Welcome back JeskaiAngel, one of our regular guest contributors here on Beneath the Tangles. Today, he takes a deep dive into a troubling aspect of The Rising of the Shield Hero, a show we here at on the website are absolutely loving.
As I watched the first five episodes of The Rising of the Shield Hero, I was unexpectedly impressed by its portrayal of slavery. The show explores the issue in a surprisingly realistic, nuanced way: slavery in The Rising of the Shield Hero should trouble us, but the problem is with slavery itself, not with the show’s depiction of it. It’s no apologetic for slavery, casting the institution in unequivocally negative light and making the slave character the most noble and sympathetic person in the whole story, but neither does it shy away from the complex, uncomfortable reality that a person can do bad things (like enslave another) without being a wholly bad person (at least at first). American abolitionists of the nineteenth century argued slavery is inherently corrupting, inevitably bringing out the worst in even the best masters. We might say the show asks whether Naofumi can remain both a good person and a slaveholder, or if one or the other of those must necessarily triumph (cf. “You cannot serve God and Mammon”).
From the outset, the show implies that slavery should be viewed negatively. When Naofumi goes slave shopping at the close of the first episode, it serves as the culmination of his journey to the dark side. We’ve already watched him grow cynical, bitter, violent, selfish. We’ve seen him use threats to get his way. He deliberately cultivates a nefarious reputation. And finally, to top it all off, he countenances slavery. The show also gives a number of visual cues that slavery is not good. The slave trader himself is about blatantly sinister looking as a character could be. His meeting with Naofumi takes place at night, in the darkness. His “shop” full of cages barely illumined by occasional bits of firelight seems genuinely worthy of the adjective “hellish”—a place of imprisonment, flame, and literal and metaphorical darkness. All the imagery in the slave-shopping part of the story proclaims that slavery is bad.
The conversation between the dealer and Naofumi should only deepen our sense of wrongness. The slaver trader’s mention of “human supremacy” as the basis for enslaving so-called “demi-humans” immediately brings to mind real-world “supremacy” ideologies. The term “demi-human” itself resembles real-life efforts to defend the exploitation of others. In the show, the self-proclaimed pure humans enslave those they judge as less or only partially human—that’s what the “demi” part of “demi-human” means! The same sort of idea has appeared many times in real life when people wish to justify their abuse of others. For example, once upon a time people argued that Africans were a less evolved, more primitive type of human, closer to animals than light-skinned humans. As if this weren’t enough, Naofumi denies slaves’ personhood and reduces them to mere tools no different than his shield.
As the show introduces Raphtalia, the slave trader casually reveals that her previous owner tortured her. He has no qualms about torture, just mild annoyance when it damages his goods. Physical abuse is an inseparable reality of slavery. When human beings are reduced to property, to objects possessed by others, when some humans’ have minimal or no rights and others possess absolute or near-absolute power, the temptation of abuse is incredibly strong. The famous aphorism says, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The history of slavery seems to validate Lord Acton’s claim. In the antebellum American south, masters could and did beat, maim, kill, chain up, starve, rape, and otherwise physically abuse their “property” without facing social or legal consequences. In the finale of the slave acquisition portion of the story, we watch as the process of purchasing a slave and applying the disobedience curse is physically painful to Raphtalia. Observing her physical pain as she’s sold to a new master, I couldn’t help but think of the psychological trauma inflicted on countless slaves in real life as their owners traded them away, separating spouses, siblings, and parents and children.
Naofumi next goes to purchase a weapon for his new combat slave. While visiting weapons shop, Naofumi invokes the disobedience curse—effectively trying to use magical torture to compel a child to kill for him. The shopkeeper finds Naofumi’s behavior disturbing and warns that it will have negative consequences. As Naofumi and Raphtalia depart, the shopkeeper wonders what forces are responsible for corrupting Naofumi to act in that way. In other words, even this native of a slaveholding, “human supremacy” culture, who should be expected to share its values, explicitly comments that Naofumi is acting wrongly.
I found it striking that throughout the second episode, almost from the first moment we encounter Raphtalia, the camera gives repeated shots from her point of view or at her level. Along with her, we look up through the bars of the cage at Naofumi and the slave trader. When she’s writhing in pain on the floor of the weapons shop as Naofumi activates the curse, the camera gets down on the floor on alongside her. This seems to me like a directorial decision to use the show’s camerawork to encourage viewers to identify with Raphtalia, to literally see the situation from her perspective. Her tragic backstory (seen through a dream featuring more first-person Raph-cam), the traumatic loss of her loving parents and everyone else she’d ever known, further encourages viewer compassion.
