Loving the Enemy and Building Community in My Little Pony and Steven Universe

As I prepared for the sermon I preached at my church several weeks ago, this notion of loving the enemy stayed fresh in my mind and I joked with the youth group that I’d preach about Steven Universe (some of the kids are fans). Both this series and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic have told us redemptive stories of seemingly unlovable characters which, in my view, express the gospel’s call to radical hospitality.

A million years ago, when I was still in college, I wrote a blog post analyzing Princess Celestia and Princess Luna’s relationship in season 1’s pilot episodes, and how the reconciliation between the two sisters aligns to the classical Christian narrative of redemption and salvation. In this case “redemption and salvation” mean that Luna is healed of Nightmare Moon and is welcomed back into community with Celestia and Equestria at large (although she barely gets any character development after this).

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Since season 1, there have been several other character arcs where an evil or unlovable character has not merely been defeated, but welcomed into the friendship of the Mane Six. Discord, Sunset Shimmer, Starlight Glimmer, (The Great and Powerful) Trixie–all of these former antagonists, to some degree or another, get a chance at reformation and are permanently changed after experiencing friendship when no one else would give it. Some characters, like Sunset and Starlight, undergo a more dramatic change than others, but the end result is still that there is room at the table, whether that’s the literal table of Twlight’s court or the figurative table of community.

But being in a community isn’t as simple as accepting the invitation and living happily ever after. Learning how to be a friend is a continuous process, and even the Princess of Friendship herself still has a thing or two to learn, given her severe distrust of Starlight and Trixie’s friendship. Discord struggles with unhealthy, possessive behavior over Fluttershy. Sunset, both in Equestria Girls and the main series, has to overcome her guilt and the stigma of her past. All of these problems surface because being accepted into a community itself is not perfection. It’s an agreement to grow with others, and from what we’ve seen so far in six seasons of My Little Pony, there is nothing that anyone can do among the Mane Six that would permanently oust them from friendship.

This notion of integrating the “unlovable” into a community goes hand in hand with loving the enemy, although in My Little Pony and Steven Universe, it takes a more literal meaning. As I said in my sermon, loving the enemy doesn’t mean that what the enemy does or did is okay. Even though Discord and Starlight Glimmer experience the friendship of the Mane Six, neither that friendship nor their turning points in which they realize the error of their ways sanctifies their past or future actions. Discord gets a stern talking-to when his jealousy of Tree Hugger at the Grand Galloping Gala makes him violent and possessive. Starlight Glimmer continues to make mistakes and sometimes slip back into her old ways as she learns more about friendship. Even though these characters still make mistakes, and their pasts are not entirely brushed to the side, they are still much better off having experienced friendship from those who were once their enemies. If radical friendship had not been extended to them, where would they be? Discord would still be a threat to Equestria and Starlight Glimmer would still be out messing with ancient spells that alter reality. And both characters would still be incredibly lonely.

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Steven Universe is perhaps even more intentional with this recurring narrative of love and redemption for enemies. Whereas Twilight Sparkle and the Mane Six seem to attempt friendship as a last resort, Steven reaches a point of embracing and understanding those he conflicts with much sooner. Peridot and Blue Diamond are two notable examples. It takes a while with Peridot, but once Steven decides to open himself up to Peridot and extend his friendship, both the Crystal Gems and the audience begin to change their perception of Peridot. This Homeworld gem who was once the primary enemy is now invited into the family, and the result is that Peridot switches her loyalties to protect Earth rather than destroy it. Equally important is that she now has a community in which she can grow and develop gifts that she didn’t know she had (e.g. the gem equivalent of metal bending). This is because she’s welcomed into a group that lets her break out of the mold she was created for. Is the transition easy? Absolutely not. I’ve written previously about the initial tensions among Peridot and Garnet as Peridot’s Homeworld ideas are challenged at every turn. Currently, Peridot is still figuring out her place within this new dynamic.

Blue Diamond, I’m predicting, will be another such redemption tale, although the consequences will be much more dramatic given that she’s a matriarch and holds formidable power. She is one of the pillars of Homeworld’s society and hierarchical structure, so any change she undergoes that affects the way she rules will undermine what seemed so fix and may very well cause a war.

Yet we’ve also seen in recent episodes that Steven’s tendency to accept former enemies backfires. In “Room for Ruby,” Navey (Navy?) takes advantage of Steven’s kindness, exposing it as naivety to reclaim her ship. Such is the risk of radically and unquestioningly inviting enemies into the community. Situations like these may make us want to keep others at a distance. It’s a constant tension between hospitality and self protection.

Steven also seems to be learning that inviting people (or gems) into the Crystal Gen family does not necessarily mean they’ll genuinely change. Ronaldo doesn’t change. Navey/Navy doesn’t change. Who’s to say that the next gem Steven reaches out to will change or accept the invitation to join his community? Will he become more guarded or still unashamedly attempt to create a welcoming space all around him?

All of these are challenges, dreams, and realities the Church faces and will continue to face. But no matter the outcome, the call is still the same, though that doesn’t make it easy.

3 Writing Lesson from Martial Arts Training

One of the several activities that has kept me busy over the last few months is the kung fu and tai chi classes I’ve been taking. Martial arts is currently my only form of exercise; I train hard and feel physically healthier than I have been my whole life.

I had many reasons for deciding to study martial arts, but one of the subtler ones was to improve my writing. Fight scenes and training montages are some of my weak points. I’d get to these sections in my stories and simply not have the language to describe the action I saw in my head nor the experience to write how my characters felt during these encounters. Although I’m still a beginning student, here are three writing lessons I’ve taken away from my training so far.

1. A character with little to no athletic background, training, or prowess will likely not have the endurance or technique to last through a long fight.

This one’s pretty obvious, but I really came to appreciate it and experience it for myself during my first couple months of training when merely doing our warm-up exercises left me exhausted and heaving for air. Adrenaline may give your completely untrained character a temporary boost of power, but that doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly know where to aim on their opponent’s body.

I’m in much better shape now than I was when I first started training and even though my endurance has improved, sparring is the one thing that zaps me of all my energy and leaves me just as winded as warm-ups used to. If your character goes on a journey from untrained everywoman to awesome warrior, do understand that they will probably pass out or come close to it if they train super hard and it really would take constant, daily training for them to get in shape and be proficient with their fists or weapons in a plot with a time crunch.

2. A character going from novice to expert fighter in a relatively short amount of time is pretty unrealistic.

Yeah, it’s a common plot device: such and such magic/fighting technique takes years to master, but there are only six months until The Bad Guy Does Things™. So, the unlikely hero spends their free time training between other plot problems as the big confrontation gets closer and by the time the battle comes, they’re a total badass. Sure, it sounds cool, but it’s pretty hard to believe.

The easiest solution, aside from some insane in-world magic that gives your characters quick power-ups, is to have your characters partially or fully trained from the start. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang only has about a year (maybe less) before Sozin’s comet arrives and the Fire Nation completes their conquest. In that time, he has to learn waterbending, earthbending, and firebending, plus master his other Avatar abilities. What makes Aang’s journey believable, and what makes him able to gain enough proficiency with the other three elements to face Fire Lord Ozai is that he’s already a master airbender. That gives him enough basic fitness, agility, and stances to work with as he learns the nuances of each style.

3. Just because a character can spin a staff doesn’t mean they understand how to apply techniques against a live opponent.

At my kung fu school, we learn empty-handed and weapon forms as well as sparring. As a beginning student, there’s a huge disconnect for me between what I learn in form and what I have to do in sparring. Part of that is because forms might exaggerate a few things to look nice, but another part is that it’s not yet second nature to get the practical application of the techniques I practice in form. The practical applications are there; they’re just not as apparent to me as a beginner (and that’s totally okay).

So if a lot of your character’s training involves them practicing forms or techniques solo, consider that a potential hangup for them would be this disconnect between form and practical application.

Studying martial arts is not only fun, but it’s also given me a lot of personal experience with how my characters might feel as they go through training. I can now think about what my body goes through on a typical day of training and recall details that I don’t think I would’ve considered otherwise like how the outside of my hand feels sore after spinning my wooden short staff a bunch of times or the 900 little things I need to pay attention to as I’m doing tai chi.

Just because we’re writers doesn’t mean we have to do everything our characters do or master everything they’re interested in, but I think gaining some personal experience can certainly help us improve.

