Longing for Mercy: Cobra Kai and the Meaning of Christmas
“Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.”
What are the formative effects of a tradition without mercy? Just ask Johnny Lawrence, the star pupil of Sensei Kreese’s dojo, Cobra Kai. Fans of 1984’s The Karate Kid will remember the story well: two teens fighting with competing philosophies, a clash of values on the mat. Lawrence, the hot-shot All-Valley Karate Tournament champion and hot-headed bully, fighting for Cobra Kai’s “win at all costs” methods. Opposite is Daniel LaRusso, engaging with Mr. Miyagi’s form of “defense only” karate. In the 1984 All-Valley Tournament, LaRusso unseats Lawrence with the famous Crane-Kick-to-the-face. But which side wins in the long run? Mercy, or no mercy?
Enter Cobra Kai, the continuation series starring Lawrence and LaRusso as adults. If you haven’t watched the show, here’s the premise (some spoilers ahead): 34 years after losing the All-Valley Tournament, Johnny Lawrence is a washed-up, under-employed, over-drinking jerk. After one mistake too many, he loses his job, forcing him in a new direction. He decides to reopen Cobra Kai as the new sensei, eventually teaching a new generation of students the old ways: Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy. Interestingly, the Cobra Kai philosophy helps the first few students overcome significant bullying issues. Lawrence becomes a mentor to the harassed student Miguel Diaz in much the same way that Mr. Miyagi was to LaRusso, albeit with a few more Coors.1 The reemergence of Cobra Kai in the valley sparks the ire of the now-successful businessman Daniel LaRusso, also still in the area. LaRusso eventually starts his own dojo—Miyagi-Do—styled after the “defense first” philosophy of his late mentor.2 The drama heightens as Johnny and Daniel refuse to bury the hatchet, and the students of Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do eventually succumb to the rivalry of their senseis.
While karate fuels the action, the heart of the show explores the question of mercy. With season finales entitled “Mercy” (Season One) and “No Mercy” (Season Two), the show clearly wants viewers to ask, alongside the characters, what is the point of mercy? Is mercy weak? Who deserves mercy? And importantly, are self-defense and mercy identical?
Every character in Cobra Kai is privately hungry for mercy. Johnny embodies the phrase “hurt people hurt people.” Rejected by his self-obsessed and wealth-obsessed step-dad, Johnny found a safe haven in the Cobra Kai dojo. But when he lost to LaRusso, his sensei turned on him. No mercy, especially for losers. Taking that philosophy into adulthood only hurt him further. His worst fear is being a loser, but this fear stymies his personal growth. He struggles to ask for forgiveness and rarely admits a wrongdoing. In one humorous scene, a girlfriend asks why he has so much animosity toward Daniel. Through a series of flashbacks from The Karate Kid, he recounts only the hits he took from Daniel. He conveniently overlooks the ways he bullied Daniel, causing him both physical and emotional pain. In Johnny’s mind, he’s simply the victim of the events in Karate Kid: a lost title, a lost sensei, a lost girlfriend, a kick to the face. His obsession with winning, being right, and being cool render him out of touch with reality. So, he teaches his students the philosophy that made him “a winner,” even though it was the philosophy that ruined his life: don’t show mercy, even though mercy is the one thing he most longs for—a second chance.
Daniel LaRusso’s relationship with mercy is more complicated. On the surface, he is the classic good guy. He was the underdog who came back to win, the one trained to not strike first, who now owns a successful luxury car dealership, with a lovely wife and family to boot. His dojo is built around defense, not offense. There’s just one problem that Daniel fails to recognize: the art of defense is not the same as the art of mercy.