The central conflict of the second episode is whether Raphtalia will fight for Naofumi, and the loser is slavery. Three times Naofumi invokes the disobedience curse to try to make Raphtalia fight, yet the curse’s pain proves insufficient to make her obey. In the end, Raphtalia doesn’t fight for Naofumi because he forced her: she demonstrates agency by choosing to fight for him because she independently supports his cause. As Naofumi monologues while Raphtalia suffers under the torturous curse, she comes to understand his mission:
“You’re going to fight the catastrophe?”
“That’s my job.”
Choice prevails over duress again during the fight in the mine. When Naofumi wants Raphtalia to fight the dog-beast, she is paralyzed by traumatic flashbacks to her parents’ deaths. Instead of just activating the curse, Naofumi employs persuasion, reminding her how they can fight the Waves of Catastrophe together and prevent other children from suffering her fate. This is a dramatic change—instead of just punishing his property until she obeys like he did earlier, Naofumi’s first move is to appeal to her with reason. This represents at least partial acknowledgement of Raphtalia’s personhood: one does not try to persuade an object, like the shield to which Naofumi previously compared slaves. When persuasion seems to fail, Naofumi briefly triggers the disobedience curse, but quickly rescinds it and gives Raphtalia the choice to fight or flee. In a battle of wills, the slave wins and the master gives in. Raphtalia proves stronger than both her fear and slave crest’s punishment, fighting for Naofumi only because she chooses to do so. (Raphtalia also has abandonment issues that play a part in her decision to fight, but even this is her own intrinsic motivation, something predating and independent of becoming a slave. She’s no infantilized simpleton who clings to a master because she’s helplessly dependent.)
Slavery takes a backseat to action scenes in the third episode. However, we discover that Raphtalia is a Pokemon and has evolved to her adult form after leveling up. Others see this, but somehow Naofumi doesn’t. In continuing to treat Raphtalia like a child, Naofumi provides a striking parallel to the paternalistic pretensions of real-life slaveholders. In addition to slavery’s dehumanizing and objectifying tendencies, each of which help masters justify themselves, slaveholders of the past have cast slaves as helpless and childlike. Pro-slavery logic argues that just as children need parents to discipline and care for them, so also slaves need masters. Naofumi’s inability (unwillingness?) to accept Raphtalia as a mature adult is solidly in line with how a real slaveholder might regard his slave. Even long after the United States abolished slavery, “boy” was still used pejoratively to demean African-American men.
Slavery takes center stage again in episode 4. With sickening irony, the people pretending to want to free Raphtalia ignore her words and proceed to bind and gag her—things Naofumi has never done! Naofumi’s treatment of Raphtalia is plainly flawed, but Raphtalia’s purported rescuers objectify her to a greater degree than he ever did. She isn’t a person to them, just a chess piece, a pawn in a game of moral superiority. Happily once Raphtalia is freed of both slavery and her restraints, she unleashes a glorious verbal beatdown on the antagonists.
While this scene ultimately affirms Raphtalia’s agency, it also offers perhaps the best basis (at least in the first five episodes) for accusing the show of favoring slavery: one could construe it as saying slavery isn’t so bad, that Raphtalia was happy being a slave, and that Naofumi’s kind deeds made slavery okay or even good. But that’s not at all Raphtalia’s point. She doesn’t defend slavery the institution—she defends Naofumi the person. She enumerates Naofumi’s kindnesses—shielding her, feeding her, treating her illness—and delivers an armor-piercing (spear-breaking?) question to Motoyasu:
When the Spear Hero stutters out a claim that he is, Raphtalia’s counter is brilliant: “If that were true, you would have a slave by your side, too!” She has just demonstrated that, at least in some respects, Naofumi is a better, more compassionate man than the Spear Hero. All through the confrontation, Raphtalia’s focus is on defending Naofumi’s good character, not on affirming slavery per se. If we consider the solidly negative way in which the show introduced slavery and rightly understand Raphtalia’s own words, we have no reason to conflate Raphtalia’s defense of Naofumi with a pro-slavery apologetic.
Morally, Raphtalia rises above Shield Hero and Spear Hero alike, and the scene in which Raphtalia defends Naofumi also explores his faults. Raphtalia emphasizes that his use of the disobedience curse was limited—but that means she still points out that he did indeed use it. Naofumi apologetically confesses to her that “I saw you as nothing but a tool at first.” After his previous blindness to her personhood and adulthood, Naofumi is forced to recognize that she’s neither an object nor a child. Naofumi also unfairly misjudges Raphtalia, immediately assuming that she’ll turn against him now that she’s free. But she proves him wrong and forces him to admit how he’s failed to respect her. She is faithful to Naofumi because she chooses to be.