Movement, Movement, Movement, and Repose: A Sermon

On February 19th, 2017, I had the privilege of preaching at my church. I framed my sermon around the Revised Common Lectionary texts for that week, which included Matthew 5:38-48; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; and Psalm 119:1-8. The following is the text of the sermon.

So, I read an article a couple months ago about a lesbian that was out having dinner who overheard the people at the table next to her disparage and bemoan a nephew who had recently come out of the closet. They expelled the usual rhetoric–they were “disgusted” and vowed to “pray to Jesus for a cure.”

I have heard similar sentiments throughout my life. Many of them were not directed at me specifically, but some of them were. So I wonder how this woman at the restaurant felt–angry? Frustrated? Exhausted? Sad? Maybe all of those at once? Here again Jesus was being invoked as a tool to change a fearfully and wonderfully made nephew into something that jived with his family’s sensibilities. Yet this woman did not get into a fight with the family, nor did she merely post a rant about the experience on Facebook. Instead, she said she decided to actually act like the Jesus she grew up learning about. She paid for this family’s meal and wrote them a note that said, “Happy holidays from the very gay, very liberal table sitting next to you. Jesus made me this way. P.S. Be accepting of your family.”

In our Gospel lesson today from Matthew, Jesus talks about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies. These verses are often candy-coated, made safe for people to say in response to the marginalized standing up for their rights or responding to injustice in any way. They’re easy catch phrases and platitudes to pull out when someone makes us uncomfortable by calling us out. But in fact, these concepts of turning the other cheek and loving your enemy are very radical ideas. Marcus Borg wrote that, in Jesus’ society, any beating or striking was done with the right hand, so if a peasant was being beaten by a superior and then turned the other cheek, that superior was then challenged to hit the peasant as an equal. Likewise, Roman law gave soldiers permission to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but anything longer than one mile was considered abuse. Yet Jesus says to go the extra mile–to force the soldier, the agent of the State, to see the injustice in their request. Because to perform these offerings–these niceties–in an exaggerated way exposes oppressive hierarchies for what they are and calls the oppressors to reflect on their humanity and the humanity of the person they are oppressing.

Now, judgmental words over the dinner table are not quite as extreme as hitting someone or forcing them to carry your things, but the nature of the woman’s response is very much in keeping with the spirit in which Jesus speaks when he talks about turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. Loving the enemy does not mean that what the enemy does is acceptable. Turning the other cheek does not mean choosing to stay silent. What it does mean is exaggerating kindness and humility to expose evil for what it is.

This understanding of Jesus’ words in the gospel laid a foundation for the non-violent resistance of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists. Last month, Congressman John Lewis appeared on Christa Tippet’s On Being podcast titled “Love in Action.” He spoke about how a strong, faith-based foundation prepared him and other activists for arrests, police dogs, hoses, and other tools of state persecution. They trained in church halls, roleplaying every possible scenario. They practiced subtle tactics like always looking the other person in the eye no matter what they did to you and purposefully took to the streets in their nicest clothes. All of it was to compel the police officers, the politicians, the system at hand to come face to face with their own evil as they were forced to recognize the humanity in black people.

It is this foundation that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.” Though Paul says he has laid a foundation, in another sense he is the one building upon Jesus’ foundation. Paul recognizes that he only built his foundation because of God and he also recognizes that the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians–all these new groups of Christians he writes to–are building on his own foundation.

This pattern repeats throughout history–Paul founds on the foundation of Christ, the Church founds on the foundations of Paul and Christ, ordinary people yearning for justice found on the foundations of Christ, Paul, and the Church. And what sort of building are we moving to build?

mewithoutYou is one of my favorite bands. They have a song called “Paper Hanger,” which is where I got the title for this sermon.

The last part of the song goes,

“Our lives are not our own.

Even the wind lay still.
Our essence was fire, and cold, and
Movement, movement oh,
If they ask you for the sign of the Father in you
Tell ‘em it’s movement, movement, movement, oh!
And repose.”

It’s a reference to the Gospel of Thomas, which is not in the biblical cannon. However, I think the sentiment holds true of the Church and what Jesus asks of us in turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. Movement and repose. Movement is walking that second mile with the soldier and making them uncomfortable. Repose is turning the other cheek, daring to be struck as an equal. Movement is marching from Selma to Montgomery to the ire and confusion of white America. Repose is paying for a meal in the face of homophobic rhetoric. And all of this is done with the hope that grace and liberation will replace fear and oppression.

Yet it’s hard to understand these concepts as a single unit. Movement and repose seem like opposites–one telling us to act and another telling us to keep it classy. Somehow, we should do both at once.

Our faith is full of such seemingly illogical ideas that we’re asked to hold as true–a person being dead and then alive, Jesus being both fully God and fully human, the kingdom of God being already here but not yet here, God being one and three, the least of these here on Earth being first in the kingdom of God, God the all-powerful creator and God the infant, God the servant.

So Jesus asks us to resist in a similarly illogical manner. Dare the oppressor to continue their persecution beyond what is permissible by law. Dare to love the enemy to present evil in stark relief, including our own evil. Because we go beyond the ways of this world when we refuse to play their divisive games, and we go beyond their ways when we refuse to accept the status quo as the perfection and abundance that God desires for our lives. When we hold illogical God things close to our hearts and let them compel us to movement, we transcend into an experience and an existence that the best metaphors fail to fully capture.

And no one said any of this was easy. I certainly don’t claim to perfectly wrap my head around it or act on it all the time. Perhaps this is why our Psalm reading comes from one of the longest Psalms, where the speaker constantly repeats the promise to keep God’s statutes and by the end is begging for deliverance in order to continue keeping those statutes. To me, it sounds like desperate bargaining–your statutes are great, God! They’re the best statutes! I totally keep them all the time, but I need your help because I also suck at keeping them! So deliver me, please! And I’ll keep keeping them! By the way, did I mention that these are great statutes?

None of what God asks of us is easy. Many times, it goes against our basic instincts. Secular progressive morality might have told that woman in the diner to interrupt the family’s meal, make a public embarrassment out of them. Pick that fight. Don’t let them stay comfortable. Paying for their meal isn’t the punishment they deserve.

Well, no, it’s not the punishment they deserve. It’s the grace they don’t deserve. That is the transformative power of the gospel. And sometimes when we extend that undeserved grace no matter how difficult it is and no matter how much we think we hate the other person, we too experience grace.

To reach that place spiritually, emotionally, and mentally requires an openness and humility to God to utterly transform us. So, I’ll end with another quote from another mewithoutYou song called “C-Minor.”

“Open wide my door, my door, my Lord
(open wide my door)
To whatever makes me love you more
(0pen wide my door)
While there’s still light to run towards
(open wide my door)”

May it be so among us. Amen.

Tradition vs. Tech? Saving the Internet and Saving the World in Summer Wars

This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Ontological Geek.

Think pieces about the impend­ing dom­i­nance of tech­nol­o­gy over every aspect of our lives abound on the Internet. Data, gad­gets, online games, and social media are already inte­gral parts of daily life. The con­se­quences of blend­ing the dig­i­tal with the real are dis­as­trous, accord­ing to some. Older gen­er­a­tions lament Millennials’ sup­posed dis­con­nect with each other and the out­side world. What hap­pened to get­ting things done the old-fashioned way? What about talk­ing to peo­ple face-to-face and spend­ing time with fam­i­ly? Then, my gen­er­a­tion high­lights the sense of com­mu­ni­ty so many have felt through online friendships, access to knowl­edge that they wouldn’t have had oth­er­wise, and the abil­i­ty to have dis­course about social issues that at times reach­es the nation­al level.

This back and forth could go on forever and in a mul­ti­tude of iter­a­tions. “New tech­nol­o­gy and con­stant con­nec­tiv­i­ty will replace and destroy the foun­da­tions we’ve had for centuries.” “No, it’ll help us over­come the very issues you passed down to us and make the world a bet­ter place.” At the end of the day, it seems like the argu­ment encour­ages peo­ple to choose one side or the other. Reject the evolv­ing Internet Age to save our human­i­ty or save our human­i­ty by vir­tu­al­ly band­ing togeth­er with peo­ple from around the globe.

This ten­sion serves as a back­drop to Mamoru Hosada’s 2009 anime film Summer Wars. What begins as a benign sum­mer trip result­ing from a hokey “pre­tend we’re dat­ing when you meet my fam­i­ly” anime plot turns into a fight for life and death.