As the show goes on, it is Daniel who comes to embody the phrase “no mercy.” Lawrence becomes convinced that everyone deserves a second chance, the first glimmer of mercy. But not Daniel. To LaRusso, any Cobra Kai can change, but apparently not Johnny Lawrence. Time after time, Daniel refuses to let Johnny have a second chance. Even when the show puts them in close proximity, allowing the men to see how they are “Different but Same” (Season One, Episode Nine), Daniel cannot give credence to Johnny’s attempts at change. In the most fatalistic way, Daniel views Johnny’s every mistake with a self-righteous omniscience: I always knew you were like this.3 It becomes increasingly difficult to believe that Daniel has the moral high ground with his contempt toward Johnny. Not striking first does not make a man merciful.
This habitual lack of mercy casts reverberations throughout the next generation to disastrous results. Under Lawrence’s discipleship, Eli, the bullied, becomes Hawk, the consummate angry, insecure bully. The relationship between Sam—Daniel’s daughter—and Miguel is poisoned due to Daniel’s suspicion of all Cobra Kai students. The simmering rivalry between the two dojos eventually boils over in the epic showdown at the end of Season Two, leaving one character hospitalized. And why did he end up in the hospital? According to Hawk, seething with anger and preparing for revenge, it was because “he showed mercy.” The tradition of “no mercy” bears bad fruit in the end; those formed by it secretly long for mercy themselves, but find it impossible to show to others.4
It may be an unconventional choice, but Cobra Kai might be one of the best holiday viewing options around. While lack of mercy unraveled the characters’ lives, it has an opposite effect on viewers. Consistently seeing characters reject honesty, apology, and forgiveness to their own hurt creates a grace-shaped longing within the viewer, inducing a desire to learn the art of mercy for oneself. As Franz Kafka once wrote to a friend, “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us…A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”5 In the same way, Cobra Kai acts as the axe to crack open our mercy-starved hearts. While we can’t kick through the screen to shake the characters by the shoulders and shout “just forgive!,” we can get off the couch and extend mercy to those in our lives. This is especially true around the holidays, when most of us are hungry for a little grace. Cobra Kai’s lack of mercy on display makes us look for a different way, which the Christmas tradition provides. Christmas is all about mercy.
The Christmas story in the Bible begins with a bang: The Messiah has come, and God’s ancient promises are fulfilled! To prove it, the Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy, showing how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament promises to Abraham and David. Far from just a bunch of names, this list sets the tone for a tradition of mercy by including sinners, outcasts, and foreigners in Jesus’ family tree; thus, “even the ‘begats’ of the Bible drip with God’s mercy.”6
The Gospel of John likewise begins with an incredible announcement: the baby Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Pondering the character of God helps give perspective to this gracious announcement. If God is “rich in mercy,” and the fullness of this merciful God dwells in Christ, then we can follow Mary Faustina in calling Jesus “Mercy Incarnate.”7 Thus, mercy takes center stage in the drama of Christmas in both humility and glory. Mercy Incarnate welcomes humble shepherds to come and worship. But Mercy Incarnate is also worthy of the praise of kings, the gifts of the Magi, and the songs of angels. Jesus is God’s mercy, clothed in flesh, and in Him, we see the face of a merciful God.
As Mercy Incarnate, Christ comes bearing good news. In the Cobra Kai dojo, mercy is weak, but in Christ’s hands, mercy possesses life-giving strength. As John Calvin writes, “Life is not found in commandments or declarations of penalties, but in the promise of mercy.”8 For those who feel like they never get a second chance, like Johnny Lawrence, the Christmas tradition speaks a word of grace. Mercy Incarnate came for the losers, for the screw-ups, and for those who posture as winners but secretly know they’ve failed.
