I just watched Gangsta., one of the darker anime to air in the past year. I’ve seen a few anime that center on crime syndicates and corruption, but this is one of the most horrific—up there with Black Lagoon‘s second season. The anime’s setting, Ergastulum, seems hopelessly corrupt, and the anime refuses to sugarcoat it. There isn’t even a redemptive ending—perhaps because the manga itself is still incomplete. We’re just left with a heavy sense of evil and tragedy, with no solution offered.
And yet, even among all the pain and sin, there is compassion, love, truth. Don’t get me wrong: I would not recommend Gangsta. to very many people. If my 16-year-old self asked about it, I’d tell her to stay far away. But for me, in the place I am now, the anime provides a way to process the brokenness of the world and the pieces of goodness that are still present. Because sometimes, the world can feel a lot like Ergastulum: enslaved by sin and strangled by violence.
In the Summer Anime 2015 Review, Medieval Otaku mentioned that “ergastulum” is Latin for “a slave’s dungeon.” It’s hard to imagine a more fitting name for this city, which is basically a large ghetto for Tags, although outcast “normals” live alongside them. Tags, also called Twilights, are descended from users of the drug Celebre. Many used to live as slaves, before that was abolished, and even now, their activities are restricted to Ergastulum, and they are expected to respect and obey normals (their contract holders in particular). Even with all these restrictions, the Anti-Twilight factions are not content, and some actively seek to murder Tags, regardless of their age or occupation. At one point, we see a character take a crying baby from her dead mother’s arms. At another, a young girl seeks revenge for her six-year-old sister.
There’s a scene in episode 6 where a man has just been murdered. The killer wrote on the wall in blood: “The wages of sin is death.”
Those words sum up the state of things in Ergastulum: the Tags are there because their parents were addicted to a drug that changed them into something both superhuman and crippling. They aren’t just second-class citizens quarantined to a single city; they’re also dependent on Celebre, and if they go without it, they’ll die. Many of them can add their own actions to to the list of sins that have them neck-deep in a deadly city. The normals in the city aren’t in a much better situation. Whether by their sin, their parents’ sin—or, most likely, a combination of the two—they’re in a dangerous place. Most of the characters we are involved in killings—sometimes in defense, and sometimes not. Many feel trapped in a cycle of violence. Every murder just leads to another.
In Alex’s case, her pimp Barry was her only known source for survival in the city. She left her young brother and drunk father to follow Barry to Ergastulum—apparently thinking this the best way to make a little money, take care of herself, and ultimately go back to to care for her brother. Instead, he gave her drugs that made her depend on him and forget her family. Even after he was killed, after she shot his corpse, she is haunted by him, and she doesn’t know how to escape her past as a prostitute under his control. At one point, haunted by visions and memories of Barry, she decides to leave Worick and Nicolas, and she returns to the corner where she often sat as a prostitute. Worick soon brings her back, and they continue to help her overcome the affects of the drug he gave her, but the moment remains potent. She, like every character in this aptly-named city, is a slave to sin—others’ sin as much as her own.
The message on the wall blood, “the wages of sin is death,” is taken from a message of freedom and life in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Most of that chapter tells how those who follow the Lord are no longer slaves to sin. Instead, we serve the Lord, and we share in his life. Here’s the bloody message in context:
“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 6:22-23 (NIV)
All people serve something—they call it different things, but in the end, it boils down to one of two masters: sin or God. One involves true slavery, a living spiritual death that make it impossible to live a truly, spiritually abundant life. One gives freedom. It doesn’t matter how ugly the sins are that keep you captive. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see a way out, or if you don’t deserve it anyway—none of us do, but God gave us a way, through Christ, to escape the grasp of sin and live abundantly through and with him. I’ve always read this passage with personal sin primarily in mind, the way we serve our own selfish whims, and keep doing things that don’t honor God, big or little. That part certainly applies to the characters of Gangsta., who keep killing, etc. But the sin that entangles us isn’t limited to our own actions, or even to the sinfulness that’s been passed down from Adam and Eve (aka “original sin”). There’s other evil that holds us down: the sin of those close to us, like Alex’s drunken father or Worick’s abusive father. Or the sins of our enemies, who hurt us and those we love, who threaten our physical and emotional wellbeing. And then there’s the sin that doesn’t directly touch us, but can be used to bring us to despair. To quote John Donne, “no man is an island.” We live in community—not only out closer knit ones, but also a looser global community. The death and cruelty throughout the world affects us, oppresses us.
