The Gospel According to Iroh
An Appreciation for the Redemptive Arc of Avatar's Best Character
As many of you know, this blog traditionally involves my thoughts and examination of economic and social issues. But occasionally, I change things up, and you get a blog post centered on children’s cartoons.
Brittney and I recently rewatched the animated television show, Avatar the Last Airbender, as it has resurfaced on Netflix in recent months. This happened to coincide with some time I also spent in the past two months working on a bible study surveying the most significant themes of the Christian story as told in the Bible. Good storytelling will stand the test of time and take on different meanings during different life stages. As I re-watched Avatar, I found myself drawn to Uncle Iroh’s character, whose redemption arc coincides with my own Christian faith. A casual observer of the show might miss the subtleties of his character, but upon deeper reflection, Iroh is instrumental in bringing the redemptive arc of the show to fruition.
(Warning: this post will contain spoilers)
The Fire Nation and the Spectre of Babylon
For those not familiar, Avatar takes place in a fictional alternative universe inspired by traditional Asian culture and religion. The world is inhabited by four distinct kingdoms, each marked by the ability of some of its people to manipulate one of the four Classical elements (Air, Earth, Water, and Fire) for the sake of power and prosperity. Unfortunately, the world is threatened because one of the four nations, the Fire Nation, pursues world domination, wiping out whole civilizations in the process. The show follows a band of teenage heroes who are called to end this oppression, bringing balance back to the world.
In many ways, the Fire Nation is best understood by looking at the real-world history of Imperial Japan. From 1860 to 1941, imperial Japan underwent one of the fastest transformations any society has ever seen. Japan transformed itself from an isolated feudal nation to a first-rate military and industrial power. This can partially be explained as a reaction to western colonialism: while Japan had long resisted outside influence, they were under increased pressure from the west (notably, America). Japan came to believe that if China, their geographically larger and historically more powerful neighbor to the southeast, could not resist the west’s colonization, Japan would not be able to do so either. So in defense, Japan spent much of the late 1800s transforming its society into a modern industrial power, drawing on what it saw as the best of the rival Western societies: American industry, British naval dominance, and German political institutions. It blended these institutions with its own Samurai society marked by a warrior code of honor.
The end product was a marvel to the rest of the world and included many unintended and violent consequences. One of these consequences was that Japan became convinced (or at least found a way to convince themselves) that it was their duty to export their way of life and their prosperity to the other nations of East Asia, most of which were under colonial rule. But in reality, exporting their way of life under the guise of “shared prosperity” ended up justifying the brutal domination of their neighbors: Korea, Manchuria, and eventually mainland China. Likewise, internally, the mixing of democracy and military honor culture led to a paradigm where younger officers could defy the order of their superiors in the name of “greater fidelity” to the empire. This went so far that junior officers violently assassinated superior officers seen as weak or insufficiently devoted to the cause. This culture would be on display in World War II, where imperial Japan became known for its soldier’s refusal to be taken prisoner, seeing death as preferable to dishonor.
This history is helpful for our understanding because the Fire Nation in Avatar parallels the historical rise of imperial Japan almost precisely. The nation is marked by remarkable industrial and military power and by intense violence and imperial ambition. Externally, the Fire Nation was comfortable with colonizing and even committing genocide against its neighbors. Internally, violence and in-fighting for power created a society where one could not trust one’s family. The Fire Nation’s Honor culture was perverted so that honor duels (Agni Kai) were used to settle minor disputes, and defeated parties were seldom shown mercy. The show’s creators are clear that Fire Nation is by no means the ultimate source of evil in the world of Avatar, nor are all members of the nation evil. Instead, we see how a nation’s culture (in this case, affinity for aggression) can be corrupted when it is combined with pride and power and then have dire consequences.
One of the core ideas in the biblical story is that there are strong parallels between every empire through human history, starting with the Bible’s archetype of empire: Babylon. From the early pages of Genesis 11, the story of the “Tower of Babel” (but probably better translated “Babylon”) shows how the hubris of a great nation leads them astray, leaving God for idolatry and abandoning justice for injustice. We see this repeatedly played out in the biblical story as powerful kingdoms throughout the Bible are corrupted by power into committing injustice: Egypt (who took the Hebrews into captivity), Babylon (who took the Israelites into exile), and Rome (military occupiers of Israel). Of course, if you look carefully enough, you realize that just like Avatar, the Bible is clear that all historical empires include just, God-fearing people. Still, they are often a small enough minority to change the moral trajectory of the empire. And most tragically, the bible portrays Israel, whom God calls to be an example to the world, as just as easily corrupted into becoming its own evil empire. Scripture is also clear that this historical pattern will continue, and indeed, we see the rise and fall of unjust empires throughout history. This should make us sober-minded about our own nation’s durability through time and how our global power has been and is perverted toward evil ends.
