Avatar The Last Airbender: Neutrality, the Sacred, and Political Responsibility

By Corey Patterson

Few television shows stand the test of time as eternal icons. Rarely do people across all age groups connect with a story that reflects our deepest fears and most extravagant hopes. But Avatar: The Last Airbender is no ordinary production; it’s a modern mythology that speaks to the need for political responsibility and a rejection of neutrality in our world.

The story focuses on one chosen hero’s journey to halt the destructive path of a warring army — the Fire Nation. Aang, the hero, receives help from allies and undergoes a transformation in order to be prepared for the coming confrontation. But unlike many other quest tales, the hero of Avatar is in fact the one responsible (albeit indirectly) for his world’s crisis. His choice of inaction and neutrality turns out to be the catalyst that leads to the worst possible outcome.

The concept of responsibility plays a large role in the world of Avatar — specifically when it comes to people as individuals. Much like Peter Parker’s mantra in Spider-Man comics, Aang must learn that he has a responsibility for his actions, or lack of action. For good or ill, our choices in this world leave a mark. And in political situations involving justice and injustice, the choice to remain neutral lends support to the latter. 

The Politics of Aang’s World

Aang, the protagonist and legendary figure prophesied to quell conflict among nations, vanished without a trace from his world a century prior to the events of Avatar. Many believed he perished during a conflict, but fans will recall what really happened—a momentary expression of selfishness caused Aang to neglect his duties and run away. This abandonment of responsibility ultimately led to his entrance into a one-hundred year slumber, leaving no one to stand up against the Fire Nation’s attack.

In this way, the loss of the Avatar is no different from the loss of a political leader. When the figurehead, or leading group, is removed from the picture, people tend to turn toward chaos. This is no doubt why the Fire Nation deemed Aang’s disappearance to be the perfect opportunity to seize power from the other confused groups. It seems that in every world — real or fictional — there are certain people who seek to take advantage of others, especially in periods of upheaval.

Theological Implications

Theology turns out to be intricately connected with politics, both in the world of Avatarand our own. Whether one is a theist, atheist, or somewhere in between, our political views inform, and are informed by, our conception of what is “sacred.” And there’s no limit to this conception. If one’s political views lead them to upholding life, liberty, power, religion, the status quo, or a whole host of other societal pieces, they are performing a theological act.

One of the concepts Aang and his world’s inhabitants hold sacred is balance. The spirit living within the Avatar is meant to maintain this balance and create peace for their chaotic world. Aang, by refusing to take up his responsibilities in service of this sacred ideal, indirectly opens up the circumstances for its violation.

The renowned theologian and Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu has spent his life bringing to light the sacred connection between politics and religion. Living in South America in the midst of the apartheid system taught him what was at stake if one didn’t stand up to a force of oppression. His words regarding this couldn’t be more clear:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” [1]

Tutu effectively dismantled the perplexing notion that any person could morally claim to be “neutral” in situations of injustice. Choosing to stay out of a conflict one should be involved in effectively supports the oppressive force. 

Seeking to show how God/the sacred is connected with situations of justice and injustice, the theologian makes a claim about the supposed “even-handedness” of popular imagination.

“People often speak of God being even-handed. God is not even-handed. God is biased, in favor of the weak, of the despised.” [2]

According to Tutu, the sacred is firmly on the side of the oppressed. When situations of injustice demand action, it is our responsibility to participate. To be neutral or “even-handed” (like Aang in the beginning of the series) does not keep you from choosing a side; the consequences always benefit the oppressing force. 

Aang, Political Hero

It needs to be noted that Aang was a child when he chose to run away from his political responsibilities. No one should expect anyone to be perfect, and the purpose of the show is not to heap blame on Aang or anyone else who shied away from their responsibilities. Instead, the show does a brilliant job of confronting Aang with the troubles in order to spur him to action. Because the only way we as people will choose to fight for the oppressed is if we share in their pain and care for them, holding their well-being as sacred.

Aang’s journey is beautiful in that he opens his heart up to those in pain, becoming the hero he was always destined to be. And we can do the same if we fulfill our sacred political responsibilities to the oppressed. 

Corey Patterson is a writer and webmaster. He is passionate about the synthesis of theology and geek/pop culture stories. His interests lie primarily in superhero and fantasy genres. Check out his blog here and some of his reviews on Monkeys Fighting Robots.

Sources

  1. BrownRobert McAfee. Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes. Westminster John Knox Press. 1984.
  2. Perry, Alex. (2010, October 7). Retiring from Public Life, Desmond Tutu Reflects on Good and Evil. TIME. http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2023562,00.html.

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