Culture Devotionals

Naruto, ISIS, and the Cycle of Hatred

February 22, 2015

On a Monday morning in May 2011, my wife woke me up with the five most unbelievable words I had heard up until that point: “They killed Osama bin Laden.”  Purely in a state of unbelief, I said to her, “What?!  Wow… I’m not going to say ‘praise the Lord,’ but I won’t say I’ll miss him, either.”   As I got out of bed and got online to see the latest news on the incident, I saw pictures that had been flooding the media: some people were waving the American flag and celebrating in the streets, while others had been burning the same flag in protest against America and Osama’s death.

The difference here is...

The difference here is…

In the wake of it all, I found wisdom from an unlikely source… a Japanese comic book.

My favorite Japanese comic book (or, “manga” as they’re called) is, or was since it ended its publication in 2014, Naruto.  In one of my favorite arcs, the main character, a young ninja called Naruto, faces off against one of the primary antagonists of the series by the name of Pain.

Similar to bin Laden, Pain was the leader of an outlaw group of terrorists who killed some of Naruto’s closest friends and blew up his entire village.  Like many similar stories, “good triumphs over evil” and Naruto eventually finds himself staring down his defeated enemy.  However, in a strange twist, Naruto doesn’t just end Pain’s reign of destruction; instead, he decides to talk to Pain and find out why he committed those horrible acts before deciding on his fate.  This discussion and psychoanalysis of a person’s motivation to commit evil was something I’d never consider taking place in a manga.

Long story short, during the course of their conversation, Pain tells Naruto that both are seeking their own brand of justice and working to achieve their version of peace.  Pain was resentful at the way larger countries spoke about “peace” while ignoring the needs and poverty of smaller countries like his.  Pain’s little village was mistreated and marginalized by the larger developed countries (like Naruto’s) and he acted violently in an expression of his hurt, resentment, and pain in order to break the strength of Naruto’s country.  His aim was to bring retribution for their mistreatment.  Pain then accuses Naruto of being no different that he is because, in seeking revenge, he is also looking to bring about his own version of justice.

An important detail to our story is the fact that Pain tells Naruto that if he kills him, one of his sympathizers will eventually strike again and this would lead to more death.  If this were to happen, someone from Naruto’s side would then retaliate again, someone from Pain’s side would attack again, and so on.

I learned many life and leadership lessons from this manga...judge me.

Naruto (left) battles Pain (right). I learned many life and leadership lessons from this manga… judge me.

This is what he called “the never ending cycle of hatred”, which is created when someone loses something or someone special to them.  Faced with this reality, the question is given to Naruto by Pain, “What will you do now, will you exact your brand of justice and take revenge on me?”  Would Naruto be an avenger and kill Pain for the people he lost?

Yay, we killed Osama!  A happy ending, roll credits.  Is this what the real world is like?  Hardly.

Killing Osama bin Laden and getting our revenge as Americans didn’t change anything in this world.  This kind of eye-for-an-eye justice was (and still is) only a temporary fix that helps us feel better about ourselves.  As long as there exists injustice in the world, hatred will produce another person like Osama bin Laden who will attack us, then we will attack them back, and the cycle of hate will repeat itself.  The same thing happens when we look at issues of race in our country (but that’s another topic).  Both sides will justify their actions due to their own brand of justice from either nationalistic or ideological loyalty.

Or… narrative.

Did we see a group that took the mantle from Osama bin Laden?  I don’t think you have to look far to see that the answer is a resounding yes.  The latest terrorist threat, Islamic State or ISIS, refers to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor.  In their latest act of violence, the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, a spokesperson for the group gave this rationalization for the killings and sent an indirect message to the United States.

“All crusaders: safety for you will be only wishes, especially if you are fighting us all together. Therefore we will fight you all together,” he said. “The sea you have hidden Sheikh Usama Bin Laden’s body in, we swear to Allah we will mix it with your blood.”

We, the United States, in turn will most likely engage this new enemy in some form or another in order to protect what we hold dear.  Is this starting to sound familiar?

Going back to the manga, what does Naruto do?  Does he kill Pain?  No.  Instead, he decides to forgive him even though his feelings of anger towards Pain haven’t subsided!  Pain mocks him by saying, “Love and forgiveness is not an easy thing that can be bought with pretty words; it is a difficult choice that you make.”  Naruto agrees to this but replies that his master taught him to strive for peace with others at all costs.

Pain yells at him saying, “There is no such thing as real peace!  It is impossible as long as we live in this accursed world of ninjas!”  To which Naruto responds, “Sure I don’t know how I’ll get there, but, I will break the curse.  If there’s such a thing as peace, I will find it.  After all, faith is better than any plan.”