In the world of Avatar, the solution to injustice in Avatar is not the eradication of the Fire Nation but bringing it back into “balance,” where all people can share in peace and prosperity. Likewise, the Hebrew Bible holds out hope for a coming “Day of the Lord,” when God will restore his shalom to the world, and all people will share in peace, justice, and prosperity. The Bible Project in this video beautifully explains this theme:
As hard as it is to believe at the moment, evil cannot reign forever. Evil eventually collapses under its own weight. But to speed up the collapse of evil empires, God will call specific individuals and work through them to achieve his shalom in the short run.
Iroh: Generational Sin and Justice
Iroh’s backstory is deliberately muted at the start: all we know is that he is a member of the fire nation’s royal family. He has chosen to accompany his banished nephew on a quixotic quest around the world. But as the show goes on, we slowly peek into his backstory, in all of its redemptive complexity.
We are only given glimpses of Iroh’s early life as a Fire Nation prince. Avatar hints that Iroh always had the desire to do good within him, evidenced by his genuine care for family (as opposed to Iroh’s brother Ozai, who merely sees family as a tool for power). But Iroh is also born into a family with sinful pride and immense power, as they rule a kingdom premised on world-dominating power. It is clear that while there is an internal conflict within Iroh between good and evil, he cannot escape complicity in the evil his family does.
Like his grandfather and father before him, Iroh spends his early life training to lead his people in military conflict. Arguably he does this as successfully as anyone in history, becoming perhaps the most potent fighter in the world. He believes his destiny or calling in life is to use this power to complete the Fire nation’s global conquest: to be the general to finally bring down the rival Earth Kingdom under Fire Nation rule. After much struggle, the show shows us that Iroh was on the precipice of achieving his goal, breaking through the Earth Kingdom’s defenses. But Iroh’s most significant victory also becomes his greatest tragedy, for his son, serving at his side, is killed in the siege of Ba Sing Sae. In one moment, Iroh realizes that all of his ambitions, his pursuit of power and glory, have led him to sacrifice his son on the altar.
In the Christian scripture, there is a complex notion of “generational sin.” Generational sin outlines how the consequences of the sins of one generation are borne by their descendants, even if those descendants did not choose the sin in the first place. Generational sin is often confusing to people in Western culture who think with a very individualistic lens. It is a genuinely complex topic that I cannot do justice to here. But I believe the heart of this concept is profoundly illustrated in the character of Iroh: the sins of his forefathers (their imperialistic ambitions) shape the life and choices of Iroh. In turn, when Iroh follows in his forefather’s footsteps, he tragically ensnares his own son. In many ways, we can see parallels to King David of the Bible, whose sin leads to not just the death of one son but the tragic deaths of several sons. Some of these sons’ evil choices contributed to their eventual death (Absalom and Amnon), while others were victims who did nothing wrong themselves, but they are still ensnared in the consequences of evil.
All people, regardless of their religious or philosophical beliefs, struggle with the question of evil. I would go so far as to say that it might be the most fundamental philosophical question that animates every life: how do I make sense of evil and death? How do I make sense of a world where I know I will suffer and die and that everyone I care about will suffer and die? From materialism to stoicism to Buddhism to Christianity, every philosophy tries to understand this fundamental question. My understanding of the Christian scriptures is that the bible does not give one clean, neat answer to this question of evil; instead, it chooses to provide a nuanced one. In some cases, scripture is clear that evil can be attributed to the consequences of evil acts. Yet, other scriptures paint pictures of righteous people who get ensnared in evil consequences despite their righteousness. Evil is a complex phenomenon, and I believe the Bible refuses to give us too simple an answer, knowing that simple answers will be misapplied and abused.