I can’t pass the horror in Gangsta. off as “just an anime.” Granted, there are no Twilights. That part is sci-fi. But there is hatred, murder, genocide, slavery, rape, and abuse throughout our world. Just like in Gangsta., some kill from twisted ideology, and some only to indulge their sick desires. Many of us can ignore it most days. But then the news of the latest horror comes out. It works its way through social media so even those of us who prefer to live in our safe, quiet corners can’t escape it. This past weekend, that included the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Kenya. Honestly, I almost don’t know how to respond anymore. There are so many terrorist attacks, school shootings, and less publicized violence—not to mention the natural disasters—and I’m helpless. I can’t even cry or pray for each person. I’m incapable of bursting with passion over every tragedy, because I’m only human. Most of the time, I just sense the same throbbing pain and wrongness in the world. I should respond with prayer, but even that becomes overwhelming at times.
We’ve seen this cruelty and hatred for thousands of years, ever since Cain and Abel, and no matter how many alliances we form, how many children we rescue or terrorists we stop, how many steps we take toward peace… it continues. The world feels like Ergastulum, a prison for sinners and children of sinners, a place where governments and people can only fight for a world that’s a little less painful—or at least less painful for the most important people in their lives.
So what do we do? What do I do? Do I pretend it has nothing to do with me, and live in peace until something undeniable comes in my way? Perhaps it’s best to give up on the world, since nothing we do seems to provide more than temporary, local relief—and that only relief from the most glaring issues. Why bother trying to help anymore? We all die anyway.
Sometimes, it’s tempting to just throw my hands up and say, “Well, we knew this would happen. Terrible things are going to keep happening until Kingdom come. The Bible warned us that things would get worse before they got better. Nothing I can do about it except wait… and ignore most of it, since it’s depressing.”
That’s not the right answer. God calls for compassion. He feels passionately for every person affected by the tragedies of the last several days—whether or not the news covered it. I think of Jesus’s responses to those who hurt around him. He never says, “Well, people die. I can’t go around telling everyone to come out of their tombs” or “Paralysis, huh? Sorry. But hey, if you believe in me and repent, you’ll be able to walk in the next lifetime, at least!” Instead, he cries for the dead—even if he’s going to bring the man back to life two minutes later. He heals the paralytic, the leper, the blind man—even when his own followers would have turned them away. People are worth saving, even if you can only reach a couple people, even if you only extend their lives a few years, a few months… a few days. Compassion means you don’t despair.
Nic doesn’t see a good reason for people to keep helping him. “No matter how hard you guys try, we’re not going to survive,” he thinks, sitting on a clinic bed. Dr. Theo and the nurse—and Worick, who holds his contract and is his business partner—keep helping him and other Tags. But Nic is near the end of his expected life span, even if you don’t consider his dangerous profession. And many would consider him a monster, have considered him one in the past. When he was 13, Nic killed Worick’s family partially to put an end to his father’s abuse, but the killing wasn’t necessary. Yet Worick still ran away with him. Worick taught him to read and to talk through sign language, treated him as a man instead of an animal… but that doesn’t change what Nic did, or his life expectancy. So why keep helping him?
