If I want examples of condemnation and judgment, I only have to log into social media. But, frankly, I’ve had more than enough of these examples lately. I’m tired of reading Tweets and Facebook statuses that declare wicked and/or foolish people subhuman. Because, yes, condemnation has its place—but it’s not the whole story. So today, I want to focus on stories of redemption. Thankfully, these stories are much more populous in anime than on social media. They’re particularly populous in Naruto and Naruto Shippuden, so I’d like to focus on a few characters from that series for today.
(Spoilers through episode 370ish of Shippuden ahead. Though, really, if you’ve been online at all, that part has already been spoiled for you.)
First, there’s Sasuke. Now, I’m only on episode 404 as of this writing, so I haven’t seen the full culmination of his story. But I have seen him fighting alongside Naruto and the rest of the united shinobi force against Madara, and it’s pretty clear that full reconciliation is ahead. Here we have a young man who betrayed his friends, left his village, and was about ready to destroy it—which would have meant mass murder. He worked with the Akatsuki and kidnapped the Cloud Village’s jinchuuriki, Bee, an act that finally pushed the authorities to classify him as a rogue ninja, to be killed if found. He was dangerous. But Naruto kept pursuing him. His older brother, Itachi, talked to him. And he finally made the choice to protect, rather than destroy, the Hidden Leaf Village.
Gaara—one of my favorite Naruto characters—was a cruel boy when we first met him, a weapon sent to destroy the Hidden Leaf. People could—and did—call him monster, demon, murderer. That last descriptor was true. He’d given up on the idea of others loving him and embraced the purpose his father gave him: to be a weapon. But then he fought Naruto and learned that Naruto, like him, had faced hate and fear as a jinchuuriki, yet continued to fight for his teammates and for the very village that rejected him. And so he changed.
Then there’s Pain—or rather, Nagato. He let his grief and anger so warp his perspective, he believed the only way to peace was to first bring death and pain. He did destroy the Hidden Leaf, and killed many more before that. Anyone would consider him a murderer beyond redemption. The way he believed in his twisted cause almost made him worse. But then, after an epic battle with Naruto, he finally came back around. His last act was to bring the entire Hidden Leaf back to life.
The Naruto Redemption Pattern
When I reflect on the stories of Naruto‘s reformed villains and psuedo-villains, I notice four main points:
1. These villains are humans, just like us.
As we watch Sasuke, Gaara, and Nagato’s backstories, it’s easy to sympathize with them—not to excuse their actions, but to understand how they fell so far. Sasuke watched his brother kill his entire family and became consumed by a thirst for revenge that led him to leave the Hidden Leaf and pursue more power. Later, as he learned the whole story behind his brother’s actions, his all-consuming vengeful aspirations were turned onto the village instead. Gaara had an abusive father who only cared to use him (and sent assassins after him!) and a village that feared and hated him. That, combined with sleep deprivation, drove him mad. Leaf ninja killed Nagato’s parents in front of him when he was still a child—and on that day, he killed for the first time. As a young man, he seemed to be doing well, pursuing peace, but then he and his friends were betrayed, and his dear friend was killed.
Again, there is no excuse for their actions. But as we watch each character’s backstory, perhaps we can see that we have the same potential for evil that they do—and they have the same potential for good that Naruto and his friends do. Sasuke, Gaara, and Nagato are humans: precious and capable of great things.
2. Redemption is only possible because someone believed they could change.
When the rest of the world had given up on these three characters, Naruto did not. Gaara and Nagato were murderers. There’s no downplaying that. Even Gaara saw himself as nothing more than a self-loving weapon. But they were still human, and unlike true monsters, they had a chance to change. Naruto helped them and others believe that. This leads to the next point…
3. The characters didn’t change on their own.
Sasuke had Itachi and Naruto. Gaara was transformed by his encounter with Naruto. Nagato had not only his encounter with Naruto, but also the seeds planted by Jiraiya and Yahiko years before. These “bad-guy” characters benefited from others’ examples, reproofs, and encouragements. Naruto, Itachi, Jiraiya, and Yahiko gave them the reason change was necessary, the encouragement that they could change, and, in some cases, the promise that change would lead to reconciliation, to longed-for relationship.
4. Their story arcs didn’t end with their evil.
If we stopped watching Naruto too early, we’d never have seen these characters repent. Sasuke would have remained a traitor in our eyes. Gaara would have remained an unrepentant killer. And if we stopped before Naruto and Nagato finished their conversation-heavy battle in Shippuden? We’d only know Nagato as a mass killer. But there was more to their stories, more to be told.
And that is the main point I want to make today: Many people seem beyond redemption, but we only see parts of their stories. That applies to politicians, wayward YouTubers, mangaka, and everyday people. Yes, sinners’ stories may end in sin. Many people die unrepentant. But not all do. No person is beyond redemption, unless they choose to reject the redeeming opportunities presented to them. As such, it’s a mistake to dwell significantly more on wickedness than on repentance, redemption, and reconciliation.
Don’t get me wrong; we can and should speak against wicked and foolish action—against sin. If it’s done publicly, we may need to speak against it publicly. If it’s done privately, we may need to pull someone aside and go through the steps of personal confrontation, group confrontation, and/or legal confrontation. Even those who repent must often, rightly, pay the earthly consequences. Evil is evil. Period. I’m only suggesting balance, an understanding of both justice and mercy, not for anyone to minimize the gravity of wrongdoing.
My conviction on this matter comes, as you may expect, from the Bible. The Bible is full of redemption stories. There’s the big, overarching story: Jesus lived, suffered, and died as a human (and then rose again) in order to reconcile us to God. He will return to complete his work to redeem the world, and all in it who chose to name and follow him as their Lord and Savior. But there are the other stories, too, and I encourage you to look them up if you’re not already familiar. Here are three, to start with: Rahab, the prostitute from doomed Jericho who protected Joshua and Caleb and went on to become an ancestor of Jesus; Zacchaeus, the corrupt tax collector who repented and repaid those he defrauded four times over, in addition to giving half his possessions to the poor; and Paul, formerly Saul, who participated in the imprisonment and murder of Christians—then went on to become one of the most influential missionaries and writers in all of Christian history.
There’s a lot more theology behind my conviction, but this is enough for now.
Tell Me a Story
What are your favorite stories of repentance, redemption, and forgiveness? Whether your favorite is from anime, your own life, the Bible, or anywhere else, I want to read about it, and I’m sure others do, too. So, please, comment with a summary of a redemption story. (If it’s from fiction, be sure to warn us about any spoilers.) Let’s share a little hope, shall we?