However, the Bible is clear that God’s creative work in the world is more powerful than evil. All suffering will one day be redeemed, the same way that one day all injustice is stopped. Paradoxically, God uses even the most heinous acts of evil as a part of his work of redemption. And we see this in Iroh: his descent into darkness sets the stage for his eventual redemption. This redemption almost assuredly would not have come had he not experienced the tragedy.
Exile and Redemption
In the wake of his son’s death, Iroh is broken as a man. He abandons his military ambitions, even in the wake of his greatest triumph. In the wake of his father’s murder, he cedes his right to the throne to his conniving and evil brother. Instead, Iroh spends the coming years in a kind of “exile” or “wilderness,” where he seeks answers to how he can redeem his son’s death. In the spiritual world of Avatar, this takes the form of wandering in the spirit realm, only to fail to find his son.
We can see this archetype throughout the Christian scripture: when the powerful are broken, they often spend a period humbly searching for answers, awaiting a renewed call. Moses spends years in the wilderness before he hears God’s call back to Egypt. King David spends much of his early life in the wilderness, running from King Saul. The people of Israel spent 40 years after the Exodus living in the wilderness and then spent 70 years living in exile in Babylon. Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar spends years living like a wild beast, exiled from his throne, forced into humility by God. The Apostle Paul, after encountering Jesus on the Damascus road, is thought to have spent years in exile, studying to understand the Jesus he had persecuted.
We see how powerful people can change profoundly in exile. Iroh is no different: while the show refrains from giving exact details, Iroh appears to undergo a profound metamorphosis. He seems to renounce aggressive power and instead approaches other nations with curiosity and a learning posture. He joins the order of the White Lotus, committing to seeking truth and beauty that transcends cultures.
Most profoundly, though, Iroh seems to shift his perspective on ambition. The loss of his son showed him the vital importance of becoming a mentor to others rather than seeking power himself. In many ways, the death of Iroh’s son is the only thing that helps him see the profound and paradoxical call all parents experience: the challenging and sometimes painful call of setting aside your dreams to cultivate the dreams of your child. Something interesting happens to you as a parent. You accept a kind of limit to your power that comes with the obligation to care for another human being. On the surface, it would appear you are giving up power; but in fact, you are working to create new power and possibilities for the world by sharing power and teaching and mentoring your children. You, in a way, transferring your hopes to your children by saying, “My child, God’s work in the world is in your hands now.”
What is remarkable is how the Christian scriptures speak of giving away power as one of the fundamental attributes of God Himself. From the beginning of creation, God is sharing power with his creation. As Christian author Andy Crouch points out, this is seen in the very language that God uses. When God creates in Genesis 1, he creates in the jussive “Let it be” instead of the declarative “Make it so.” God portrays himself as a God who recognizes that true power is not threatened by sharing power with others. Nowhere is this more true than God’s creation of humans. He tells them to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” To the degree that human parents accept limits to share power with their children, they are following in the footsteps of the God of the Bible.
Throughout the show, Iroh exercises this role of mentor, or even “adoptive parent” to many younger characters on the show, using the wisdom he gained through suffering and exile to guide others onto the right path:
For example, Iroh is instrumental in helping the conflicting Aang realize that his attachment to his friends is more critical than maximizing his power.
Iroh helps the stubborn Toph to accept the help of her friends in times of need.
Iroh saves Katara under attack from his fellow Fire Nation family members, laying the groundwork for her to shed her anger towards the Fire Nation and attain her own peace.
But nowhere is this approach to power clearer than in the relationship he forms with his nephew Zuko. Like Iroh before him, Zuko is a crown prince of the Fire Nation and enmeshed in the generational sin that marks his family. However, Zuko’s moment of dishonor and tragedy comes much earlier in life. He is violently punished for insubordination, scarred by his own father, and sent into forced exile as a young teenager. Iroh’s own experience of exile gives him the wisdom necessary to accompany Zuko on his journey. Zuko starts this journey largely gripped by the desire to reclaim his honor through the use of the imperial power that his family knows well, even though it is clear to the viewer that this quest will never work for him. Iroh takes on the role of gently prodding Zuko to understand that he will only find the meaning he seeks when Zuko rejects his desire to please his dishonorable father and instead seek to do what he believes is right and just. As beautifully pointed out by Quina Aragon and Chris Li in their excellent article on the show’s spiritual themes, Iroh here uses his own experience of transformation in exile to guide Zuko to see the potential for his own conversion:
At a personal crossroads, Iroh tells Zuko, “You are going through a metamorphosis, my nephew. It will not be a pleasant experience, but when you come out of it, you will be the beautiful prince you were always meant to be.”