And it all begins on the Internet.

Welcome to OZ

In OZ, you can do anything––file your taxes, chal­lenge a wor­thy oppo­nent to a game of Koi Koi, shop, and work. Billions of peo­ple around the world, and the gov­ern­ments that keep their soci­eties run­ning, inter­act in OZ. They make busi­ness deals, form com­mu­ni­ties, and store their valu­able data on the most secure dig­i­tal net­work ever. It’s fun. It’s effi­cient. It’s the way of the future.

Kenji, a high school stu­dent, has a rel­a­tive­ly unim­por­tant sum­mer job as a lack­ey maintain­ing OZ’s sys­tems. He and his buddy type away in a cramped com­put­er room as the long days pass. Then, every­thing changes when the Fire Nation attacks Natsuki, an upperclassman, needs some­one to pre­tend to be her fiancé at her fam­i­ly reunion, espe­cial­ly since her great-grandmother Sakae is turn­ing 90.

By a flip of a coin, Kenji becomes the lucky sap to accom­pa­ny Natsuki. The two of them take a train and a few buses way out into the coun­tryside to the Jinnouchi estate where the rest of Natsuki’s giant fam­i­ly gath­ers. The Jinnouchi fam­i­ly is proud of their family’s histo­ry and some mem­bers tout it more than oth­ers, pas­sion­ate­ly relay­ing the war sto­ries of their samu­rai ances­tors from hun­dreds of years ago (a few rounds of beer cer­tain­ly help the words flow).

Nothing is amiss despite a few awk­ward sit­u­a­tions. The Jinnouchi fam­i­ly seems nice enough and great-grandma Sakae? She’s sharp and lov­ing and is the cen­ter of her family’s affec­tions. She sees through Kenji’s timid­ness and accepts him.

On his first night at the Jinnouchi house, Kenji gets a strange email with a huge num­ber code. Being the math nerd that he is, he spends all night fig­ur­ing out the puz­zle and then replies with the cracked code, think­ing that it’s just anoth­er game from OZ.

Except he broke the Internet.

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From here, Summer Wars take a satir­i­cal, touch­ing, and dra­mat­ic look at the ter­ri­fy­ing yet inevitable con­ver­gence of the real world and the vir­tu­al one. With OZ’s sys­tems hacked and a vicious AI called “Love Machine” steal­ing accounts that grant access to sen­si­tive city infra­struc­ture, the film presents a sober­ing out­look on our reliance on tech­nol­o­gy. That which seems con­stant, sta­ble, and eter­nal has vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. All it takes is one error to com­pro­mise the entire sys­tem. We watch as Love Machine sucks up thou­sands of accounts, knocks over domi­noes that rep­re­sent city trans­porta­tion sys­tems, and shifts traf­fic pat­terns as if he’s com­plet­ing a slid­ing puz­zle. The ven­er­a­ble, inde­struc­tible OZ is his play­ground and every­one is lost with­out its sup­port.

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Yet if Summer Wars pre­sent­ed a stark, black and white warn­ing again­st the inva­sion of the Internet in our lives, it prob­a­bly wouldn’t have won a bunch of film awards and nominations.

Juxtaposed to this futur­is­tic pow­er­house of OZ that near­ly replaces the phys­i­cal world is the very old and very tight-knit Jinnouchi fam­i­ly. Its mem­bers are all over Japanese society from fire and police depart­ments to city man­age­ment and tech­nol­o­gy. The legendary King Kazma (Kazuma is his real name), known in OZ com­mu­ni­ties as the best tour­na­ment fight­er around is a Jinnouchi. Even the mas­ter­mind behind Love Machine, way­ward Wabisuke, is a mem­ber of this promi­nent fam­i­ly.

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Old-Fashioned Networking

In the face of this great enemy born of tech­nol­o­gy, Grandma Sakae resorts to dial­ing every con­nec­tion she has on an old rotary phone. She spends hours encour­ag­ing her chil­dren, grand­chil­dren, cousins, nieces, nephews, busi­ness part­ners, and old friends to not give up — to not let this enemy destroy soci­ety. To her, it’s all about good old-fashioned networking and rela­tion­ship skills.

But this doesn’t mean reject­ing the Internet or tech­nol­o­gy. After King Kazma’s first loss to Love Machine (no thanks to the young cousins who keep jump­ing all over Kazuma in real life), the Internet is abuzz with peo­ple leak­ing as much intel as they can gath­er about this AI. “The online world is huge,” Kazuma tells his fam­i­ly. “If peo­ple work togeth­er and share infor­ma­tion, we should be able to stop him.”

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We see this idyl­lic Internet col­lab­o­ra­tion all the time when hash­tags turn into move­ments or inten­sive efforts to com­bat ter­ror­ist attacks. Action online can trans­late into real-world effects, for bet­ter or for worse. As Summer Wars pro­gress­es, things do get worse.

Just shy of her 90th birth­day, Granny Sakae dies. One of her sons had been mon­i­tor­ing her health through OZ, but with the sys­tems mal­func­tion­ing due to Love Machine’s antics, he never received any noti­fi­ca­tion that some­thing was wrong. This is the first of the film’s two direct attacks on our increas­ing depen­dence on tech­nol­o­gy. Entrusting Sakae’s health to the sup­posed infal­li­bil­i­ty of OZ with­out any back­up ulti­mate­ly led to her demise and the entire fam­i­ly is dev­as­tat­ed.

Both Sakae and OZ are these bright, solid anchors. Sakae is the rock of the Jinnouchi family, the one who holds every­one togeth­er and is one of the main rea­sons this ancient family’s pride is still strong today. She rep­re­sents long-standing tra­di­tions that provide a firm foun­da­tion for later gen­er­a­tions. OZ pro­vides that same secu­ri­ty as well as a way for­ward into the future. When they both “die,” it strips away cer­tain­ty and con­fi­dence.

The way out of this prob­lem is to take the tra­di­tion and fam­i­ly pride that Sakae passed down through the gen­er­a­tions and apply it to this brave new world. That ancient samu­rai bat­tle that one of Natsuki’s half-drunk uncles raved about when she and Kenji first arrived is the very plan that the Jinnouchi fam­i­ly, led by Kazuma and his famous avatar, enact in OZ. Uncles and cousins pull togeth­er all of their resources, secur­ing com­put­ers and a gigan­tic server that will give them enough power to lure Love Machine into their trap. That trap turns out to be a fortress of an ancient Japanese-style home, solid­i­fy­ing the point that under­stand­ing and using tri­umphs from the past can solve the prob­lems we face today.

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The sec­ond attack on our ten­den­cy to place all our eggs in one tech bas­ket comes when Love Machine, who’s now stolen over four hun­dred mil­lion accounts, hacks into a satel­lite and sets its course to come crash­ing to earth in just two hours. With the tar­gets set on nuclear facil­i­ties around the world — of course Love Machine wouldn’t reveal just one loca­tion — this Internet cri­sis now has very real and very dead­ly con­se­quences.

Fighting Love Machine fails. Kazuma, with all the server power and fan­dom sup­port in the world, can­not hold him down. It doesn’t help that one of Natsuki’s idiot cousins removed the blocks of ice from the room that was pre­vent­ing the huge server from over­heat­ing.

However, this frus­trat­ing set­back empha­sizes just how inter­twined the Internet is with the real world. They seam­less­ly cross over into each other, so con­fronting the cri­sis isn’t as sim­ple as log­ging off or shut­ting the com­put­er down. It’s also not as grand as using the most cutting-edge hard­ware or being an Internet and gam­ing expert.

Koi Koi!

When all hope is lost, Natsuki has only her flip phone and her exper­tise in Koi Koi, a match­ing game that Sakae taught to all of her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. Love Machine accepts her chal­lenge to play in OZ’s casi­no area. The wager? Her and her family’s OZ accounts. What fol­lows is per­haps the most excit­ing anime card game since Yu-Gi-Oh!

Koi Koi is a straight­for­ward game once you get used to the hana­fu­da (flow­er cards) and under­stand how they all match up.

The goal is to col­lect cer­tain sets of cards by form­ing match­es between the cards in your hand and the cards in the mid­dle of the table. The first play­er to com­plete a set can either stop the round and col­lect how­ev­er many points that set is worth, or they can declare “koi koi” to keep play­ing and try to com­plete more sets.

