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Avatars Of Forgiveness, Part 2: Katara’s Vengeance

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” reflects Biblical truth: we can’t yet forgive but we must love unrepentant evildoers.

Should Christians forgive everyone who offends them?

I don’t believe the Bible teaches this — and it’s a pleasant bonus that most honest stories provide supporting evidence. One such story is acclaimed animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and if you haven’t seen the series then please you may read the footnote here but don’t read further because: spoilers.1

In the season 3 story “The Southern Raiders,” Zuko — whose own journey we explored last week — humbly but boldly confronts Katara for her lack of forgiving him. When he learns why she is particularly bitter against the Fire Nation, Zuko takes a courageous step: he offers to help Katara find the Fire Nation soldier who personally killed Katara’s mother.

“I’m afraid I’m not taking any prisoners today.”

“I’m afraid I’m not taking any prisoners today.”

But before they leave, Aang confronts them.

Aang: The monks used to say that revenge is like a two-headed rat viper. While you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.

Zuko: That’s cute, but this isn’t Air Temple preschool. It’s the real world.

Katara: Now that I know he’s out there, now that I know we can find him, I feel like I have no choice.

Aang: Katara, you do have a choice: forgiveness.2

Aang’s unspoken definition of “forgiveness” is very common among Christians and anyone else. It’s a “forgiveness” based solely on one’s personal feelings about an offender.

In part 1 I defined this “forgiveness” as a sort of pseudonym for relinquishing bitterness or desire for vengeance. Scripture encourages this, because we must love our enemies and not hate them; instead we “leave it to the wrath of God,” Who alone will repay exclusive vengeance against evildoers (Rom. 12:14–21). But Scripture never calls this action “forgiveness,” and only ever defines and encourages forgiveness as an active process in which someone reconciles with an offender who willingly repents of sin.

Unpacking Forgiveness author Chris Brauns challenges the alternate “forgiveness” view:

“Therapeutic forgiveness” insists that forgiveness is at its core a feeling. Our culture has picked up on this in a big way. When most people say that they forgive, they mean that it is a private matter in which he or she is not going to feel bitter. […]

Therapeutic forgiveness also diminishes the necessity of two parties working out there differences. If forgiveness is simply how I feel, there is no need to worry about the relationship.3

Zuko, who knows a little something about not forgiving unrepentant evildoers, challenges Aang’s “forgiveness” understanding:4

Zuko: That’s the same as doing nothing!

Aang: No, it’s not. It’s easy to do nothing, but it’s hard to forgive.

Katara: It’s not just hard. It’s impossible.

Such forgiveness is impossible — not if we preserve any Biblical sense of mercy and justice that presents us with two frustrating dual truths: 1) we must love our enemies and pray for offenders, 2) we must know that God Himself will someday punish them (if not save them).

In fact, even as Jesus warns us that we must forgive others — in an immediate and broader ministry context that presumes the offenders have repented, even multiple times5 — He bases this on God’s forgiveness, and states that God does not forgive all people:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:14-15

Soon Katara and Zuko discover the Fire Nation soldier who killed Katara’s mother.

(Katara holds out both her arms to halt the falling raindrops and create a shield above the three of them. After a moments she blasts water at Yon Rha and transforms the stream into a flurry of ice daggers. Yon Rha crouches in fear of death — but soon looks up. The ice daggers float before him. Katara’s expression softens. She releases the daggers, which liquefy and splash to the ground.)

Yon Rha: I did a bad thing! I know I did and you deserve revenge, so why don’t you take my mother? That would be fair!

Katara: (Sorrowfully.) I always wondered what kind of person could do such a thing. But now that I see you, I think I understand. There’s just nothing inside you, nothing at all. You’re pathetic and sad and empty.

Yon Rha: (Whimpering) Please, spare me!

Katara: But as much as I hate you … (She turns away.) I just can’t do it.

(They turn away. Yon Rha continues weeping miserably in the rain as the scene ends)

Katara refuses vengeance. In a sense, she “left it to the wrath of God” — or, in the world of Avatar, to the “wrath” of an ultimately self-correcting universe that punishes evildoers.

(The scene cuts to a boardwalk overlooking the water, later in the day. We see Katara sitting on the edge of the dock with her eyes closed. Sadly she opens her eyes.)

