She went into her most secret room—no one else was allowed inside—and she made a poisoned, poisoned apple. From the outside it was beautiful, white with red cheeks, and anyone who saw it would want it. But anyone who might eat a little piece of it would die.
[…] Now the apple had been so artfully made that only the red half was poisoned. Snow White longed for the beautiful apple, and when she saw that the peasant woman was eating part of it she could no longer resist, and she stuck her hand out and took the poisoned half. She barely had a bite in her mouth when she fell to the ground dead.1
A few weeks ago, Twwk wrote a piece reflecting on the Christian church, its failures, and their cascading effects in the lives of both believers and non-believers. And as I think about the ways that we’ve fallen short in our Christian witness, I’m reminded of the poisoned apple from Snow White. An apple brings life and joy and sweetness. It sates hunger and whets the appetite. And for good reason—it tastes good!
But a poisoned apple deceives. It claims to bring life but brings death. It stirs up longings but twists them into destruction.
That image of a poisoned apple also comes up in the first episode of Snow White with the Red Hair, a show that I’ve been watching recently. Shirayuki, a pharmacist, herbalist, and the show’s red-haired protagonist, flees her home country of Tanbarun when Prince Raj demands her hand in marriage because of her red hair. Along the way she meets Prince Zen, from the neighboring kingdom of Clarines. In the end, Zen saves Shirayuki from consuming a poisoned apple from a basket Raj had sent her, seemingly as an apology.
Too often the church can follow the example of Prince Raj. We claim to bring good news but fail to deliver. We preach the gospel, but our actions deceive. We send out baskets of apples, but lace them with poison. And anyone who might eat a little piece would die.
We need to do better.
But how can we do better? How can we cultivate fresh apples rather than poisoned ones? How can church leaders bring good news in word and deed? We need models to look to as we rethink what it means to be the church in a world that doubts our witness.
Thankfully, we need not look far. Snow White with the Red Hair presents three images of just leadership in three of its princes: Zen, Izana, and even Raj himself. So let’s walk through these three images together. And as we do, I’ll offer some reflections on how we, as a church, can begin to serve those under our charge faithfully.
Prince Zen: An Image of Honor
Let’s go back to the previous story.
After Prince Zen saves Shirayuki from Prince Raj’s poisoned apple, he invites her back to Clarines. She finds lodging in the capital city and begins to enjoy a fairly peaceful life. The peaceful days don’t last long, though: One day, as she’s gathering herbs in a forest several towns away from the capital, a bandit attacks and incapacitates her. When she comes to a few hours later, she’s tied up in the dungeon of a castle. The bandit introduces himself: he’s Mihaya, and he’s planning on selling her to pirates intent on parading her red hair.
Of course, Shirayuki is having None Of This, and it doesn’t take two scenes before she’s broken out of her cell. Escaping the castle’s a bit harder, though. She employs some thoroughly ingenious tactics to escape her captor’s clutches, but she’s cornered against a wall outside, just footsteps away from freedom. Yet just when Mihaya’s about to put her out for good, Zen steps in to save her once more, bringing Mihaya to his knees.
Defeated, Mihaya begins to explain his story. He had once lived in a noble house whose family owned the castle to which he kidnapped Shirayuki. But time is cruel to even the richest of men, and Mihaya’s family was no exception. The tides turned, and his family was left with nothing, forcing him to live the life of a bandit. “That was when I thought I could use you, Red,” he sneers at Shirayuki. All Shirayuki is to him is a means to an end—a tool to restore his noble pride.
Zen, on the other hand, refuses to see Shirayuki that way. In response to Mihaya’s cynicism, he declares, “Shirayuki is not here to be used as anyone’s tool!” Unlike Mihaya, Zen doesn’t care what Shirayuki can give him. Instead, he cares for Shirayuki. Unlike Mihaya, who’s willing to use any means necessary to save his noble status, Zen uses his noble status to save Shirayuki.
Unlike Mihaya, Zen doesn’t use Shirayuki for himself. Instead, he honors her.
As the show progresses, Zen continues to show Shirayuki the same honor he displays here. Even though his noble status means he could keep Shirayuki for himself, he gives Shirayuki the freedom to choose her own path. Regardless of his own desires, he supports Shirayuki as she pursues her own goals. And as the two grow closer together, he serves her and clearly communicates his love for her while also respecting her boundaries.
I could go on. But I’ve made my point—Zen doesn’t seek to promote himself, but rather to honor Shirayuki.2 It’s this example of honor that the church has often failed to live by, in smaller and larger ways. I’ll be the first to confess that my first instinct often isn’t honor but vanity. Like Mihaya, I can be prone to pursue my own goals and interests at the expense of others. And on a larger scale, recent church scandals have trained a bright light on church leaders who use their authority to abuse those under their charge, rather than treating them with dignity and respect.3
Like a strip of film negative against a bright light, Zen’s honorable conduct highlights the dishonorable conduct of the church.4 The sin of the church is that it promotes itself. The failure of the church is that it fails to honor.
Prince Izana: An Image of Sacrifice
Prince Izana confuses me. And judging by the Crunchyroll comments, I’m hardly alone in this. I just don’t know what to make of him: He vacillates wildly between supporting his brother and dismissing him as insubordinate, between intimidating Shirayuki and affirming her freedom, between propping up Prince Raj and ridiculing his incompetence.
Despite all this, Zen clearly respects his brother. And in an extended flashback, we find out why. For his seventeenth birthday, when all the nobles of Clarines congregated to inquire of Izana what he would like for his birthday, he asked for a castle. But he didn’t want just any castle. He wanted one at the border of the Lido and Sui territories—two territories infamous for the ongoing feud between their lords.
