**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender.**
Recently Nickelodeon announced the creation of Avatar Studios and the continuation of the Avatar universe. The “Avatarverse” currently consists of the two cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Though nothing official has been promised or scheduled, Brian Robbins, the president of Nickelodeon, in a recent interview with Deadline offered a hazy sketch of what is to come in the Avatarverse: “definitely a theatrical film, animation, certainly multiple TV series and probably multiple films”; it seems like the first project will be an animated theatrical film that will hopefully begin production by the end of the year. With so much new Avatar to look forward to, I felt it was appropriate to return to the original series and explore what I believe is the heart of the shows message: the crucial nature of the way of nonviolence.
If you’re not familiar, Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a world built around the four classical elements: air, water, earth, and fire. Each element has an associated nation-state. And most people can “bend”—the universe’s word for manipulating with magic—one of the elements. The Avatar is the only person who can bend all four elements. Their job is to maintain balance and peace in the world. Avatar: The Last Airbender follows the path of Avatar Aang as he attempts to stop a tyrannical leader, Firelord Ozai, who is attempting to take over the world.
As with more things than we realize, perhaps the best place to start is at the ending. The final episode of Avatar is a four-part sequence called “Sozin’s Comet” that originally aired as a two-hour-long movie. There are obviously many nuances and subplots that find themselves addressed and tied off in the finale of a four-season show, but for the sake of brevity, I will focus on the main conflict of the episode. Aang, the protagonist, must confront and do battle with Firelord Ozai, the tyrannical leader of the Fire Nation (played by Mark Hamill). Ozai is a familiar figure in a familiar—one might say archetypal—narrative pattern. Ozai is Voldemort; he is Darth Vader; he is Hitler. Fantasy and science fiction (and reality) are littered with Firelord Ozais. His sort of evil is predictable and, honestly, relatable. We can comprehend a mad king hell-bent on attaining world-conquering power. And, as in many fantasy stories, there are revolutionary and rebellious children who are determined to stop him. (Ironically, Mark Hamill knows quite a bit about being on both sides of this equation—once the rebellious son, now the tyrannical father.) What makes the formula unique in Avatar is that our rebellious protagonist is presented with a dilemma: Aang was raised by air benders, a monastic people who adhere to a code of nonviolence.
Therein lies Aang’s moral conflict. He must stop the evil Ozai—who will use any means to achieve his end of total power—without breaking his own moral code of nonviolence. Or, to use the tired mantra I hear in just about every conversation about nonviolence: “Would you kill Hitler to stop the Holocaust?” The components might change—for instance, “Would you shoot someone who was trying to murder/rape your family?”—but the formula never does—“Would you do X violence to stop Y tragedy?”
This is the incredible value of fantasy like Avatar: it reinvigorates and challenges our collective and individual moral imaginations.I understand the impulse, and I am sympathetic to using thought experiments to interrogate real-world problems. In fact, Ursula Le Guin writes in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness that science fiction is an entire genre built around using thought experiments to investigate our present. But I want to challenge this subset of thought experiments by the challenge they intend to offer. This set of scenarios are often called the attacker-at-the-door scenarios, and they are designed to present a scenario so fierce and disturbing that exactly two options are viable: (1) kill or (2) be killed.
This is the false dichotomy that Aang faces when his friends confront him about the need to kill Firelord Ozai. He tells them that he can’t find it in himself to deliver a killing blow: “I’m sorry, but it just didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel like myself.” Aside from nonviolence being a part of his upbringing and personality, airbending as a fighting style is meant to embody nonviolent philosophy. Each of the bending styles in Avatar is based on real life martial arts. Airbending is based on Baguazhang—a martial style that prioritizes adaptability, flexibility, deflection, and dodging. It’s less about dealing deadly strikes and more about navigating the encounter safely and efficiently. In a magical sense, airbending differs from the other three elements. Earth, fire, and water all take a physical, tangible substance and use it as a weapon. Certainly we can sense air, and it can be used as a weapon. But Aang uses air to push his enemies and evade them, to incapacitate rather than to end them. On a foundational level, Aang’s entire combat style is one of nonviolence. Which brings us back to the false choice facing Aang: kill Ozai or be killed by Ozai.