Aang: Katara? Are you okay?

Katara: I’m doing fine.

Aang: Zuko told me what you did. Or what you didn’t do, I guess. I’m proud of you.

Katara: I wanted to do it. I wanted to take out all my anger at him, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it’s because I’m too weak to do it or because I’m strong enough not to.

Aang: You did the right thing. Forgiveness is the first step you have to take to begin healing.

Katara: (Rises from boardwalk.) But I didn’t forgive him. I’ll never forgive him.

Yes. This is not “forgiveness.” It is simple release of vengeance. True forgiveness is greater, scarier, and more reflective of how God saves. It is only for people who choose to repent and experience reconciliation (or, in some cases, the hope of reconciliation in eternity).

Watch how Avatar’s story beautifully reflects this truth.

Katara: (Smiles at Zuko and walks up to him) … But I am ready to forgive you.

(In a moment that Avatar fans have anticipated for years, ever since the villainous Zuko hated the Avatar then repented of his sin, the two embrace in reconciliation.)

(Next week: We’ll conclude this series by exploring of Aang’s quest to find balance — between his Avatar responsibility to exact justice against the Fire Lord, and the mercy he was always taught to show to all living things.)

  1. Avatar: The Last Airbender follows the adventures of Aang, lone survivor of a lost tribe whose people can “bend” or control air. But as the messianic “Avatar,” Aang is the only person who can also bend all four elements: water, earth, fire and air. And as the world’s spiritual leader, Aang must defeat the one element-based people group that has waged war on the others for about 110 years, the Fire Nation.
  2. Transcript based on “The Southern Raiders” episode transcript at Avatar.Wiki.com.
  3. Following Up On Forgiveness, Kevin DeYoung with Chris Brauns, The Gospel Coalition, Feb. 13, 2014.
  4. Aang also favors nonviolence and vegetarianism. But the story only asks us to consider his beliefs; it does not say they’re superior.
  5. In Matt. 18:22, Jesus insists that we must forgive a “brother” — a true spiritual sibling — an infinite amount of times, no matter how many times the brother truly repents. The parallel account in Luke 17:3-4 makes more explicit the fact that the brother sins and then repents.

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9 Comments on "Avatars Of Forgiveness, Part 2: Katara’s Vengeance"

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Alyssa
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Interesting take on the meaning of Biblical forgiveness. I’m wondering how you reconcile, though, the idea of “loving your enemies” with the condoning of holding onto anger, bitterness, and the hope for God’s vengeance (rather than the hope that the wrongdoer too would find the forgiveness you have in Christ)?

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I’m wondering how you reconcile, though, the idea of “loving your enemies” with the condoning of holding onto anger, bitterness, and the hope for God’s vengeance

I wouldn’t. Not one bit. The article should reflect that.

God’s command “beloved, never avenge yourselves” in Rom. 12 is a command to let go of anger and bitterness and thoughts of vengeance. The “leave it to the wrath of God” is not about a feeling of, “Oh, that person will get what’s coming to him,” but is instead exactly what you said: “the hope that the wrongdoer too would find the forgiveness you have in Christ.” Yet it is also a faith-based confidence that God alone, and not ourselves or even the human justice system, will avenge all evils.

(Not directly spoken above is the fact that God can also avenge evil by “redirecting” it to Jesus Christ, Who suffered once for all on behalf of sinners on the Cross.)

I’m simply saying that Scripture never refers to this letting-go of anger/bitterness/vengeance as “forgiveness.” Calling it that can at least lead to confusion. And as Brauns says, it can minimize the importance of a victim seeking to reconcile with an offender (or seeking to reconcile if you are the offender!). After all, if you can simply avoid the person for the rest of your life and say, “Well, I forgive him, but I don’t want to have anything to do with him,” doesn’t that rather give away the fact that the bitterness is still ongoing and we’re simply in denial about it? (That’s a moral argument; the central argument remains what Scripture spells out.)

Finally, this came up in another discussion: that does not mean that, for example, in a horrific case of evil such as rape, the victim would forgive her attacker if her repents and then have a fully restored relationship with him. If he were truly repentant, he would understand that this is almost 100 percent impossible in this world (and he would also show his repentance by staying out of her life and serving jail time or worse). But both of them would have hope of reconciliation in eternity.