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The his­to­ry of hana­fu­da involves the Yakuza, Nintendo, and peo­ple sub­vert­ing Japan’s strict gam­bling laws a few cen­turies ago. Koi Koi is one of sev­er­al games you can play with these cards and it’s pop­u­lar enough to be ref­er­enced in anime. It makes a grand appearance in Summer Wars, but Naruto fans will rec­og­nize the set Ino-Shika-Cho (Boar-Deer-Butterfly).

The vibrant art­work on the cards has a clas­sic Japanese look, which makes them an excellent choice to fea­ture in Summer Wars. Hanafuda, and Koi Koi specif­i­cal­ly, are linked to Sakae and this sense of tra­di­tion. Furthermore, the cards are a flag­ship for the under­dogs. Several sce­nes in the film high­light the Jinnouchi’s resis­tance again­st the Tokugawa regime.

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When the Tokugawa were in power, they placed strict bans again­st gam­bling and closed Japan to the Western world. Yet the cards brought over by Western trav­el­ers were still pop­u­lar among the peo­ple. To get around the government’s restric­tions, they changed the art­work on the cards, which even­tu­al­ly led to their cur­rent design. So, the Jinnouchi (based on the Sanada clan) were a part of Tokugawa resis­tance from the bat­tle­field to the card table. The all-or-nothing con­test between Natsuki and Love Machine in OZ shows how this tra­di­tion­al thing is not only rel­e­vant to the new, dig­i­tal world, but vital. Natsuki’s OZ avatar adds to this vibe.

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What we see in Summer Wars, then, isn’t a bat­tle between tra­di­tions and tech­nol­o­gy in which one ulti­mate­ly over­comes the other. Instead, both must come togeth­er to con­front new chal­lenges. Koi Koi may be an old game, but because OZ is the play­ing field and the stakes are so high, Kazuma’s ideal Internet com­mu­ni­ty comes to light as mil­lions of strangers from around the world offer Natsuki their accounts to bet. Even though Natsuki’s dom­i­nance in Koi Koi redeems all but two of the accounts, it’s not a total vic­to­ry. Kenji and Wabisuke must step in on the math and pro­gram­ming side to change the crashing satellite’s tra­jec­to­ry while Kazuma must deal the final blow to Love Machine.

Such inte­gra­tion of tra­di­tion and tech may be the best solu­tion to the inevitable fail­ures of tech­nol­o­gy. Technology cer­tain­ly caus­es the prob­lems in Summer Wars, but it’s also part of the solu­tion, work­ing in tandem with the old things passed down through gen­er­a­tions of the Jinnouchi fam­i­ly.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Fusion: Mysterious Unity in Steven Universe

This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Ontological Geek.

Steven Universe fol­lows Steven and his care­tak­ers Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl as they chill in Beach City, sav­ing the world from mon­sters and aliens who want to destroy Earth. Steven’s guardians are “gems,” an all-female alien race from a plan­et called Homeworld, who not only wield their own mag­i­cal weapons, but can also com­bine them­selves through a process called fusion. Each new pre­sen­ta­tion of fusion in Steven Universe reveals yet anoth­er layer of this com­plex, inti­mate phe­nom­e­non that not even the gems who experience it seem to fully under­stand. Whatever lan­guage audi­ences or char­ac­ters in the show use to explain fusion, a com­plete def­i­n­i­tion never quite mate­ri­al­izes. We become much like Meno–giv­ing exam­ples of fusion (call­ing it love, inti­ma­cy, or power), but not fully grasp­ing what fusion is in its entire­ty. Fusion can be con­sen­su­al or forced, sta­ble or unstable, beau­ti­ful or ter­ri­fy­ing. Some fusions, like Stevonnie (a fusion between Steven and his friend Connie) and Garnet, break the per­ceived bar­ri­ers of fusion. The for­mer shows that fusion with organ­ic mate­ri­al (humans) is pos­si­ble and the lat­ter intro­duced the notion of fusion between two dif­fer­ent kinds of gems. Once it seems like fusion is com­plete­ly under­stood, some new form of it appears as a reminder that it exists just beyond the bounds of logic.

On the sur­face, it’s easy to explain what hap­pens when gems fuse. They dance to get in sync with each other and that ener­gy lets them com­bine to form a new gem. Garnet and Pearl cre­ate Sardonyx. Pearl and Amethyst cre­ate Opal. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl cre­ate Alexandrite (which they can’t keep sta­ble for very long). There are five dif­fer­ent fusion pos­si­bil­i­ties just with­in the main char­ac­ters.

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Fusions are more pow­er­ful than the indi­vid­u­al gems them­selves. This makes fus­ing ideal for bat­tles or accom­plish­ing great feats of strength. In this sense, fus­ing is prac­ti­cal and tac­ti­cal. It’s done to achieve speci­fic goals and noth­ing more. At least, that’s what some gems believe fusion should be.

The Homeworld gems — refer­ring to the antag­o­nists hail­ing from the plan­et where gems come from — have strict, well-defined class­es among them and equal­ly rigid ideas about fusion.

  1. It can only occur between two or more of the same gem (e.g., Rubies can only fuse with other Rubies).
  2. It should be done for the sake of excelling in bat­tle.
  3. It should be tem­po­rary.
  4. It’s just a cheap tac­tic to make weak gems stronger (sorry not sorry).

These rules are so fun­da­men­tal to Homeworld’s social struc­ture that any deviance from them is con­sid­ered offen­sive or even dis­gust­ing. In fact, until Ruby and Sapphire accidental­ly fused, most gems didn’t con­sid­er fusion between two dif­fer­ent kinds of gems to be pos­si­ble. This, among many other rea­sons, caused Ruby and Sapphire to defect from Homeworld. In the present, how­ev­er, any judge­ment that Garnet expe­ri­ences isn’t from the fact that she is two dif­fer­ent gems that fused, but that she stays fused all the time. That first rule, how­ev­er per­ma­nent it seemed in the past, has become obso­lete. It’s the same with that memet­ic fourth rule. Jasper spouts it off as a solid fact and then coerces Lapis Lazuli into fus­ing just a few min­utes later. Homeworld gems thought they knew every­thing there was to know about fusion, but it remains par­tial­ly in this unknow­able realm and that mys­tery about it occa­sion­al­ly breaks these notions that seem so strong.

Ruby and Sapphire’s deci­sion to stay per­ma­nent­ly fused is a metaphor for a com­mit­ted and inti­mate rela­tion­ship. They’re queer in both the lit­er­al and aca­d­e­mic sense (the lat­ter of which I have mixed feel­ings about given the ten­den­cy of some to claim any sort of minor “dif­fer­ent­ness” as “queer­ing”). Gems are a female alien race, so there prob­a­bly isn’t any con­cept of het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty or homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, but from a reader-response perspec­tive, Ruby and Sapphire are one of many exam­ples in Steven Universe of transgressing bound­aries we find in the real world. Fusion overt­ly speaks to the audi­ence as exam­ples of healthy rela­tion­ships (Garnet) and abu­sive ones (coerced fusions such as Jasper and Lapis Lazuli), allow­ing the series as a whole to safe­ly explore multi-faceted, dif­fi­cult, and taboo top­ics.

Analyzing Ruby and Sapphire just with­in their own uni­verse, we see their rela­tion­ship breaks a seem­ing­ly immutable law of fusion; how­ev­er, they fur­ther dis­turb the sta­tus quo by remain­ing fused even when they’re not doing any­thing of per­ceived value. Peridot, who begins as an enemy and becomes an ally, makes this objec­tion, as Garnet’s exis­tence challenges her Homeworld-based under­stand­ing of fusion:

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Garnet’s delib­er­ate refusal to fit her­self back into com­fort­able notions of fusion is a stark reminder that fusion stretch­es beyond any imposed lim­i­ta­tions or under­stand­ings of what it’s sup­posed to be. For Peridot specif­i­cal­ly, fusion is unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry, and beneath her dis­gust for Garnet is a fear of the incom­pre­hen­si­ble. What real­ly hap­pens when two gems fuse? Are Ruby and Sapphire still con­scious, still present as Garnet, or do they cease to exist in some way? Will Peridot still be Peridot if she fuses with anoth­er gem?