Playing this role in Zuko’s life is no easy task. Iroh spends years with Zuko, witnessing only slow and minor changes in his heart. Zuko dishes out quite a bit of abuse to his uncle, calling him a failure, and frequently ignoring and disobeying his uncle’s advice for him. At the moment where the viewer thinks Zuko has finally turned a corner, Zuko chooses to betray Iroh for the sake of pleasing his father. With a posture of sacrificial love, Iroh does not fight his beloved nephew’s betrayal but instead accepts for himself the consequences of Zuko’s choice.
Ultimately, Iroh’s self-sacrifice in the face of Zuko’s betrayal is what leads to Zuko’s full redemption. Zuko recognizes that his father’s approval and love will never erase his shame, as his father’s character prevents him from ever bestowing on Zuko true honor. So in the final episodes, we see Zuko, inspired by his uncle, finally redeem himself by joining the forces allied to defeat his family’s imperial ambitions and by playing a pivotal role in bringing peace and balance to the world of Avatar. The poignant scene where he is reunited with his uncle, as Aragon and Li point out, has clear biblical allusions:
In a scene doubtless influenced by the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11–24), Zuko rehearses his apology before begging for forgiveness. Before he can finish, Uncle Iroh wraps him in a tear-filled embrace and declares, “I was never angry with you. I was sad because I was afraid you’d lost your way.”
Kairos and Calling
In the ancient Greek world, there were two distinct conceptions of time. One was “Chronos,” which is very similar to the concept of time in modern Western societies: the linear flow of minutes, hours, and days. When one thinks of Chronos time, one often thinks of making a consistent and efficient effort. To be productive with every moment of every day. And there is undoubtedly a lot of wisdom in this mindset. But in the ancient world, there was a second conception of time, “Kairos,” which was defined by an “opportune moment” where circumstances align to allow one to have a unique impact. For example, the season of harvesting crops after a long wait during a growing season was often a core analogy for “Kairos” time. Another was the experience of skilled archers, who knew there was a specific moment in time where their stretched bow had achieved precisely as much strength as it needed to hit the target. In both cases, patience for the right moment is necessary; acting too soon out of a desire to maximize “Chronos” efficiency would risk real damage to the whole enterprise.
In Christian scripture, the New Testament authors frequently use the Greek word Kairos to describe specific moments within God’s plan as “Kairos” moments, including both the coming of Christ:
And saying, “The time (Kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” - Mark 1:15
And the return of Christ:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. - Acts 1:6-7
This reveals something meaningful and profound in the character of God, something that too often modern Western Christians miss: God is a God who is patient and whose time looks nothing like our time. Jesus came after 400 years of what appeared to be silence from God towards Israel, a time when their nation had frequently been invaded and oppressed by other tribes. Throughout this time, many suffering people must have asked: Why has God not spoken? Why is God not doing anything? Likewise, since we live in a day and age with many injustices in the world, it’s easy to look at God and ask: why have you not acted? Why have you not brought your justice?
But in many ways, this is a misunderstanding of the character of the God of the bible. God waits to act not because of indifference but because God operates in Kairos time. In a world where sin and injustice are so deep, acting quickly to end suffering would mean that all humans would be caught up in the consequences. As Christian author Tyler Wigg-Stephensen says in his book The World is Not Ours to Save:
We are the problem that we beg God to do away with. Quick divine relief from the sorrows and pain of the human condition, the consequences of sin, would simply be annihilation. That is precisely what we would get if God did not “so love the world.”
But the God of the Christian scriptures is a God of love, so much so that he waits for the opportune moment to bring His redemption, waiting for the moment where his justice will have a maximum positive impact and fewer negative consequences for humanity. Thus, this posture does not fit a “Chronos” philosophy where time efficiency is paramount, but it does serve a “Kairos” philosophy of time.
As a part of his mastery of action within proper limits, Iroh is in many ways a master of Kairos time. This should not surprise us, given the parallels to Kairos time within the Book of Fire philosophy of Japanese swordsmanship, which Iroh’s character appears to borrow from elsewhere. Even though he lives during a period of history where the world is in existential crisis, Iroh spends much of his time on seemingly wasteful pursuits, like enjoying tea or playing games. To someone untrained (like his nephew), this can appear to be “laziness” or indifference. But look deeper, and you start to recognize that Iroh is, in fact, exercising patience: he knows that direct action taken at the wrong moment can actually hurt his cause. Furthermore, his humility has taught him that his role in the world is limited, so he skillfully recognizes when to exercise his power and influence and when not to act.