Early in the fifth episode, Raphtalia gets a new slave crest, at her own request. Naofumi says it’s unnecessary, but Raphtalia calls it “a symbol of your faith in me.” Engagement or wedding rings spring to mind as examples from our world of symbols for relationships; I suspect there’s a bit of similarity to how Raphtalia views her crest. I wasn’t a fan of this turn of events, but I found it easier to swallow when I realized that, like it or not, it at least makes a lot of sense that Raphtalia would want this. The show previously established that she has attachment issues stemming from the loss of her parents, she spoke in episode 2 about her fear of being discarded, and part of what helped her overcome her fear of the dog-beast in the mine was the thought of losing Naofumi and being left alone. It’s quite logical for her character to still be dealing with this insecurity and obtain a new slave crest as a way of assuaging that anxiety. Getting a magical tattoo is hardly an ideal coping technique, but logically it fits with Raphtalia’s character.
As a Christian, I believe slavery is evil. Period. End of story. Case closed. However, The Rising of the Shield Hero reminds me that there’s a sad history of Christians—or at least people who identified as such—defending slavery. Antebellum Americans repeatedly twisted the Bible to justify slavery. Such writings bring together many of the issues—slavery, racism, self-righteousness—that we see in the show. (Warning: snark ahead; boojum status unknown.) In 1840, one Rev. Leander Kerr declared, “Abolitionism then is as foolish as it is wicked, lawless and reckless: and the time will come when it will be regarded as wicked and absurd as ‘witch burning’ is now.” Moreover, “Abolitionism is anti-scriptural and anti-Christian…there is nothing morally wrong in holding slaves.” Like many slavery apologists, Kerr appealed to the curse leveled by Noah upon Canaan son of Ham in Genesis 9.25-27. By some exegetical alchemy, this passage is transmuted into proof that God consigned blacks for all time to be the slaves of whites.
In “A Dialogue Between an Abolition Croaker, a Citizen of Boston, and the Prince of Darkness,” a Socratic dialogue from 1851, the character of the ordinary, Bible-believing, slavery-defending citizen trounces a strawman abolitionist, with intermittent contributions from the devil himself explaining how abolitionism’s satanic nature. At one point, the Prince of Darkness reveals his desire to promote interracial marriage and offers a remarkable interpretation of Genesis 24:
Abolitionists and freesoilers…are some of my best friends, and have been so for many years. They have rendered me very important service in several particular cases; such as trying to make null and void some of God’s decrees and ordinances concerning slavery… I lead those bewildered and blinded men into all manner of iniquity connected with the emancipation of the slaves, and also to amalgamation with them by marriage; but it was not so with Abraham; I could not so easily control him; for he would not allow his son Isaac to take a black wife from the Canaanites; but I have got some friends among you abolitionists, who approve of their own children intermarrying with the negroes, and thus becoming part and parcel of that unhappy and degraded people.
This exegesis, clearly the product of truly dizzying intellect, is rivaled by a later contribution from the citizen. He recounts the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman from Mt. 15 & Mk. 7 (she was black, he claims) and says Jesus refused to help her until she proved “her faith and humility” by “taking her place where she belonged, in accordance with the curse pronounced upon her progenitors.” In other words, the lesson is that Jesus refused to do a miracle for an uppity black woman until she stopped putting on airs.
I’ve seen memes joking about Renaissance paintings for depicting Jesus as a northern European, but hadn’t realized that real people who claimed to be followers of Jesus seriously argued that he was white. Sadly, one Rev. Josiah Priest, writing in 1852, disillusioned me:
The Saviour of mankind, though born of a Jewish copper colored woman, was nevertheless a white man. This complexion, which characterized the body of God incarnate, was such as pleased him, or he would not thus have appeared. The proof that he was a white man, is derived from a letter, written by a Roman Senator from Judea, in the time of Augustus Caesar, to Rome. In that letter, which is now extant, the man Jesus Christ is said to have been a man of surpassing beauty, having a bright fair complexion, with hair the color of a ripe filbert, which is inclining to the yellow or golden color. His eyes were of the hazel or blue cast; his forehead high, smooth, and broad… This being true, it adds another proof that, in the estimation of the Creator, the white complexion, such as is possessed by the race of Japheth, is more valuable than black or red.