Even Garnet, for as long as she’s been per­ma­nent­ly fused, can only describe her state using fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage that would make sense to Peridot or Steven or who­ev­er she’s explain­ing her­self to. Peridot only begins to under­stand Garnet when Garnet says that she’s “like Percy and Pierre,” Peridot’s #1 ship from a TV show she watch­es obses­sive­ly. But to get a lit­tle Socratic for a moment, Garnet is still only say­ing what she — what fusion — is like, not what it actu­al­ly is. No metaphor can per­fect­ly or com­plete­ly cap­ture the nature of fusion rela­tion­ships.

Similarly, metaphors can­not per­fect­ly or com­plete­ly cap­ture mys­ter­ies of faith. So far, Steven Universe has not been par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious or spir­i­tu­al. Perhaps the clos­est it comes to this is in Rose’s “death” and trans­for­ma­tion into Steven. Fusion is not quite representa­tive of any Western under­stand­ings of the Trinity. Fusion itself, or the mix­ing of two natures, actu­al­ly goes again­st typ­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions of the hypo­sta­t­ic union (the under­stand­ing of Christ’s nature as both fully God and fully human). However, what fusion and the Trinity do have in com­mon is that they’re both mys­te­ri­ous uni­ties.

Many Christian denom­i­na­tions believe in one God in three per­sons who are typ­i­cal­ly labeled “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” Of course, they can just as eas­i­ly be labeled “Creator,” “Christ,” and “Spirit” or any sim­i­lar titles because the goal is to express a relation­ship. The Bible itself doesn’t actu­al­ly spell out any doc­trine of the Trinity, but rather this doc­trine was for­mu­lat­ed through the work of early the­olo­gians in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cen­turies. Lesser known Christian denom­i­na­tions are non­trini­tar­i­an and this along with other doc­tri­nal dif­fer­ences caus­es some to say that they aren’t real­ly Christians. I’m not inter­est­ed in delv­ing into those argu­ments, but I will say that grasp­ing the Trinity and artic­u­lat­ing it well with­out describ­ing a heresy (if you’re an ortho­dox Christian) is exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult.

Heresy” is a strong word with neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions of witch hunt­ing and para­noia, but the term at its root basi­cal­ly refers to beliefs about the nature of Jesus, God, and Christian prac­tice that have been reject­ed as false­hoods. For exam­ple, around 318 A.D., two dudes named Alexander and Arius had a huge dis­agree­ment about the role of Christ in rela­tion to God. They both believed that God is per­fect and there­fore can­not change. Arius’s issue was that in order to truly say that God can’t change, then you can’t also say that Christ is divine the same way God is divine because incar­nat­ing and expe­ri­enc­ing human life through Christ would change God’s nature. Since Arius held that God can­not change, he con­clud­ed that Christ isn’t fully divine, but instead is an exalt­ed human. This means that Christ isn’t equal with God and is in fact sub­or­di­nate to God.

Alexander dis­agreed with Arius and main­tained that God and Christ were equal and of the same sub­stance, even though this idea is hard to wrap our heads around and neat­ly fit with­in our human logic. This argu­ment ulti­mate­ly led to the Council of Nicea where all the church lead­ers gath­ered to fig­ure out what they believed. Alexander’s view gained the most sup­port. He ensured that the Nicene Creed –– which became the basis of Christian doc­trine –– includ­ed lan­guage that dis­proved Arius’s views and stat­ed that such views were hereti­cal. In other words, Arianism was reject­ed as incor­rect. The church lead­ers held that God and Christ don’t exist as a hier­ar­chy and are made of the same “stuff,” so to speak, even though this dec­la­ra­tion rais­es more ques­tions than it answers. “The bish­ops gath­ered at Nicea rec­og­nized that they were will­ing to affirm mys­tery rather than allow heresy” (Olson & English, Pocket History of Theology, 32).

That’s exact­ly what the Trinity is: a mys­tery. Any expla­na­tion of it will fall short of fully cap­tur­ing God as one-in-three-persons, just as any expla­na­tion of fusion will fall short of cap­tur­ing every­thing it can mean and be.

To keep things sim­ple, I’m going to present two broad inter­pre­ta­tions of the Trinity: one from the Latin Orthodox Church (which became Catholicism, Protestantism, and most of the other forms of Christianity seen in the West) and one from the Eastern Orthodox Church. I’m draw­ing from a book called Christian Doctrine by Shirley Guthrie.

When Western Christianity talks about the Trinity, what we mean in spir­it is a rela­tion­ship of equals in which the stan­dard descrip­tors — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are metaphor­i­cal rather than strict indi­ca­tors of gen­der and author­i­ty. So we intend, in our heart of hearts, to depict the Trinity like so:

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Our favorite Space Dorito has the perfect head shape to borrow for some basic diagrams.

What’s impor­tant here is that the per­sons of the Trinity are labeled on the lines of the trian­gle rather than the points. This depicts an equal­i­ty between them where nei­ther one appears to be above the other two. This is the real­i­ty of how many Christians expe­ri­ence the Trinity, but when we attempt to explain it, we end up pre­sent­ing some­thing like this:

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This layout depicts a hierarchy like what Arius believed.

Guthrie states, “When we Western monothe­ists say ‘God,’ we do not in prac­tice think of three equal per­sons; we tend to think of one ‘top’ God, the Father, and two sub­or­di­nate and some­how lesser divine beings, the Son and the Spirit.” In other words, we’re used to think­ing about God as a hier­ar­chy — like a boss of a huge cor­po­ra­tion over­see­ing and direct­ing two employ­ees. Father, Son, and Spirit become strict iden­ti­ties (that are often gen­dered) with speci­fic tasks. For exam­ple, we may say that the Father cre­ates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit guides as if they are all com­plete­ly sep­a­rate from each other. However, all the per­sons of the Trinity are on the same level, act­ing as one expressed as three.

Depicting this with a tri­an­gle, as Western Christians tend to do, can make it dif­fi­cult to see that egal­i­tar­i­an unity, and cer­tain­ly some tra­di­tions may posit an all pow­er­ful male Father, a grace­ful and sub­or­di­nate Son, and a guid­ing Holy Spirit (who per­haps is female).

Eastern Orthodoxy gives us anoth­er way to look at the Trinity with a term that immediately made me pic­ture fusion when I learned it: peri­chore­sis. Guthrie writes, “Peri (as in perime­ter) means ‘around.’ Choresis means lit­er­al­ly ‘danc­ing’ (as in chore­og­ra­phy of a bal­let). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like three dancers hold­ing hands, danc­ing around togeth­er in har­mo­nious, joy­ful free­dom.”

Other than “Peri” also being Amethyst’s cute nick­name for Peridot, this descrip­tion is basi­cal­ly what gems do to fuse. The main dif­fer­ence is that the per­sons of the Trinity aren’t cre­at­ing a brand new enti­ty with their unity. Also, fusion tends to have romantic/sexual/intimate under­tones where­as under­stand­ings of the Trinity don’t.

But at the end of the day, what’s most com­pelling about both fusion and the Trinity is not fig­ur­ing out how, exact­ly, they work, but rather expe­ri­enc­ing them in all their mys­tery. Upon meet­ing Stevonnie for the first time, Garnet says, “You are not two peo­ple. You are not one per­son. You are an expe­ri­ence.”

And near the end of the episode “Log Date 7 15 2,” Peridot reflects on her expe­ri­ence of attempt­ing to fuse with Garnet. “I have attempt­ed a fusion with the fusion Garnet. I had hoped to gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of fusion. Instead, I gained a bet­ter under­stand­ing of Garnet.”

The phe­nom­e­na will always be a mys­tery, but the per­sons involved in the phe­nom­e­na are know­able and it’s pos­si­ble to expe­ri­ence them. Guthrie says, “The Trinity is a mys­tery to be con­fessed, not a math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lem to be solved.”

For some, that may not be good enough. Why believe in some­thing you can’t fully explain? But for oth­ers, faith and expe­ri­ence aren’t always about explain­ing every facet of a mystery. Even when try­ing to explain the mys­tery is our start­ing point, we may find ourselves like Peridot who demands a com­plete expla­na­tion of a mys­tery and instead comes away with a bet­ter under­stand­ing of her fel­low gem.

Antigone in Ferguson

On Saturday 1/21/17, over half a million people gathered in Washington, DC for the Women’s March and hundreds of thousands more gathered in cities across the nation. Several members of my church family went to DC, making it known that whatever version of Christianity that is now in the White House is not in line with the promise of God’s love and justice for all people, all of whom are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I did not make it to the march, but I did go to a performance of Antigone in Ferguson in Baltimore. It was a collaboration between Theater of War productions, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Choir, and local leaders.