Bethany A. Jennings
Member

I don’t know…  I can’t help but think of a couple Scripture passages, right off the top of my head…

Jesus on the cross, asking God to forgive them “for they know not what they do”.  They haven’t repented or asked for reconciliation, but Jesus still forgave them and asked God to do the same.

Also, the Lord’s prayer says “forgive us our debts AS WE forgive our debtors”…implying that we should forgive others’ sins against us the same way God forgives ours.

Thoughts?

Gah, Avatar spoilers.  I knew I shouldn’t have clicked on this link but I hate missing anything from SpecFaith. 😀

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

(Response belated because: cold.)

DeYoung has a quick answer to the “Father, forgive them” bit at the above link.

People have asked, “Well, what about ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’? It seems like Jesus is offering unconditional forgiveness those who have conspired to crucify him.” But notice, Jesus is offering a prayer, much like Stephen does in Acts 7. Jesus doesn’t pronounce absolution on the sins of the people (be it the disciples, the Jews, or the Romans). He is simply asking God the Father to be merciful to his enemies. There can be no doubt that the men and women in this crowd needed to repent in order to be forgiven and saved (Acts 2:37-38).

This is something I think we can do: we can plead that God would show mercy that would include the offenders’ repentance and His forgiveness, not that He would grant total absolution (which would indeed mean that every chief priest and Roman soldier that day would be in Heaven today). If He can do it, so can we.

Also, the Lord’s prayer says “forgive us our debts AS WE forgive our debtors”…implying that we should forgive others’ sins against us the same way God forgives ours.

Meaning that we had best determine how God forgives sins so we can understand the template. Above I wrote this:

[… E]ven as Jesus warns us that we must forgive others — in an immediate and broader ministry context that presumes the offenders have repented, even multiple times5 — He bases this on God’s forgiveness, and states that God does not forgive all people:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:14-15

And I’m e-cycling/editing this next from another discussion.

Here’s the text in a bit more context:

“Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

— Matthew 6:11-15

“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” makes the comparison clear: we forgive others in the same way God forgives us. Does God forgive those who have not repented and who persist in sin? Other Scriptures make this clear, but we have one example right here: If we don’t forgive others, He won’t forgive us. It’s pretty clear then that God does not forgive the unrepentant. Why then would we suggest that for us we should forgive the unrepentant?

DeYoung wisely concludes his piece with this:

On an emotional level, the idea of conditional forgiveness doesn’t sound right. It sounds like we can be bitter toward those who hurt us. It sounds like we should hold on to our pain. It sounds like we shouldn’t release our offenses to God unless our offender comes to us and repents. These would be the wrong inferences to draw from the biblical teaching on forgiveness. We should always love our enemies. We should always fight against bitterness. We should cast all our cares on the Lord. We should learn to trust God’s providence. We should be eager to forgive those who hurt us and be reconciled to them. We might call all this an attitude of forgiveness or a willingness to forgive. But if our forgiveness mirrors God’s forgiveness, it is something that can be granted–and must be granted–only when there is repentance. It is a relational transaction that establishes a commitment to release our debtor from all he or she owes us. When someone sins against us and we are never given the opportunity to hear “I’m sorry,” we do not have the opportunity to grant forgiveness, but we will foreswear personal vendettas and bitterness by leaving room for God’s wrath (on the cross or in hell) and by trusting ourselves to the one who judges justly.

Bethany A. Jennings
Member

This just seems like splitting hairs to me.  These quotes insist we should let go of our desire for vengeance, show love, release our offenses, let go of bitterness, etc. – but no, no, that’s not *forgiveness*!

What is the difference between total forgiveness and just showing grace/love/release to our enemies, then?  *Can* we do all that without actually forgiving?  If we’ve done all that what are we still holding on to?  What’s left after we’ve put aside bitterness and vengeance?   (Aside from wise self-protection, which – most would argue – is sometimes necessary even when the offender has repented.)

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this hair-splitting is a technical way for believers to excuse “keeping a record of wrongs”.