Priest is emphatic that Rahab, one-time prostitute of Jericho who became an ancestress of Jesus, couldn’t possibly have been black like he believes Canaanites were, and must have been a Semitic woman who merely happened to be residing in Jericho. “It was abhorrent to God…that the immaculate blood of his Son, which was to be offered as an atonement, should be contaminated by that of negro extraction,” wrote this Titanic of theology. Priest also discovered that the Tower of Babel was constructed entirely by and on the initiative of black people, that the wicked queen Jezebel was black, and that “Had Onessimus been a white man, or an individual of the race of Abraham, St. Paul never would have arrested him as a slave, to return to his master.”
Priest’s efforts to “refute” scriptural arguments raised by opponents of slavery are likewise revealing. Since abolitionists appealed to passages like Rom. 13.8 and Gal. 5.14 and claimed that loving one’s neighbor was incompatible with enslaving him, Priest unleashed this marvelous counterassault:
God having judicially appointed that race to servitude, the law of love cannot abrogate it, any more than the law of love can abrogate several other particulars of judicial appointment. Such as, it is appointed unto men that they should die; the woman was condemned to be ruled over by her husband; the earth was cursed, in relation to its fruitfulness; the wicked dead are sent to hell; the earth is doomed to be burnt up; and many more things which might be adduced as being determined judicially; all of which the law of love cannot reach nor abrogate… God’s determinations and decrees are not frustrated by his benevolence.
Checkmate, abolitionist fools: God’s judgment triumphs over his love. Shush, don’t bring up James 2.13 (“Mercy triumphs over judgment”)! For the common abolitionist talking point regarding the horror of separating families by selling off members, Reverend Priest has a comeback that can only be described as literally diabolical:
On this subject, the abolitionists argue the same as they would were the case their own, imagining that negro parents feel such a circumstance as acutely, and as sentimentally as white families would under similar circumstances. But this is a mistake, as we believe, and does not apply to the negro’s case, as it would to that of the whites, on account of a want of the higher intellectual faculties of the mind of the blacks. On occasions of severe bereavement, the feelings of negro parents seem to be of shorter duration; as it is well known that the bond of marriage and family obligation with that race, is of but secondary considerations, or of slight influence, as a knowledge of, and a participation in, high intellectual love and elevated affections, is not reached by the black man’s soul…when separated from each other by being sold, it is not so grievous a thing as it would be to the mind and feelings of a white man or woman.
Your eyes do not deceive you: this demonic excuse for a “Christian” minister really did argue that breaking up slave families was fine because black people didn’t really love their spouses or kids all that much. Priest has another objection to looking at the treatment of blacks in terms of how white people would want to be treated: the “doom of the negro race” established by the cursing of Canaan in Gen. 9 “raises a barrier which is impassible and insurmountable to all earthly power,” such that “Even the famous words of our Lord called the Golden Rule, cannot apply here.” In other words, why bother with empathy when they’re just demi-humans?
An 1861 pamphlet titled “The Governing Race; or, Is Slavery Sanctioned by the Bible?” explained that Jesus’ mention of slavery in his parables demonstrates his endorsement of it as righteous. I suppose that if Jesus’ use of servitude imagery in his teaching proves he endorsed slavery, then the parable of the unrighteous steward means Jesus endorsed embezzling from one’s employer, right? Also, the true meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself” and the parable of the good Samaritan Jesus told to explain the command is we should aid the needy, but without “the relinquishment of our just rights, or the giving up what belongs to us.” (Forget about the fact that Jesus emptied himself and gave up incomprehensible privilege and glory in order to serve us, as Paul said in Phil. 2.5-8.) In fact, the good Samaritan “had the right to expect that the wounded man would exert himself to the utmost not to be chargeable to his benefactor. That was the neighborly duty of the man who had been helped.” What a blessing to receive such illumination and find out that Jesus was teaching that I only need love others insofar as it doesn’t cost me anything! Motoyasu jumps to mind—happy to “help” a slave if all it requires is bullying a guy he despises anyway, but who did nothing substantive to better the lot of even one slave.
As far as I can tell, this is a representative sample of the moronic, vile, perverted nature of biblical justifications for slavery. I focused above chiefly on scriptures interpreted to validate slavery, but that risks overlooking one other major argument these authors (and others like them) used. It boils down to variations of “The Bible never says it’s wrong.” I still hear this one today, unfortunately. According to this line of thinking, since the Law of Moses permitted slavery and Jesus and his apostles never explicitly condemned it, I would be wrong to insist slavery is inherently sinful. Amusingly, this logic validates quite a few practices that I don’t know any Christians would support—after all, the Law permitted and Jesus / his apostles never explicitly condemned polygamy. Unfortunately for this line of reasoning, Jesus plainly says the Law sometimes permitted things that went against God’s true will (cf. divorce in Mt. 19 / Mk. 10), so a practice being regulated by Moses doesn’t automatically mean God approved it. Moreover, Christians totally do believe some things are wrong—based on the Bible!—despite those things not explicitly being called sins. I’ve never heard of a Christian who argued on that since no scripture calls abortion a sin, we cannot condemn it.