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Before the performance, the organizer explained the genesis of the show–how St. Louis embraced the production and claimed this 2,500-year-old play as something relevant that speaks to their experiences today. After all, Antigone is a young woman who wants justice and proper remembrances for her brother that died in war and was painted as an enemy of the State by the new, irrational king who decreed that the body should be left unburied to rot.

Antigone becomes the mothers, daughters, sisters, and all those left behind when a black person is killed by police. Police officers, as enforcers of the law, carry the power of the State behind them and that is one among many reasons why this particular injustice is so hurtful. Michael Brown’s body was unmoved for four hours after he was killed.

Ismene is that well-meaning person who is saddened by the death of her brother, but will follow the law and the decrees of the king, even if that means not giving her brother a proper burial. She urges Antigone to follow the law, but then later when Antigone is receiving her punishment, she wants to be put to death as well as if she had a part in Antigone’s actions. Ismene is the late ally–the one who stays back in the moment and then later wants recognition for something she had no part in. But also, she feels powerless as a woman to defy the law like Antigone does. She fears the consequences.

Creon is the new king who is impulsive and stubborn, making rash decisions and refusing to listen to reason. He is the State and it is his power, his agenda, and his system that results in all the death by the end of the play. He’s the one who makes the law that Antigone’s brother not be buried and that anyone who disobeys this law will be punished. He clings to law at the expense of his humanity and his own family, which he does not realize until it’s too late. Creon is the oppressor who benefits from the system he creates and cannot see the devastation it causes. It’s only when he finally reclaims his humanity and casts himself away from Thebes that the city is freed from his impulsive, irrational ruling (i.e., the system is dismantled).

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The actors sat at a table on stage with a gospel choir behind them that sang the parts of the Chorus. They performed a dramatic reading of Antigone and afterward, four Baltimore community leaders took to the stage to share their immediate impressions of the performance as well as the work that they do for the city. Then, the floor was opened to a community discussion with the audience.

Some were police officers or justice department employees. Some were community advocates and organizers. Some were people of faith. Some were white people trying to navigate themselves through the discomfort that will always comes with these sorts of discussions–when white supremacy, racism, and white anxiety are named and analyzed.

One big difference that I have to note between these conversations in person and the ones on social media is the perceived tone. One of the many reasons why moving your feet is important, as John Lewis said at the Women’s March, is that you get a fuller picture of someone when you look in their face while hearing what they have to say and you hear their tone of voice. Too often, it seems like people are put off by discourse on social media because they’ll read a Twitter thread or Tumblr post by a black person (or any marginalized person) and hear in their head loud, screaming anger or even hatred. I’m certain that if the discussion were typed up word for word and posted on Tumblr or Facebook, some people would read an abrasive, hateful tone into it and may not even realize that that’s how they’re processing the information. That just has never been the tone I’ve heard when going to events like these in person. Passion and conviction? Absolutely. Frankness and sternness about naming realities and experiences that are sometimes uncomfortable to hear about? You bet. But never hatred.

So the feel of the evening was shared discomfort and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a necessary thing. The refrain that stood out to me the most was go into your own communities, your own spheres of influence, and effect the changes to the system because there’s already black community leadership in the cities that is working and getting things done. They are just unseen, unreported, and often face barriers in getting grant money that other non-profits have access to.

Sonja Sohn, an actress from The Wire played Antigone. She also talked about the documentary she’s directing, For the Love of Baltimore. She said that when she first had the idea to make a film shortly after the Baltimore Uprising, she approached a few directors and producers she knew, two of whom were white and all of whom were male. She figured that since they had better connections and more experience, she needed to have one of them direct it. Instead, they all said that she had to do it, that she was the only person who could. Sohn explained that this is the sort of support and empowerment that’s needed–not for men and white people to lead and execute on a black woman’s idea, but for them to be the voices that build up and support what that black woman creates.

It’s not white people’s task to go in and create new structures to save whatever struggling area outside of our community that we come across. Instead, we have to listen to and support the leaders that are already there doing work and do our own work in our own spaces–work, school, church, every community that’s a part of our own daily lives.

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The community discussion largely centered on justice issues, but the performance itself contained some interesting theological themes. With a gospel choir playing the part of the Chorus, the Christianization of ancient Greek culture was more evident. The final song, performed after Creon exiles himself in the wake of his entire family committing suicide, declared, “I am covered by the blood of the Lamb.”

I found the juxtaposition strange at first–a praise song right after this man exiles himself as he’s laden with guilt for his actions? But that’s the classic dramatic narrative of salvation–hitting rock bottom and finally turning to God for redemption. Taken another way, it’s the Chorus of the city singing this song, so they’re praising God after having been liberated of this terrible leader. Yet who was the “lamb” that paved the way for Creon to reclaim his humanity? Antigone, her future husband, and Creon’s wife.

This begs the question, why do the oppressed have to die for the oppressors to realize the error of their ways? It’s a reality that this is what happens, but the outrage and concern for people should come while they’re still alive. The silver lining that fiction and art provides us at least lets us see this dynamic in action without a real person actually dying.

That’s the takeaway and the continuous challenge.

A World Cut From One Cloth: Personal Sin and Systemic Sin in Kill la Kill

Originally published on The Ontological Geek.

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Ragyo’s grand entrance in Studio Trigger’s Kill la Kill (2013) marks the begin­ning of a chang­ing tide in the story. Up until this point, Ragyo’s daugh­ter Satsuki is the main villain. Satsuki rules a high school called Honnouji Academy with a sim­i­lar bril­liance to her moth­er. There, cloth­ing is lit­er­al­ly power as some stu­dents are grant­ed spe­cial uniforms imbued with Life Fibers that give them super-human strength. The high­er you climb up the aca­d­e­mic and extracur­ric­u­lar lad­der, the stronger your uni­form. Matoi Ryuko arrives at this strict­ly struc­tured high school with only one goal in mind: avenge her father and take Satsuki down. With her giant scis­sor blade and her own Life Fiber uni­form called a Kamui, Ryuko cuts her way through club lead­er after club lead­er, deter­mined to reach Satsuki for a prop­er show­down.

Yet much more unfolds in the world of Kill la Kill, and Ragyo’s intro­duc­tion sends a clear mes­sage that she is the real vil­lain to con­tend with. Ragyo’s goal is to spread cloth­ing enhanced with Life Fibers around the globe so that she can cre­ate a world “of one cloth.” She wants all of human­i­ty to be swal­lowed by Life Fibers, forever rest­ing in a beau­ti­ful silence. To achieve this goal, she exper­i­ments on her­self and her own chil­dren to enhance the bond between humans and Life Fibers. We learn through flash­backs that Ragyo experi­ment­ed on Satsuki at a very young age, but those exper­i­ments failed, so Ragyo decid­ed that she need­ed to begin with a much younger child. That next child is Ryuko, who does actu­al­ly become a per­fect blend of human and Life Fibers. However, when Ragyo doesn’t see imme­di­ate results, she lit­er­al­ly dumps baby Ryuko in the garbage. So fixed is she on her ulti­mate vision of the world that she strips away abun­dant life, love, and commu­ni­ty from her chil­dren and every­one else she inter­acts with. She sex­u­al­ly abus­es Satsuki and Ryuko. She uses the power of her cloth­ing com­pa­ny to build her wealth and ensure that every sin­gle per­son expe­ri­ences sub­ju­ga­tion via Life Fibers. Of course, she would frame that as “the bliss of being worn by cloth­ing.”

These acts are sins. Some of them are per­son­al, mean­ing Ragyo com­mits them as an individ­u­al again­st other indi­vid­u­als. Others are sys­temic, mean­ing they stem from Ragyo’s posi­tion of power (specif­i­cal­ly through her com­pa­ny REVOCS) and affect large groups of peo­ple, if not the entire world. Ragyo shows us how these per­son­al, one-on-one sins connect to sys­temic sins.

Sin and Violence

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Ragyo is referring to Satsuki’s own Kamui, which she’s wearing in this picture.

Most of us don’t think about how our per­son­al inter­ac­tions with each other on a daily basis can con­tribute to sys­temic oppres­sion. The sys­temic and the per­son­al often seem entire­ly sep­a­rate. After all, a sin­gle per­son can­not take on all of the bur­den and respon­si­bil­i­ty of a sys­tem. The more priv­i­leges we have, the more dif­fi­cult it is to see this con­nec­tion. This is appar­ent in Christian reli­gious life, as not many church­es clar­i­fy how per­son­al sins contribute to sys­tems. Part of that comes from dif­fer­ent emphases on sin and sal­va­tion.