Because Nic is a man. He’s not a killing machine or a monster. He’s lost a lot of compassion, and his sense of morality is screwed up in a couple areas, but he’s still human. He can be tender and funny. He’s the first of the two friends to reach out to Alex, even if it is just by dropping his handkerchief on her head so she can wipe blood off her face. He plays with young Nina, and she feels safe in his hands. He’s loyal to Worick. His mother’s drug use might have sentenced him to a short life dependent on drugs, his father might have dragged him into the killing business, and he might be involved in some of the dirtiest, most dangerous work around… but he’s still worth saving, just like the rest of the city. Worick sees that. So does Dr. Theo, who helps Nic and other Tags when no one else will.
In the last episode of Gangsta., hope is dwindling. Worick looks mortally wounded, and the count of dead Tags and related gangsters is overwhelming. Nic is still jumping from building to building, ready to fight, but as he directs his fall from one of his jumps, he thinks, “It’s no use.” At this rate, the city will be essentially destroyed, and all allied Tags wiped out. Even the crude, unfair laws that kept the city somewhat together have lost their power.
Gangsta. leaves the audience without any hope except that which all consumers of fiction may hold: that somehow, loyalty and family and order will win out. Maybe the manga has a few answers. But for now, there’s nothing but our past experience with fiction to give us hope. And the characters don’t even have that.
I don’t know what will happen to Ergastulum. I can’t blame Nic for wanting to give up. But our world, no matter how much it feels like Ergastulum at times, does have a hope.
In the short term, we see it in little things: relationships like Nic, Worick, and Alex’s, where people reach out to each other even when their own situation is precarious. Or in people like Dr. Theo and Nina, who stubbornly and bravely give hope to the hopeless. Or in criminals like Nic, who show through their less guarded actions that they are, like the rest of us, made in the image of God. God works through unexpected people and things to show his compassion. Phrases like “she restores my hope in humanity” are somewhat cliche, but they’re true. There are people willing to go out of their way, even sacrifice themselves, to help others—even in situations where cruelty seems to be winning.
Anyone can be that vessel of hope, but Christians are especially called to it. Through our actions and words, we bring messages of freedom and life—even when the world ridicules us for it. We don’t have to understand why God lets evil continue to exist. I don’t. I understand only a little: that God knows our pain, that he is compassionate, and that those who do no repent will feel his vengeance, whether on this earth or in the end days. I’m not going to explain why I trust God so deeply, not in this post. But since I do trust him, I want to live according to the freedom and eternal life he has given me. Here are the truths that drive my actions when the world feels like Ergastulum:
- It is always worthwhile to be compassionate, to help and to encourage when possible.
- I am limited in my compassion, but God is not.
- A new world is coming, one without sadness or pain. (Rev. 21)
- I am no longer a slave to sin—neither my own nor anyone else’s. Just as my own past sin cycles cannot hold me captive emotionally or actively, so I am free from those of others. Terrorists and abusers threaten health and material in this world, and the pain they inflict is real and must be felt. But it does not hold me captive. Fear, despair… these things have no control over me.
- There is more to rejoice in than to mourn. There is a time for mourning, and we should respect it. But even in the worst times, even when I’m struck by the effects of cruelty, and when I weep, I need not let go of hope. Yes, I feel the pulsing, flowing wrongness and pain of a world enslaved by sin and entangled with death. But that I know this is a temporary state, that there is a greater Master who has already conquered all and will finish his conquering soon. And so there’s also a pulsing, flowing triumph—a joy and hope that’s stronger than the pain.
Yes, the world can feel like Ergastulum. I felt it more strongly when I had depression—I couldn’t understand why God would let the killing continue, let us all suffer physically and emotionally. But even then, I couldn’t let go of hope. Our time here is relatively short, and the joy to come will overwhelm the struggles today. Because whatever it feels like, neither the world nor any particular city is Ergastulum, and we don’t live in the universe of Gangsta. We don’t have to be enslaved by sin and death, even as it affects our daily lives. God promises freedom for his followers and for the world—some of it now, and the rest later.
So when the world feels like Ergastulum, let’s respond with compassion that fully acknowledges the devastation… but also with hope.