Despising the Shame of Heroic Hypocrisy

I usually read up on anime before watching them, trying to get a feel for the content and whether it’s something I’d enjoy. One show I ending up deciding not to watch, despite the high regard in which many hold it, is Puella Magi Madoka Magica. After reading about PMMM, I still tried the first couple episodes, but then just skipped ahead and watched the last one. The big issue for me was discovering the depressing story arc of Sayaka, best friend of protagonist Madoka. Now, in order to make sure that my understanding of the story was accurate, I consulted with Renowned PMMM Expert Twwk, and by our powers combined, we and Captain Planet created this summary of Sayaka’s arc:

Sayaka wants to be a hero. She strives to be selfless and good, which ends up leading her to become a magical girl when she makes a wish that will help a love interest and goes to help save her friend, Madoka. But the story proceeds to impress upon her that these efforts were pointless and accomplished nothing, and that she herself was a hypocrite who wasn’t truly selfless, but rather harbored selfish motives even while making a pretense of being a hero. Those complications, along with others, lead her to fall into despair, become a monstrous witch, and eventually die.

Just to be clear, this is referring to Sayaka from the main timeline of PMMM. The show traffics heavily in parallel universes, so there are alternative Sayakas from other realities, but I’m talking about the primary one. Also I’m aware that Sayaka is saved in the end after Madoka makes her wish to save all magical girls ever and rewrites time, but that doesn’t make her fate earlier in the story any less tragic.

I absolutely hate the story’s implication that trying to do the right thing was a waste because Sayaka’s moral imperfection (such as mixed motives) effectively invalidated her efforts to do good. PMMM deals with Sayaka’s heroic hypocrisy and character failings by showing her efforts to do good largely come to naught, and she dies in despair. I bring up the case of Sayaka because it forms an interesting contrast with another story that addresses the issue of heroic hypocrisy: volume 10 of the Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? light novels. My thoughts about Sayaka in Puella Magi Madoka Magica came to mind as I was reading Bell’s adventures. I previously thought Bell was awesome, but then he gets even better.

Spoiler caution flag (less serious than a warning): the anime is roughly up to only vol. 8 of the LNs (and actually skipped most of vol. 8), so I’m talking about stuff beyond where the show has reached.

When volume 10 kicks off, Bell and the Hestia Familia have previously learned one of the Dungeon’s most shocking secrets.  Though the Dungeon typically generates monsters that are dumb, bloodthirsty brutes, on rare occasions, smarter, nicer monsters are born. Bell and his party learned about, and became allies with, these sapient, friendly monsters known as the Xenos. Come volume 10, the evil Ikelos Familia murders some Xenos and kidnaps others, including Bell’s friend Weine. Bell soon gets caught up the Xenos’ quest to avenge their fallen brethren and rescue their captured comrades.

Lots of stuff happens, and eventually, within the subterranean lair of Ikelos Familia, Bell confronts Dix, the sadistic hunters’ leader. Dix uses magic to drive most of the Xenos into a berserk rage, so that they even attack their allies such as Bell. Citing the Xenos that he himself magically drove mad as proof, Dix carries on for a while about how the Xenos are no different than any other monsters. He says Bell is a fool for trying to help them. In expected heroic fashion, Bell idealistically responds: “Anyone is worth saving! Person, monster—it doesn’t matter!! They want help!! That’s more than enough!!”

Dix finds this quite amusing, and his scornful response is what introduces the topic of heroic hypocrisy. “Boy, you’re a hypocrite!! You’re saying you’d save anyone, man or beast? You’d save everyone and everything? That’s impossible! Even punk-ass kids know that! Makes me wanna puke,” he chortles mockingly. As a point of context, know that Bell seems to be an albino, and has striking white hair and red eyes. Because of these features, plus his focus on speed and agility in combat, he had become widely known as a “rabbit.” That nickname is the basis for what Dix says next: “Bell Cranell, you’re no rabbit. You’re like a bat!! You just flap around and never land anywhere!” He concludes that Bell is “just a kid with shit for brains, after all.”

Dix’s accusations rattle Bell. Is he a hypocrite? Is he a bat (but not Batman), endlessly fluttering and never settling down to face reality? Is he wrong to still talk about trying to save everyone when he knows that’s impossible and that he’ll undoubtedly fall short of that goal? Is he wrong to kill the Labyrinth’s vicious, mindless monsters, yet try to help the Xenos? Is he wrong for taking actions to help others, even when doing so endangers his own familia? Is Bell a hero, or just a hypocrite mouthing platitudes that his actions contradict? The story doesn’t offer an immediate resolution to these questions.