If you were to walk into a church and stick around for a few months, you might come away with one of two gen­er­al under­stand­ings of sin and sal­va­tion.

  1. Sins are per­son­al wrongs we com­mit again­st one anoth­er and God, such as lying or steal­ing. There’s a heavy focus on indi­vid­u­al piety and moral­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly around sex­u­al prac­tices and addic­tive behav­iors. Because this is the under­stand­ing of sin, the atone­ment (or sal­va­tion) the­o­ry that fol­lows is that Jesus’ death and res­ur­rec­tion for­gives those per­son­al sins, restor­ing us to God and to one anoth­er.
  2. Sin is the sys­tems of racism, clas­sism, sex­ism, ableism, homo­pho­bia, and so on that deprive peo­ple of abun­dant life with each other and with God. There’s a greater empha­sis on social jus­tice and dis­man­tling the col­lec­tive, sys­temic ways we harm each other. This under­stand­ing of sin leads to atone­ment the­o­ries fram­ing Christ’s death and res­ur­rec­tion as an upheaval of the oppres­sive, first cen­tu­ry Roman govern­ment. It paves the way for lib­er­a­tion from all such sys­tems. This lib­er­a­tion restores peo­ple to God and com­mu­ni­ty by allow­ing them to live fully and abun­dant­ly.

Rarely are these approach­es con­nect­ed in a clear-cut way. Grasping sin, its impli­ca­tions, its con­se­quences, and its for­give­ness is a vast sub­ject with­in Christianity. Shirley Guthrie makes this con­nec­tion clear­er in his book Christian Doctrine. He empha­sizes that Christianity’s main pur­pose in dis­cussing sin is to reveal the for­give­ness of sin. “The basic truth is not that we are sin­ners but that we are human beings cre­at­ed in the image of God. Sin dis­torts, twists, cor­rupts, and con­tra­dicts this truth, but it does not change us into some­thing other than what God cre­at­ed us to be” (213).

The notion that we are cre­at­ed “in the image of God” means that the intend­ed goal of our lives is to live fully, abun­dant­ly, and health­ily both with God and with one anoth­er. Sin breaks that con­nec­tion. “[Sin] is not only mur­der­ing other peo­ple but sim­ply let­ting them starve to death phys­i­cal­ly or emo­tion­al­ly because we decide that social wel­fare and for­eign aid are ‘money down a rathole’” (215). The act of one per­son mur­der­ing anoth­er is an exam­ple of per­son­al sin. It hap­pens on an indi­vid­u­al level and defies the goal of humans liv­ing fully and abun­dant­ly with one anoth­er. Neglecting to sup­port social wel­fare and foreign aid is an exam­ple of sys­temic sin. Its con­se­quences affect entire groups of peo­ple and main­tain a mind­set that poor peo­ple should just work hard­er and peo­ple in other coun­tries are not our prob­lem.

Avenged Seven Billionfold

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Satsuki (left) betrays Ragyo (center) by pinning her to a cross.

Theologian John Dominic Crossan con­nects per­son­al sin to sys­temic sin by talk­ing about esca­la­to­ry vio­lence. Violence increas­es with suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions and caus­es more sin on a wider scale. A bib­li­cal exam­ple of this appears in Genesis 4 when Cain kills Abel. Cain laments once God dis­cov­ers what he’s done and says “any­one who meets me may kill me.” Yet God says, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suf­fer a sev­en­fold vengeance.” A few vers­es later, Lamech, a descen­dant of Cain, says “I have killed a man for wound­ing me, a young man for strik­ing me. If Cain is avenged sev­en­fold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”

What began as a one-on-one occur­rence between Cain and Abel trans­forms over time into some­thing with much high­er stakes and greater con­se­quences. If some­one from anoth­er tribe kills Lamech, then his own tribe will kill 70 peo­ple from the killer’s tribe. The threat of vio­lence and its esca­la­tion prompts the cre­ation of sys­tems meant to keep soci­eties in order, and to avenge seven hun­dred­fold and seven thou­sand­fold any threats to that order.

Honnouji Academy is a sys­tem born of esca­la­to­ry vio­lence. Two of Ragyo’s per­son­al sins, sex­u­al­ly abus­ing Satsuki and aban­don­ing baby Ryuko, are the ones that cut Satsuki the deep­est. What is the result of these par­tic­u­lar one-on-one sins? Satsuki cre­ates her own sys­tem to avenge them seven bil­lion­fold, in true Kill la Kill style. That sys­tem is Honnouji Academy, which estab­lish­es its own hier­ar­chies and per­pet­u­ates its own injus­tices. Even though the school’s true pur­pose is to rebel again­st Ragyo, it’s still a sys­tem cre­at­ed in respon­se to per­son­al wrongs.

For the first half of the series, Satsuki has to keep up appear­ances for her moth­er, which is a big rea­son why she’s so author­i­tar­i­an. Under this facade, she tests Ryuko to see if she has what it takes to fight Ragyo when the time comes. Ryuko, of course, is entire­ly unaware of Satsuki’s true plans. Even so, Satsuki reveals some of her beliefs about human nature in one of these early tests. Satsuki has manip­u­lat­ed cir­cum­stances to pit Ryuko and her best friend again­st each other. When a fight seems unavoid­able, Satsuki vic­to­ri­ous­ly spouts her views about human­i­ty. “This is human nature in its purest form! Prosperity will lead to greed, and greed will lead to their even­tu­al down­fall! Once they have a taste of world­ly plea­sures, they’re enslaved by them forever! They’ve become slaves to this academy I have cre­at­ed! Truly they are pigs in human cloth­ing! Pigs! Which must be tamed by force!”

Some of this rhetoric may be part of keep­ing up appear­ances, but it does declare that there is some­thing innate­ly flawed––perhaps sinful––about humans. Therefore, a dei­fied ruler like Satsuki must exert her power and lead­er­ship over them. This is the way to their sal­va­tion, as she intends to use Honnouji Academy and all the schools it con­quers to defy Ragyo.

Honnouji Academy’s rebel­lion again­st Ragyo sparks an all-out war between human­i­ty and Life Fibers. It’s only resolved when Ryuko and every­one fight­ing with her eschew the nudity/clothing dichoto­my and show illog­i­cal love and ded­i­ca­tion to each other. Such dedi­ca­tion main­tains their human­i­ty and fos­ters com­mu­ni­ty.

Religion and Empire

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Religion has played a vital role in the estab­lish­ment and main­te­nance of empires throughout his­to­ry. Christianity specif­i­cal­ly was used as a tool for con­quest and often provid­ed the­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for colo­nial­ism. Christianization often went hand in hand with oppres­sion and exploita­tion in Africa, India, and Latin America in the 18th, 19th, and 20th cen­turies. This type of Christianity is, in my view, a dis­tor­tion of the faith. Yet those in power often suc­ceed in pre­sent­ing a dis­tort­ed ver­sion of Christianity that ulti­mate­ly serves their own pur­pos­es and thou­sands of peo­ple will go along with it.

This is pre­cise­ly what Ragyo does in her grand intro­duc­tion. When she retells the events of Genesis 3, she takes a the­o­log­i­cal posi­tion that cloth­ing and sin are inter­twined. Humans had no desire for cloth­ing until sin came into the pic­ture and made nudi­ty shame­ful. This dec­la­ra­tion adds reli­gious fuel to the dis­com­fort of nudi­ty and pro­vides the ground­work for an entire col­lec­tive mind­set: to be clothed is to be accept­ed, pow­er­ful, and priv­i­leged while to be naked is to be dis­grace­ful and pow­er­less.

Ragyo’s actions close­ly fol­low Crossan’s descrip­tion of empires.