Christmas mercy cuts both ways, though. In mercy, Christ became like us, taking on flesh, so that we would become like God.9 This must impact our actions; we cannot become like a merciful God without becoming merciful ourselves.10 There is a reciprocal call to extend mercy once we receive mercy. Like Daniel LaRusso, we struggle to show mercy to those who have hurt us, but the Christmas tradition admonishes us, “blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”11
How might this impact our usual holiday traditions? With Mercy Incarnate centerstage, our normal holiday activities take on a new purpose. Gift giving, visits, Christmas cards, holiday wishes, charitable giving—things we’re tempted to engage in with a perfunctory spirit—become fresh opportunities to embody the merciful story of Christmas. For some, like Johnny, the task will be to experience mercy for ourselves, to receive a second chance, or take a moment to say “I’m sorry” to someone we’ve hurt. For others, like Daniel, the task will be to extend mercy to others. Remember: defense is not the same as mercy. Or, in the language of Christmas, being materially generous is not the same as being merciful. It is easy to give a nice gift to someone we despise. Instead, we may be called upon to give a more costly gift: forgiveness.
This Christmas, perhaps more than others in recent history, mercy is needed. We’re in the dark winter of a pandemic, on the heels of a rancorous election, and haunted by experiences of injustice in our country. This year, our Christmas gatherings might be fraught with division, disagreement, and disappointment. We can fall back on our usual methods of coping: drown out the disagreement in booze and TV (Johnny’s method), buy more gifts to earn ourselves favor (Daniel’s method), or just avoid people altogether. But, if we allow Mercy Incarnate to permeate our Christmas traditions, our holiday rituals will become instruments of grace. Far more important than the newest gadget, receiving mercy is tantamount to receiving life.
“The real spirit of Christmas,” as Calvin Coolidge reminds us, is “to cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy.”12 If, coming into the Christmas season, your heart is frozen toward family or neighbor, or even yourself, take an axe to it: watch Cobra Kai. View the wreckage stemming from the tradition of “Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.” Then engage in a better tradition: showing others the mercy of Christmas.
1. A fun element of Cobra Kai is how it subverts the classic Karate Kid narrative. Whereas Miyagi rescued LaRusso from the bullies of Kreese’s Cobra Kai, in the show, Lawrence’s Cobra Kai is a safe haven for the bullied. At least through the first season, the series’ villain is not clear-cut, as Lawrence and LaRusso both show their fair share of flaws. Eventually, however, the tradition of “no mercy” rears its head, as the bullied become the bullies.
2. According to Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid II, the two rules of karate are as follows: “Rule Number One: Karate for defense only. Rule Number Two: First, learn Rule Number One.”
3. More hauntingly, Daniel eventually extends this same merciless fatalism to Johnny’s son Robby. What was once the show’s brightest moment of mercy extended—Daniel’s mentoring of Robby—crumbles as soon Robby appears to cross Daniel. Despite months of mentoring, Daniel turns on him with hostility, declaring that Robby is cut from the same cloth as Johnny. Yes, in this scene, Daniel is acting rashly out of fear and protection of his daughter. But he overlooks his hypocrisy: he mentored Robby without Johnny’s permission. Even worse, he overlooks his own merciless heart. “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Daniel’s words show his deepest problem: lack of grace in the heart.
4. Season Three, to be released in early 2021, will further explore these consequences of “no mercy.”
5. Franz Kafka, in Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, trans. Richard Winston and Clara Winston (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1977), 16.
6. “Tim Keller wants you to Stop Underestimating Christmas,” The Gospel Coalition, interview, December 5, 2016, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/tim-keller-wants-you-to-stop-underestimating-christmas/.
7. Ephesians 2:4 (ESV); Colossians 2:9 (ESV); Maria Faustina Kowalska, Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul (Stockbridge, MA: Marian Press, 2005), 381.
8. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.29.
9. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God…When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:1–2 (ESV)
10. “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” 1 John 3:11 (ESV)
11. Matthew 5:7 (ESV)
12. Calvin Coolidge, “President Coolidge’s Christmas Message Points Out Real Spirit of the Festival,” The New York Times, December 25, 1927, https://www.nytimes.com/1927/12/25/archives/president-coolidges-christmas-message-points-out-real-spirit-of-the.html.
To read this issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine in full today, become a member for as little as $5 per month. Members also get full access to all back issues, free stuff each month, and entrance to our exclusive members-only group on Facebook—and you’ll help us keep the lights on. Join now.