Eventually Dix flees the scene, but Bell is forced to chase after his friend Weine, a type of Xenos called a vouivre (in normal words, she’s a dragon-girl). Driven berserk by Dix, Weine actually escapes from the underground lair, reaches the surface, and starts running loose in Orario. As Bell tries to calm her, adventurers from Loki Familia—including Bell’s personal hero Aiz—corner her. Bell is left with a difficult choice. Will he stand by as Loki Familia kills his friend, whom they see as nothing but a dangerous monster?  Or will he face off against some of the strongest adventurers in the world, potentially fighting his own allies to save a monster?

He freezes up, and the word “Hypocrite” echoes in his mind. After thinking it over, Bell accepts that what he does might be hypocritical (or least seem that way). He steps between the raging dragon-girl and and his erstwhile allies, lifts his blade, and challenges the unstoppable Loki Familia—all to save a monster. He cleverly invokes an adventurer rule against kill-stealing, saying that since he found the vouivre first, he has a right to the kill. This holds off the flummoxed adventurers long enough for chaos to break out, during which Weine again escapes and Bell resumes his pursuit.

When another group of adventurers catches up to Weine and attacks her, Bell doubles down on his decision. “As even more adversaries gathered in the vouivre’s path, Bell cast aside the discord and doubt in his mind and thrust his right arm in their direction. ‘Firebolt!’” Bell directly attacks fellow adventurers, repeatedly, to protect what is obviously (in their eyes) a wild monster. Onlookers are outraged. Whether adventurers or ordinary civilians, everyone is incensed by this crazy, uppity newbie, barbarically attacking his fellow adventurers, apparently because he’s just that greedy to get the monster’s drop item. Bell understands all this disapprobation, but remains committed to his choice.

The hypocrisy issue first raised through Dix’s tirade against Bell is thus compounded by Bell’s subsequent actions that, at least to most observers, seem unscrupulous and mad. When it’s all over, Bell, famous since the War Game with Apollo Familia, has sacrificed his reputation. People from all walks of life now consider Bell Cranell a contemptible traitor who betrayed the city and protected a fiendish monster for the sake of his own greed. One of Bell’s close friends, who isn’t aware of the secret of the Xenos’ existence, approaches him to ask, “You put numerous people in danger for self-centered reasons. You even attacked other adventurers—Is this true?” And in order to maintain the secret of the Xenos’ existence and protect them from being discovered, Bell simply hangs his head and answers “…Yes.” Previously, he committed actions that can be construed as hypocritical. This response, though, shows that he also fully accepts disgrace as the cost doing of what he thought was right.

At this point, I can’t help but think of the words of Hebrews 12:1-2:

“Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

I think we tend to struggle a bit with just how offensive the cross really is. For folks in the twenty-first century, our frame of reference for the topic of crucifixion usually centers on the death of Jesus, which tints our perspective. But among the ancients, it was considered thoroughly degrading. As one skeptical scholar puts it:

“By studying the facts of Roman crucifixion, including their methods and process, you’ll find that crucifixion was about a lot more than pain and punishment. Their goal was absolute humiliation… It was thought of as the most horrible, painful, tortuous, and humiliating form of execution possible.”

In context, Ehrman is actually arguing that the gospel accounts of Jesus being buried in Joseph’s tomb are fictions, which is wrong, but his eloquent description of crucifixion’s shameful connotations is still valid. There was even basis in the Jews’ own law for having a negative view of crucifixion victims. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 declares, “If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” The Jews would have understood a wooden cross to qualify as a “tree,” and thus a crucified man should be considered cursed by God. Jesus wasn’t a vile criminal cursed by God—but being crucified meant he certainly looked like that to people of his day.

Nothing compares to how low one’s reputation could sink through getting crucified in the ancient world. I feel like maybe we get a small sense of how offensive the cross is if we were to say something like, “Hey, let us tell you about our God! He’s a convicted criminal on death row! You totally should worship him!” It sounds outlandish. Jesus was a respected rabbi whom many Jews thought might be the messiah. He knew how shameful and humiliating crucifixion was, and that going to the cross would disgrace and discredit him in the eyes of many. And he went anyway, out of love for us. Bell’s willingness to throw away his own reputation to save Weine is only a teeny tiny echo of what Jesus did for us, but it’s still inspiring.