The “God didn’t say it’s a sin” argument for slavery reminds me of how people used to talk about communism. Once upon a time, you’d hear people say that communism was a really wonderful system in theory, and that although it had caused immense misery everywhere it was tried, that was just a matter of bungled or unfaithful implementation of the theory. Communism’s redoubtable string of genocidal failures was not evidence that there was anything wrong with communism itself. Let’s concede for the sake of argument that communism is good in theory. But if we have abundant evidence to conclude inductively that humans invariably mess up this (hypothetically) good system, then should we really keep trying it, thinking that this time will be different? That this time, we’ll get it right and it’ll be great? We could make a similar point about moral perfection: it’s hypothetically possible for a human to live without ever sinning. But how “possible” is it really, in practical terms? Well, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1.8). Out of all the countless humans who have ever lived, only one can boast of a sinless life: the Lord Jesus. Knowing this, it makes no sense to approach life expecting moral perfection from ourselves or others (though we can and should strive for it).
Much could be said (and has been said) analyzing various scriptures and exploring their implications for slavery. But set aside for a moment whether slavery is *inherently* sinful: can you find me even one example anywhere in human history, out of the countless times and places in which slavery existed, where a society practiced slavery in a consistently just, moral fashion? An instance where the institution of slavery was not implemented in a blatantly sinful way? No, you can’t. It’s never happened, and it never will. Slavery has always served, and will always serve, as a means of exploitation. Slavery has never failed to be a way for the powerful to indulge their greed, selfishness, and pride. Slavery has been tried, and it always proves to be dehumanizing and objectifying. I freely concede that Jesus could do slavery in a morally pure, righteous way, but based on history, I wouldn’t trust anyone else to be capable of that feat. I don’t care whether that’s a problem metaphysically inherent in the institution of slavery or merely the result of humans unfailingly abusing absolute power over other humans. Either way, I contend that human history proves that slavery is inseparably bound up in a host of sins, and thus it’s perfectly valid to declare slavery immoral. Be honest: how confident are you that you, personally, could fulfill Jesus’ teaching (e.g., “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them”) toward a human regarded by yourself, the law, and society, as your personal property? Slavery has been done sinfully literally every time mankind has ever tried it: are you morally superior to countless slaveholders of the past?
All this is worth considering in the context of The Rising of the Shield Hero because it’s so tempting for us to be Motoyasu—to set ourselves up on the moral high ground looking down with smug superiority at that other guy who’s doing something so obviously wrong. In the show, Motoyasu thinks himself a paragon of righteousness, a far better man than Naofumi. Ironically, if any person is a tool in the story, it’s not Raphtalia the slave but Motoyasu, the useful idiot in the evil schemes of the king and princess. Once upon a time, people who were trying (at least nominally) to serve Jesus twisted the Bible in outrageous ways in order to support great evil. What of us? It’s easy to huff and puff about the evils of slavery today, but are we, like the Spear Hero, blindly aiding some other form of evil? Hopefully not, but we certainly possess the potential to do so.
The Bible and Raphtalia alike make an important distinction between hearts and appearances. “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment,” Jesus taught us (Jn. 7.24). Throughout the Bible, we see God calls upon us to judge evil actions, but he also affirms that only he can judge a person’s heart. In the case of slavery, for example, while I am confident that objectifying another human as property sinful, I can’t speak with that same certainty about the heart or eternal salvation of any particular slaveholder. I can condemn the action (slaveholding) while accepting limits on my ability to judge hearts. Raphtalia gets this. Others in the show judge Naofumi based on outward appearances, but Raphtalia’s opinion is based on what she’s seen of Naofumi’s heart. She sees, for example, that although Naofumi owns a slave, he doesn’t partake of the arrogance and racism on which the kingdom’s slavery is based. Naofumi has misjudged others (e.g., Meanie, err, Myne) and been gravely misjudged by others, but despite his own failings and the fact that others treat him wrongly, Raphtalia is there to loyally support him. I imagine we all can relate to Naofumi’s struggles—we’ve all made regrettable errors of judgment regarding other people or what’s right, and we’ve been unfairly judged by others. Thankfully, through all our trials we can count on the God who, though faintly reflected by Raphtalia’s character, knows us better and is more faithful to us than even the greatest of cartoon raccoon-girls.