Iroh spends many years watching as his brother reigns oppressively, but he chooses not to act against him, even when he is encouraged to do so by others near the end. He knows that acting is not his calling. To act would risk making a stand for justice look like a power grab. But Iroh’s inaction is not complicity or indifference. Instead, it is a deeper embrace of a notion of vocation: knowing what his calling is and finding the freedom to do good within those limits. For Iroh, this includes the mentoring of his nephew, and also eventually means leading the liberation of the city, Ba Sing Sae, that he once tried to conquer as a Fire Nation general, and restoring the city to peace that he was once complicit in destroying.
In many ways, Christians can learn much from this approach. Rather than modeling our plans after God’s Kairos approach, we too often expect our lives and callings will play out with “Chronos”-like efficiency. Worse yet, we take upon our shoulders the burden of “fixing” or “saving” the world from its problems, a calling none of us have the strength to bear without doing more harm than good. The better path to maximizing our impact is to discern our own individual vocational calling, like Iroh, and wait for our own “Kairos” moments to be a part of God’s redemption. This sense of Vocation knows that as humans, our power can and should be limited. Therefore, it is essential to wait for the moments of clearest calling and our unique gifting to exercise our power to its fullest potential. As Wigg-Stevenson says in his book:
The world is not ours; surely, that has been said often enough in these pages.
But the corollary to the truth that we are not everywhere and everything is that we
are somewhere and something. We inhabit the portion God gives us. Vocations
have, and impart boundaries. To be called to this means not being called to that,
and vice versa. An acceptance of calling therefore means a curtailing of some
possibilities for our lives.
But as the example of Iroh shows, this acceptance of limitations on our individual callings is often precisely what we need to be effective in serving God’s kingdom purposes here on earth. This example is instructive in an era where many Christians are asking hard questions about how we have sought and used political power in recent history.
An Ultimate Hope
Avatar is also clear: despite all the good Iroh does over his life, the wound of the loss of his son still grieves him. Such is the nature of evil in our fallen world: some wounds are too deep to be fully redeemed in this life. Nowhere is this more profoundly shown than in a season two episode, where Iroh spends his day much as he always does, helping others and giving sage wisdom. But he ends the day spending his evening alone, mournfully celebrating what would have been his son’s birthday in the city where he passed. Iroh’s good deeds, no matter how profound, cannot bring back his son. As a parent, I cannot see this poignant scene without crying at his pain.
Many have commented that throughout the original three “Star Wars” films George Lucas made as a Westerner exploring Eastern spirituality, he found he could not fully embrace the tradition he was studying. For example, the traditional teaching of the Jedi in Star Wars mirrors Buddhism and Daoism: to achieve enlightenment, you must let go of your attachment to what you love. But Lucas clearly could not fully embrace this idea: when faced with the decision to detach and seek enlightenment or intervene to save his friends from peril, Luke chooses his friends, and the series (mostly) seems to applaud him for doing so. After all, the rejection of your heart’s desires is a strange foreign concept in our society.
As a Western show exploring Eastern spirituality, Avatar, in many ways, ends up struggling with the same dilemma. If Iroh achieved enlightenment as traditionally understood, he would have to detach himself from his son. But Iroh, despite the inner peace he seems to have committed, is clearly still haunted by the memory of the son he could not save. Detachment from loved ones is poor salvation in the face of suffering and one that Avatar cannot fully come to accept as satisfying.
Ultimately, the greatest tragedy in Avatar is theological: without a hope that will entirely defeat death, the show’s world has limited scope for redemption. Christianity preaches that one should die to oneself and one’s desires and endure suffering, but only because there is a belief in a future ultimate defeat of death and suffering in the end. While Iroh may model a Christ figure to the viewer, he does not have the power to overcome death, which ultimately limits the possibility of redemption.
But despite these theological limitations, Iroh’s example serves as a “signpost in a strange land,” pointing us to our own ultimate hope and how we can live in anticipation of that hope. An example that may also remind us of the importance of drinking a little tea along the way.