But wait, there’s more! There’s an important coda to this series of events that I skipped over. Near the end of the volume, Bell gets a chance to speak with the ancient wizard Fels, an ally of the Xenos. Fels asks Bell if he regrets his decision. Bell responds that Dix called him a hypocrite, and he concludes upon reflection that the monstrous hunter was right about him:

“[Dix] claimed that Bell’s decision was nothing more than pretty words, an absurd dream, a fabrication. Nothing more than a ‘bat’ flapping back and forth, unable to make up its mind. He was correct. Bell was desperate not to get driven out by the people but lent the monsters a helping hand. He’d become the target of Loki Familia’s hostility. He’d attacked other adventurers with his magic. Bell remembered everything. He had betrayed so many during his single-minded effort to save the girl. He’d stood opposite his idol, driven away his allies. He’d even turned his back on his desire to be a hero according to his grandfather’s teachings… A monumental feeling of powerlessness had been waiting for him at the end of it all. For without assistance from Fels, the other Xenos, Lyu, and so many others, he would never have been able to rescue Weine. He was unable to protect or save anyone—a hypocrite.”

Bell has behaved in ways that certainly seem contradictory. He has acted with a conflicting mix of selfish and selfless motives. He has prioritized the needs of some over the needs of others. He has put others in danger for the sake of his personal goal. And in the end, he proved incapable of rescuing Weine on his own. He’s now a pariah, rejected by all but a few, like his party, who know the secret of the Xenos. It’s easy to imagine Bell starting down a path to despair, not unlike Sayaka, as a result of this crushing experience. But then Fels speaks up:

“Bell Cranell, this is nothing more than a theory…However, I see it like this: Only those criticized for hypocrisy possess the necessary qualities to become a hero. Please continue to worry, feel anguish, and doubt as you make decisions, like today. Heroes have to make decisions that are sometimes cruel, heartless, and go unforgiven…but they are also the most noble. Because your answer—just like the heroes’ of old—was not wrong, no matter how scorned or criticized it might be. Allow me to speak as one who has lost flesh and skin. I, a mage composed of nothing but bones and regret, say this to you. Be a fool, Bell Cranell. You are the one who must do so. What you possess seems foolish to us…However, I’m absolutely sure it is irreplaceable in the eyes of the gods.”

“Only those criticized for hypocrisy possess the necessary qualities to become a hero.” In other words, the mere act of trying to do good opens us up to charges of hypocrisy, since we’ve all done wrong before. If I’ve sinned in the past, then trying to do right at this point is a form of inconsistency. As we confront our sin, do we fall to despair like Sayaka did? Or do we understand with Fels that being a hero means not letting our failings drag us down and cause us to give up? Heroes are inherently hypocritical because they try to do what is right despite having done wrong previously and continuing to make mistakes in the present. The hero acknowledges past sins and the possibility of future failures, and instead of despairing, keeps trying to do what is right no matter how inconsistent that makes them look.

Fels’s call to be a fool is also noteworthy. Even if something looks foolish to others, it may in fact be precious to the gods, he says. Reflecting on everything, Bell imagines he can hear his grandfather’s voice say, “You don’t have to be proud. You can doubt yourself. But never ever regret. Because lives saved by foolish hypocrisy are surely right before you.” Seeking to be selfless and good is always worthwhile, no matter how many times we stumble or how it makes us look to the world. At this point, it seems obvious to quote from 1 Corinthians 1 (vv. 18-25, 27-29):

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men… But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

In other words, the real God values things that people consider foolish, and acts through means that we deem foolish. We must understand that trying to please God will at least open us up to charges of “foolish hypocrisy.” Pursuing what is right will make us look like fools and hypocrites to some. The accusing voice may come from other people, or perhaps it’s a voice that only echoes within our own minds, but it will come. Don’t listen to it!

This exchange with Fels has a profound effect on Bell, and gets a mention in volume 12. For context, after Bell first met the Xenos, he had expressed serious doubts about whether he could return to killing ordinary monsters, knowing how similar they are to their intelligent, friendly cousins. Observing Bell fight quite adeptly during a dungeon expedition, his party member Haruhime asks about how he’s able to fight monsters again. And Bell answers her, “I decided to become a hypocrite.” This is understandably puzzling to Haruhime, but as readers we have privileged access to Bell’s inner thoughts at this point:

“Bell recalled the violent hunter’s insult, and then the words of the wise fool: Those criticized for hypocrisy possess the qualities to become a hero. Those words had remained in his ears and heart all along, and he had accepted them…he had made up his mind.”