While the rhetoric of false choice is tragic, Avatar frames it as a frustration to our group of protagonists. They believe that Aang’s only choice is to kill Ozai. Sure, they’ve handled plenty of situations before without shedding blood, but this one is different. The attacker is at the door and Aang must act; why shouldn’t he resist a strong enemy? The trouble, though, is that this formula only understands resistance as violence. While Team Avatar encourages Aang to do what they think is the right thing—kill Ozai to save the world—Aang wrestles with Christ’s imperative “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well” (Matt. 5:38-40). Often I see the same false dichotomy of the attacker-at-the-door applied to this imperative from Christ: obviously he doesn’t want us to do nothing to resist evil doers, we must do something. Nothing versus Something. What is lacking in Team Avatar’s advice and this perspective on Christ’s imperative is application of the moral imagination.
To summarize the idea far too briefly, our moral imagination is the faculty which guides our choices in response to a moral dilemma. When we make a moral choice, our moral imagination helps us catalog and navigate the potential actions we can take to resolve the moral dilemma. Put another way, the moral imagination is the faculty that populates the list of acceptable and effective options when faced with a chance to act. Most of the time, we do not invent a new response; instead, we select from a pre-approved array of actions based on many contextual factors. When that array is reduced to an arsenal of violent actions, then violence is the only Something we can imagine being effective. It’s that or Nothing, we reason to ourselves. This is the sign of an undisciplined moral imagination—by undisciplined I mean untrained. We must discipline our moral imagination so that it will grow and develop rather than stagnate. We can accomplish this discipline in many ways, good literature (like the Avatarverse) can help. What’s more, the experience of others that came before us can help too: their stories, and the stories of good literature, supply new tools to our arsenal of imagined responses to our problems.
When Aang is nearing the final encounter with Firelord Ozai, he asks past avatars for council. The show has some eastern influences and uses a cycle of reincarnation to explain the avatar’s continued presence in the universe. Aang, wracked with his moral dilemma, consults his past lives. Four past avatars give him advice.
1. “You must be decisive”
2. “Only justice will bring peace”
3. “You must actively shape your own destiny and the destiny of the world”
4. “Selfless duty calls you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs.”
Aang initially interprets this advice as is expected of our revolutionary protagonist: kill the villain. What is more decisive than death? What more just than death to him who has killed? What more active than violence? And what more selfless than setting aside one’s own preferences for the “greater good”? But rather than fall victim to the classic blunder ourselves, let us wash our hands of the frail Nothing/Something dichotomy and return to Christ’s imperative to “not resist.” In his Kingdom New Testament translation, scholar N.T. Wright translates this verse to “Don’t use violence to resist evil.” This clarification of the Greek shifts our understanding. It is not Nothing or Something, but Something-that-isn’t-violence. Aang makes it his mission to imagine a way to resist the evildoer that is decisive, just, active, selfless, and not violent. These are the tenets of nonviolence.
The final piece of this imaginative puzzle is to understand what violence is that we might avoid it. While the definition of violence is fairly widely debated, I like to borrow Simone Weil’s definition of violence from her phenomenal essay “The Iliad or The Poem of Force.” Violence, says Weil, is “that [force] that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes him a corpse.” When we treat another human being as though they were an object and not endowed with the imago Dei, we do violence to them—shot fired, punch thrown, or not. By Weil’s standard of violent force, inaction that disregards the life of another human subjected to violence is violence itself. Nothing is violent sometimes, and not just any Something will do.
So what does Aang do? When Aang defeats and restrains Firelord Ozai in combat, he balks when he must deliver the killing blow. He declares firmly, “No, I’m not going to end it like this.” Sensing Aang’s hesitation, Ozai proclaims, “Even with all the power in the world, you are still weak!” and sets upon Aang with an attack. While they are suspended mid-attack, I want to emphasize Ozai’s words. The Hitlerian tyrant hell-bent on taking over the world because he has the divine right of power believes that the only “strong” choice is a violent Something. How uninspired. While this reliance on violence is a myth that many believe, it is incredibly unimaginative and extremely harmful.
