it again. And you did it by yourself. And I am so happy you found your way here.
Zuko: (As the scene draws to a close) It wasn’t that hard, Uncle. You have a pretty strong scent.4
What did you think of Zuko’s journey to reconciliation with his enemies and his uncle? Did you see the Eastern-flavored honor-and-shame labels ultimately subverted by Biblical concepts? What did you think of Zuko’s feelings-based “repentance” in season 2, compared with his true feelings-and-action repentance in season 3? And of course, are you enjoying the new Avatar: The Legend of Korra season 3 stories?
(Next week: Katara’s journey away from vengeance and toward true forgiveness.)
- A certain film adaptation is among Those We Do Not Speak Of. ↩
- Jesus Christ in Matt. 6: 11–15 commands His people to forgive as God forgives, and God does not forgive all people but only the truly repentant (verse 15 alone shows this). See Luke 17: 3–4 for another example of how Jesus contrasts responding to an unrepentant brother — a Christian — versus responding to one who repents. However, even if God does not forgive everyone, He does love His enemies, and longs to be reconciled with them.
- Transcript based on “The Ember Island Players” episode transcript at Avatar.Wiki.com. ↩
- Transcript based on “Sozin’s Comet, Part 2: The Old Masters” episode transcript at Avatar.Wiki.com. ↩