I understand that this sounds extremely idealistic.  I don’t mean by this to suggest that there aren’t very real, fundamental differences between the two groups or minimize the gravity of our current situation.  However, I do believe @RickWarren is onto something with a recent tweet of his: “Dig beneath the skeptic’s angry words and you’ll find deep disappointment and often a broken heart.”

How does this story fit into my larger cultural discussion on Narrative Warfare (check out this link for the other parts in this ongoing series)?  In it, we find the first step to bridge the gap between competing narratives.

Only by listening to understand, not to reply, can we begin to build bridges with each other.

Something fundamentally changed in Naruto once he heard Pains story.  Even though he didn’t fully agree with Pain’s conclusions and eventual actions, Naruto realized through listening to Pain’s narrative, that they both shared the pain that is associated with loss.

Pain (the real kind, not the character) leads to hurt, hurt leads to anger, anger can lead you to take revenge, and revenge causes more pain.  Along the way, people can lose their lives and destinies can be changed.  People rarely act in a vacuum; there is a motivation to every action.

I believe, therefore, that it is important to not only understand a person’s individual story, but also to understand that all stories are a part of a larger narrative called the Great Controversy.  It is the larger backdrop behind the pain, suffering, and needless bloodshed that happens every day and repeats the cycle of hatred within the human race.  The faces and places may change, but we all carry seeds within our nature that make us revel when our antagonist is vanquished and our protagonist wins, and make us fume when it is the other way around.  Winners and Losers.

Sadly, because we do not listen to understand, it is easy to reject that which is misunderstood.  It is ironic that ISIS does in fact share something in common with many churches today: a flat-out rejection of competing expressions of cultures.

I’m sure many churches would agree with ISIS’ choice of kindling here.

Take the fact that recently, the ISIS militants in Libya released photos of burning musical instruments, due to them being “un-Islamic.”  Some Christians would quickly embrace this approach and expand it to any entertainment that they see as “un-Christian.”  Both extremes miss the heart of what needs to happen when facing differences in cultural expression: seek to understand before changing.  Culture isn’t something to shun and avoid, it’s something to engage and transform.

Like Naruto, Christians also have a master who taught us to strive for peace with others at all costs.  Sure, I know that Osama was a huge antagonist for us as Americans, but even he was not the face of evil.  Humans simply make decisions and, by those actions, chose to align themselves with either good or evil.  But things aren’t always that simple.

Really though, what justifies one violent expression of faith vs. another?

Really though, what justifies one violent expression of faith vs. another?

Take the above picture for example.  As one person commenting on it highlighted:

One of these women, it can be argued, believes in “defending her country” with the arms she is bearing… But which woman? Wouldn’t both of these women argue the very same thing? That hardly means we should accept this explanation uncritically, but the fact that both would – and do – justify themselves in the same terms should be a sobering realization.

In reality, evil doesn’t even have a face or a name.  Like darkness, it has no form or substance; evil is simply the absence of good.  Just like a single match can light up an entire room, I believe even the simplest good deed can make a huge impact in a world full of hate and darkness.  The ultimate light that I’ve found in my life has been Jesus, and both Christians and Muslims will agree that His life was indeed unique and exemplary (to which degree is where they differ).

I believe that Jesus died for everyone, all the winners and all the losers… including Osama bin Laden.  His death was more than just an act of charity or mercy, it was to make up for all of the atrocities and scars that we inflict on each other and ourselves.  Rightly understood, the Cross event answers the major longings and dissatisfactions of the heart and provides a guiding light for interactions with each other.

Until He returns and truly puts an end to this cycle of hate, people will still commit vicious acts in the name of their own brand of justice, and those people negatively affected by this “justice” might very well retaliate.  We don’t have to wait until then, however, for ultimate peace to come about; we can begin to transform the world today.  Like Naruto, I will chose to work for peace, and I will put my trust in faith.  “I don’t know how it’ll get there… but if there’s such a thing as peace, I will seek to find it.  After all, faith is better than any plan.”

  • Andrew R Posueloz

    Naruto has show that this could not only be his ninja way (way of life) but ours as well. I’m glad that you used him as an example of the real world.

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  • Incredible. Glad to know that I’m not the only one trying to make these connections. But fantasy does have a tendency to reflect the real world, and the Naruto series does this well when it comes to global relations, peace, and conflict.

    • Amazingly so. I’ve noticed that many times fantasy conveys amazing truths in an indirect non-threatening way. Thanks for sharing!

    • Gamerboy1214

      Just awesome.why dont all people think like usi believe even racism is caus3d due to this cycle of hatred.if everyone did then peace could be finally achieved.

  • king

    you are right i am a huge naruto fan myself and also a writer and i want to pass along the message of piece from naruto. it has thaught me so many things that can be applied in real life. this never ending cycle of hatred is exactly what its name describes it as. however it could be stop and its our duty as humans to do it.