While Ozai chooses violence from the arsenal of his moral imagination, Aang chooses not to attack back. He also does not choose Nothing. Aang chooses a decisive, just, active, and selfless action. He strips Ozai’s bending ability—his claim to his seat of power. Ozai can no longer choose violence as an option; he no longer has any claim or ability to rule. Aang’s choice puts not only his life at risk, but his connection to the magical forces that sustain him as avatar.
To put a very fine point on it, Aang makes himself vulnerable to complete annihilation to defeat evil without killing another human being. Evil is defeated without the shedding of blood, but not without risk. It is not some cheap bargain, but an exercise of moral imagination that is decisive, brings justice, demands action, and requires selfless vulnerability. While we might be tempted to read Aang’s actions as unjust, we must be careful not to emphasize our human desire for vengeance over Christ’s divine desire for grace. Brian Zahnd, writing about Jesus’s first time in a synagogue after his baptism, explains the way Jesus angered the people in the synagogue by leaving vengeance out of his reading of Isaiah noting that
until we are captivated by the radical mercy of God extended to all, we will cling to the texts of vengeance as cherished texts . . . The word made flesh prevents us from riffling through the pages of the Bible to find texts of vengeance to fling upon our enemies. If we try to hold on to a divine warrant for vengeance, Jesus passes through our midst and goes away. If we cling to vengeance we lose Jesus.
The culmination of Avatar embodies Christ’s imperative to nonviolent resistance to evil. But there is one final bit of the show that I think speaks to this discussion of nonviolence. Let’s suppose that you find this all well and good, but still believe that there are occasions when violence is necessary. I understand, and if I can be vulnerable, I think being consistent in a nonviolent stance is difficult to reason at times. Lord knows what I would do if I encountered some nefarious entity more powerful than I and threatening my life. What would I do if I encountered such a dragon?
In the Fire Nation, the highest title one can have (other than Firelord) is “Dragon.” One achieves this title by hunting and killing a dragon, for it is only when you have beaten the original firebenders (dragons) that you have proven your worth. This has naturally led to the apparent extinction of dragons from the land. Iroh, one of my favorite characters in the show (second only to Aang) attained his title of “Dragon of the West” by claiming he killed the last dragon. With dragons now extinct, the story of his strength and brutality are told like fairy tales to young firebenders. It reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s paraphrase of G. K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” But a major revelation of the show is that Iroh lied and kept the dragon secret in order it to save its life. Because of Iroh’s choice, the last dragon is able to help Aang and Iroh’s nephew learn how to master firebending and complete his training as avatar. Aang would be unable to defeat Ozai and bring peace and balance to the world if it were not for Iroh’s choice of nonviolence.
Aang and Iroh chose Christ’s path of nonviolence. By their choices, the dragons become allies and enemies across the world are brought together in peace. We might speculate that peace could be achieved had Aang simply killed Ozai. When asked why he doesn’t just challenge his brother Ozai for the throne, Iroh says, “Even if I did defeat Ozai, and I don’t know if I could, it would be the wrong way to end the war. History would see it as just more senseless violence. A brother killing a brother to grab power. The only way for this was to end peacefully is for the avatar to defeat the Fire Lord.” Violence does not end things the way we might wish it would. But nonviolence has a way of transforming our desire for an ending into a desire for reconciliation: cruciform nonviolence is a divine pattern. Preston Sprinkle in Fight puts it quite simply: “A person who chooses to love [their] enemies can have no enemies. That person is left with only neighbors . . . Jesus’s nonviolent, non-retaliatory journey to the cross is also a pattern for us to imitate.” This is the incredible value of fantasy like Avatar: it reinvigorates and challenges our collective and individual moral imaginations. It teaches us that our dragons can be defeated without killing them, that rather than tread over their bones, we can fly on their wings.