  1. Religion––pro­vides the ground­work and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for achiev­ing a cer­tain eschato­log­i­cal vision the world. This is why Ragyo’s first sig­nif­i­cant appear­ance involves her tying a reli­gious story to her own company’s story.
  2. War––an inevitable trial that must be dealt with and over­come to achieve the eschato­log­i­cal vision. Ragyo is so con­fi­dent in total suc­cess that the per­fect ver­sion of her plan doesn’t involve much blood, death, or pain. Rather, it involves swift dom­i­na­tion fol­lowed by total silence. However, Ragyo is pre­pared for war and near­ly crush­es the rebel­lion from Satsuki and Ryuko.
  3. Victory––the reward for per­se­ver­ing through the trial of war. Ragyo is cer­tain of this as she watch­es Life Fibers cover the world in the series finale. Her escha­to­log­i­cal vision is unfold­ing before her eyes.
  4. Peace––the final state of things, with the empire call­ing the shots, of course. This is the escha­to­log­i­cal vision itself, the ini­tial promise from the reli­gion ful­filled. Ragyo’s vision of peace is for Life Fibers to cover every­thing in a beau­ti­ful silence. Humanity will ful­fill its des­tiny of feed­ing the Life Fibers so they can repro­duce and scat­ter across the uni­verse. To Ragyo, this is right because human­i­ty evolved to wear clothes in the first place.

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Personal and sys­temic sins have us repeat this process. One-on-one vio­lence esca­lates into trends and we’ll use our sin­cere­ly held reli­gious beliefs to jus­ti­fy the ways we try to dom­i­nate each other, whether it’s through vio­lent wars or cov­er­ing every­one in silence. Although Ragyo is a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter in a show from a coun­try where Christianity has a tumul­tuous his­to­ry and is not a dom­i­nant faith, her actions can still help us under­stand how the per­son­al con­nects to the sys­temic. Sin pre­vents us from treat­ing our­selves and each other like we’re beings cre­at­ed in the image of God who are meant to expe­ri­ence abun­dant life. When we can’t view each other like this, we’re prone to per­pet­u­ate both indi­vid­u­al and sys­temic harm.

Your Truth in Music: Honesty and Performance in Your Lie in April

I’m slowly getting around to watching the anime my Internet circles keep talking about and just recently finished Your Lie in April. I particularly enjoyed how the series dramatizes musical performance and the emotions that go into it. Music is the only consistently honest expression in the entire series. By that I mean in just about every other situation, the characters lie or conceal their true feelings. “Your lie in April” is not just Kaori’s lie that we learn about in the last episode, but Kousei’s constant reluctance to express how he really feels and the little ways he hides what he thinks from Kaori. It’s Watari smiling in front of his friends after losing the soccer match, but then crying alone in the bathroom. It’s Tsubaki denying her feelings for Kousei until it’s almost too late. It’s Kaori pretending that her health is not a big deal until she can no longer hide her condition from her friends.

But when Kousei and Kaori play music, they can’t conceal anything for better or for worse. While Kaori puts in all of her soul into the violin, Kousei is confronted with emotions and truths buried deep inside of him. He can run away from these realizations offstage, but when he’s sitting there playing the piano, they come to the forefront. For the first half of the series, this makes him freeze, unable to hear the notes and watching the music unravel before him. Though I don’t have a traumatic past nor have I performed in high-stakes music competitions, I’ve experienced that terrifying feeling when you’re playing a song and everything goes wrong. My fingers freeze up and the chord doesn’t ring out fully and then the rhythm is off and I’m not in sync with my guitar anymore (thankfully, the people at the wedding where this happened most recently didn’t seem to notice).

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Kousei’s buried feelings surface when he plays piano, making him unable to hear the notes and causing his performance to falter. Everyone in the audience knows something is off, but they don’t know the reason. Even so, Kousei can’t ignore it or stop it from affecting his playing. Music always brings out the truth of his feelings, bringing him to confront and accept realities he might not be able to handle otherwise. Whether it’s his complication relationship with his mother or Kaori’s death, music makes Kousei confront it.

Kaori, on the other hand, already finds freedom in music, but although she hides her health problems as much as she can from her friends, her playing still carries the desperation of someone who’s running out of time and trying to make their mark. Yes, her music is energetic and joyful, but it comes from the urgency of her impending death. She couldn’t hide that urgency if she tried. Playing music requires her to draw from that reality and is usually what she’s doing right before she collapses, right before she’s hospitalized, and so on. We never see what goes on in Kaori’s head as she plays, but it’s possible that she confronts her fears like Kousei does with each note.

Every musician in Your Lie in April wants their music to reach someone because there’s something they want to express that they hide in everyday conversation. Music, then, becomes a conduit for truth.

Refusing Octavia Butler’s Vision in The Parable of the Sower

My church family has been passing around The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. When I finished it, I closed the book thinking, “Huh, okay then.”

I’ve read my fair share of bleak novels all through college and for me, The Parable of the Sower comes in second place in the extremely short list of depressing books that disturb yet fascinate me. First place goes to Blindness by José Saramago, which I literally threw across my dorm room as I had a mental breakdown because of how evil the characters in the book are. Yet Blindness ends on a happier note that The Parable of the Sower.

Butler makes her point very clear in this novel–the world is going to hell because humans are intrinsically terrible to the environment and terrible to each other. She presents a world where there’s no hope of healing rifts of any kind–racial, gender, or socioeconomic. People destroy each other and what little remains of actual communities, some hopped up on drugs and others just trying to survive. Trauma is such a regular occurrence that it’s narrated in the bluntest, matter-of-fact way. “So and so died today.” “So and so was raped.” “So and so’s house burned downed.” Even when the survival part of the story begins, the main character, Lauren, is nothing but a pessimist.

The status quo in this world is keep the poor out. Make sure you have guns to protect yourself from the crazy poor people and the druggies. Trust no one, not even old people or women with small children. Help no one except your own community.

It’s very desperate and isolating, yet Lauren acts against this as she continues her journey north from her destroyed neighborhood and forms her own community based on her Earthseed religion. Even so, it’s a future that I refuse to accept. I think Butler went overboard in both this novel and its sequel (which I may or may not read) so that we would actively refuse what she depicts.

Lauren refuses this vision in the book when she gives water to a young couple following her and when she stops to save two women trapped in a collapsed building and when she lets two strangers who wandered into her community overnight stay with their group. She does all of this despite the modus operandi of the world she lives in and despite her own strict convictions about how the world operates.

I think refusing Butler’s vision in our own world includes seeing the Other as human, not being afraid to feed homeless people, volunteering our own time and labor to build homes and cook meals, advocating for legal and social equity for the marginalized, and writing stories with more positive visions of the future so we don’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Goodreads Review–Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race

Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of RaceWaking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes, members of socially privileged groups will only hear accounts of dismantling oppression from someone who also belongs to that same privileged group. Other times, those members of privileged groups who want to do the work of dismantling oppression are at a loss for how to do so among their own social spheres. “Waking Up White” is a book that speaks to both types of audiences.

Debby Irving exposes her own privileges and myriad blunders of journeying from a blissfully unaware white woman to a humble and ever-learning white ally who aims to educate other white people about the history of systemic racism in America and the effects of white people benefiting from it over people of color.

Not once does Irving present herself as a holier-than-thou, awakened know-it-all, which is sometimes the way that those who reject the notion of white privilege see those who engage daily in antiracist work. In fact, Irving is very open about every racist thought she’s had and every blunder she’s experienced in trying to unlearn the patterns and behaviors she grew up with, ones passed down to her from generations and generations of her family.

Because Irving intends this book to be used in workshops and other educational settings, she includes reflection questions and activities at the end of each chapter. This meant that I, as a reader, was constantly asking myself these questions and examining my own experiences in light of Irving’s.

I read this book because my church purchased several copies as a first step in deeply examining white privilege in our denomination and our own congregation. Despite the United Church of Christ’s overall progressive theology and social justice witness, it is a predominantly white denomination, so there is clearly something we’re collectively missing.

Like Tim Wise, Debby Irving is someone who is specifically there for white people’s education. She starts in the mindsets where so many white people start, with questions and assumptions both spoken aloud and internalized. I recommend this book to people who are just beginning to recognize white privilege, those who have been examining it for years, and those who are skeptical of its existence and effects. It’s a good starter resource that points to many other books and films for further study.

That said, there is certainly room for criticism. For example, some of Irving’s personal acts of solidarity like presenting her license along with her credit card at the grocery store or going out to get the paper fully dressed may or may not actually have the intended effect of calling out inequity. There’s also one part late in the book where, after recounting a personal story that she ties to cultural differences between herself and a Haitian student, she quotes Avatar’s “I see you” motif. Avatar is definitely the worst movie to be quoting in a book about examining white privilege.

That’s why I think this book should be viewed as a start, not an end.

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