To save one kind of monsters—the Xenos—he would kill other monsters. To protect the lives of his party, he would snuff out the lives of countless monsters. This was his choice, made without regard for whether it leads to “being honored as a hero or disgraced as a villain.” Bell thinks to himself “Let me become a hypocrite, then…” He has learned the lesson Fels was trying to convey, internalized and applied it, and accepted that doing what he believes is right opens him to possible disgrace and charges of hypocrisy.

In a later moment during the same volume, as Bell endeavors to lead his party in a difficult situation, he reflects on how he has changed, and attributes his growth to his increasing resolve to be a hypocrite:

“I was caught up in the first volume of a colorful hero’s tale. I wanted to become a character in of those flashy stories. But that’s not what it’s about. Heroes—like everyone else—have moments when they tumble to the depths of darkness. They lose people’s trust, they lose their fame, they lose all hope… Vows are broken again and again. I’m sure there’s not a vow in the world that hasn’t been broken. But some people are bad at giving up, and those people bring their vows back to life time and again. These people who resolve to do something, and who move forward even as they wipe their tears—they’re called ‘adventurers.’”

Like I said, Bell is awesome. Being a hero, and trying to do what’s right, is not automatically invalidated by our moral failures. In Biblical terms, we might say “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We fail to live up to our ideals and our commitments. We stumble in the darkness. But we too must become “bad at giving up.” We may not be able to bring anything back to life ourselves, but fortunately we have a Hero who already took care of that, defeating sin and death so that we have a reason to keep moving on. And volume 12 isn’t even the last time Bell returns to the concept of hypocritical heroism.

The fictional Bell Cranell of Orario is a reflection of Jesus. The greatest Hero of all, the savior of mankind, was subject to many accusations. “He’s a glutton and drunkard! He hangs out with sinners! He let’s sinful women touch him! He breaks the Sabbath! He casts out demons by the power of the devil! He speaks against the temple!” There was always some tiny grain of truth behind these charges, but Jesus’ accusers always greatly distorted and willfully misinterpreted his words and deeds. Ultimately, Jesus voluntarily accepted not just these attacks, but the most ignominious fate imaginable: death on a cross.

The point isn’t that Bell really is a “hypocrite,” any more than Jesus was really a criminal. But to a superficial glance, they certainly looked pretty bad in the eyes of the world. Like Bell, we sin. We fail to live up to the beliefs we espouse. We’re inconsistent. Sayaka tries to do good, but sadly, her own failings drive her to despair. She deserved better; her imperfect efforts to do what is right still matter. Bell’s story highlights an alternative. In his willingness to sacrifice his reputation to save someone, and in his determination to pursue what is right regardless of his own failings or the charges of hypocrisy he might face, Bell is an imitator of Jesus—which is exactly what we must be. Trying to do what is right will open us to similar accusations of foolishness and hypocrisy. But we must ignore the accusing voices in our ears or in our heads and venture onward. Jesus has already saved us from our failures, granting us all the chance to become heroes who are “bad at giving up.”


3 thoughts on “Despising the Shame of Heroic Hypocrisy

  1. To me this is the main point of Sayaka’s character. The first premise of Christianity is that all men are evil. No man is good, not one. (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19; Romans 3:10-12). Thus all of us are deserving of hell. Only through the intercession of a savior can we be saved, and that is the primary message of Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. If judged by the law, then Sayaka does not deserve to be saved, nor is her heroism of value, tainted as it is with her own selfishness.

    It’s only because of Madoka’s grace that she gives to Sayaka that her wish is transformed into one of meaning. As Madoka herself tells Sayaka at the end, Madoka did not believe Sayaka’s wish was pointless, and that grace that Madoka offers Sayaka is what she needs for her wish to become truly selfless. It was Madoka’s intercession that then allowed Sayaka at the end to say “I really did just want to hear him play again” and so she is changed from the selfish natural man into one who has put off the natural man and become a saint through grace.

    To me that’s probably the most important lesson that PMMM teaches, which is the truth that we are evil and undeserving of salvation. Too many today have forgotten this truth, and so they think they do not need Christ to save them. That is why so many today have no gratitude for Christ, and instead of seeing Him as one who graciously saves us from the hell we deserve, instead view Him as a tyrant for demanding we obey Him.

    Sayaka’s story is our story, as it would be if there was no Christ.

    The same thing is done with Mami, who despite her heroism dies because of her own flaws, however minor they might be.

    Sayaka and Mami’s fates are not merciful, but they are just. That’s why we need a savior, and cannot be saved through our own works alone.

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