And it seems to rest on one’s theology too – did God really forgive us because we said “I’m sorry” to Him first, or did we say “I’m sorry” because He extended His grace to us first? Hmmm?  🙂

Bethany A. Jennings
Member

After all, let’s not forget that “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8.)  He performed the ultimate act of love and forgiveness BEFORE seeing us repent of our sins. 🙂

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

A belated response thanks to 1) head cold, 2) workplace conference.

This just seems like splitting hairs to me.  These quotes insist we should let go of our desire for vengeance, show love, release our offenses, let go of bitterness, etc. – but no, no, that’s not *forgiveness*!

My central question is this: how does the Bible define “forgiveness” proper?

If I’m at least close to that definition, then all of the “well, what about X and Y and Z” questions are important but also don’t overthrow the definition.

My secondary point is this: this definition of “forgiveness” fits with the “music” of fiction. If in this story Katara had “forgiven” her enemy’s sins and then seen him break down in tears, overwhelmed by resultant repentance, would we find that realistic? How often are real-life human enemies brought to repentance by their victims’ forgiveness — as opposed to being broken by the guilt of their sin, which their victims indeed reinforce by refusing to avenge themselves?

What is the difference between total forgiveness and just showing grace/love/release to our enemies, then?  *Can* we do all that without actually forgiving?

Again, is that what Scripture shows in the texts I’ve cited, such as Rom. 12?

If we’ve done all that what are we still holding on to?  What’s left after we’ve put aside bitterness and vengeance?   (Aside from wise self-protection, which – most would argue – is sometimes necessary even when the offender has repented.)

Which brings up another good point. In the Facebook discussion someone challenged whether Christian repentance/forgiveness really leads to a restored relationship, every time. My answer is still Yes, every single time* — but with this important asterisk: *We may not see it until we’re resurrected for eternity.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this hair-splitting is a technical way for believers to excuse “keeping a record of wrongs”.

I’m not sure what to say to this. It is true that either definition of forgiveness can be used to justify sin. But is the real question, “Can it be used to justify sin?” The real question is, “Is this a Biblical view? Can it be read naturally in the text?”

And it seems to rest on one’s theology too – did God really forgive us because we said “I’m sorry” to Him first, or did we say “I’m sorry” because He extended His grace to us first? Hmmm?  🙂

Christians of different persuasions can answer differently. I might answer the latter, but I’m not convinced that God’s saving grace is the same as His forgiveness. Even if it were, is that enough to establish that — contradicting Jesus’s own clearer words about repentance/forgiveness for His people — we are meant to imitate God in that way? Yet we know that only God has the power to overwhelm people’s resistance to His grace and regenerate their dead hearts, and we also know that there is at least one kind of forgiveness that God alone can do (Mark 2: 1-12). Suffice it to say, it’s not enough to say, “That’s how God does it,” if we are not likewise commanded to imitate Him. Otherwise we could say — and alas, some have said — that because God stores up wrath against ungodly sinners, so we should demonstrate the same “wrath” in our daily lives. Yet God warns that He can do this perfectly, and we can never do it (Rom. 12).

Bethany A. Jennings
Member

I’m a little confused by your reasoning, brother.  Are you saying, then, that either way we should extend mercy, forsake vengeance, etc. – but it’s not genuine forgiveness unless they have repented and there’s full reconciliation? – that forgiveness is a two-way street, so to speak?

It seems to me that either way, whether we agree that Christians should forgive the unrepentant or not, we both believe we should treat our enemies the same way – love them, show patience and mercy to them, pray for them, etc.  I just don’t understand how that’s not acting in forgiveness – on “our side” of the situation, anyway.

And Katara’s attitude of “I’ll never forgive him” is bitter, an attitude that God commands us to let go of, also – in Ephesians 4:31, for example:  “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”

Bitterness is about our hearts, so whether it is a reconciled brother in Christ or an unrepentant enemy, bitterness is never something we should hold on to. 🙂

I don’t see that a continuation of this discussion is useful, since it seems to me that it’s coming down to a matter of semantics, and we are admonished in the New Testament not to quarrel over words, because it does no one any good (2 Timothy 2:14).  🙂

God bless!  I always appreciate your blog posts here, by the way.  🙂

Bethany A. Jennings
Member

But I can’t read your next post because I think there will be too many spoilers!!  Eeeeeep!  😀  Maybe in the future after I finish Avatar…

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