Of course, all those present protested the decision, but with no power to resist, they granted his wish. Over the next few months, Zen watched as his brother accepted bribes from both lords, dismissed allegations of unjust taxation from their retainers, and tanked his reputation in noble society. Zen grew frustrated: Was his brother really this shallow?
But one day, Izana invited his brother on a small vacation to his castle. Along the way, Izana makes remarks to both lords about how much he despises smarmy and unjust rulers. They took the hint, but turned away from taxation to crime, at which point Izana struck. He exposed their deeds to the world, had them deposed, appointed the retainers in their place, and returned all the funds he had collected from their bribery.
Prince Izana goes to great lengths for the people of Lido and Sui. Not only does he spend months constructing an elaborate scheme to depose their unjust lords, he also prepares just lords to rule in their place and returns the taxes that had been unfairly siphoned from them. And he does all this at significant cost to himself. He allows nasty rumors to soil his reputation for the sake of justice. He sits in silence before his accusers, knowing that the reward will be worth it. He even puts his own life in danger by personally opposing those corrupt lords, all because they had put their people’s lives in danger.
That’s why Zen looks up to Prince Izana. That’s the kind of prince that Zen wants to be like: the one who fights for his people, even at great cost to himself.
Izana teaches us that good rulers sacrifice for the sake of the vulnerable. And for all the ways the church has failed, we worship a ruler who offered his own life up for the sake of the vulnerable. We worship a God who commands rulers to defend the afflicted and to crush the oppressor. We worship a king who ate and drank with those whom society had cast out. We worship a Savior who stood in silence before his accusers, and all for our sake.
Izana reminds all those whom the church has failed: You have a King who will not fail you.
Prince Raj: An Image of Humility
Now as we come to our final vignette from Snow White with the Red Hair, you might be wondering, “What on earth is Raj doing on a list about examples of just leadership? I mean, this is Raj we’re talking about! The guy who literally commanded Shirayuki to marry him, then tried to poison her, and then tried to coerce her into becoming his concubine? Not a great streak, and certainly not someone to learn from—right?”
Well, if you’ve watched the show, you’ll know that Raj gets his redemption arc. And it’s certainly something worth paying attention to. So stick with me.
Upon invitation from Izana, Raj visits the royal palace of Clarines on state business. However, the man’s still a little traumatized from the first time he met Prince Zen and was forced to swear that he would never lay a hand on Shirayuki again. So the one thing that he’s desperate to avoid is meeting Shirayuki again. He wouldn’t want to cause her more trouble than he already has. Thankfully, it’s far too unlikely that a prince and a lowly apprentice herbalist would ever cross paths, so everything will end up fine.
Well, it turns out that everything does not end up fine, and instead, by sheer coincidence, Raj meets Shirayuki. Over the course of their conversation, Raj wonders why Shirayuki’s treating him politely even though she has nothing to gain from it. How can she be so kind to someone whom she doesn’t respect? Shirayuki doesn’t answer the question. Instead, she offers her own challenge to Raj: “Please become someone that I can be glad is the prince of my home country.”
At first, Raj responds in anger to Shirayuki’s criticism. But when she clarifies that she wishes this not for her own sake, but for the sake of the people of Tanbarun, he begins to reflect. And by the end of the episode, it seems like he’s realized something of his failures as a leader. As he’s leaving, he commands his bodyguard to bow once towards Clarines. A sign of deference and respect toward Shirayuki. A sign that he owes her one.
Of course, these are small gestures. We don’t get to see how Raj responds to Shirayuki’s words until the second season, and I’ll refrain from getting into that for the sake of spoilers. But it’s remarkable that Raj—that pretentious, entitled prince who chased Shirayuki away—humbles himself enough to hear Shirayuki’s rebuke and take it to heart.
In Raj we see that good leaders humbly learn from their failures. So here’s the question—will we learn from our own?
How can we as a church do better? How can we cultivate fresh apples rather than poisoned ones? As we reflect on these examples from Snow White with the Red Hair, a few thoughts come to mind.
First, we need to reflect on the sins of the church, and on our own sins. We need to repent of the ways that we’ve lost sight of our purpose. We must repent of the ways that we’ve promoted ourselves instead of honoring others. We must repent of the ways that we’ve joined the captors in abusing the vulnerable rather than setting them free. We must repent of the ways that we’ve excused and covered up our sins and shortcomings.
Second, we need to start small. As Twwk mentioned in his above-referenced article, none of us can change the church alone. Change comes when, in the power of the Spirit, we let our lives be transformed by the gospel which we claim to profess. Change comes when we practice honor, sacrifice, and humility in our own lives. Change comes when we take our responsibility to the local church seriously, and become the models of good leadership that we’re looking for.
And finally, we need to look to our bridegroom.
Now it came to pass that a prince entered these woods and happened onto the dwarfs’ house, where he sought shelter for the night. He saw the coffin on the mountain with beautiful Snow-White in it, and he read what was written on it with golden letters. Then he said to the dwarfs, “Let me have the coffin. I will give you anything you want for it.” But the dwarfs answered, “We will not sell it for all the gold in the world.”
Then he said, “Then give it to me, for I cannot live without being able to see Snow-White. I will honor her and respect her as my most cherished one.”5
Our bridegroom is a better image of love than the prince, who would pay all the gold in the world to be with Snow White. Our bridegroom paid a price for us far more costly than all sums of gold, that we might be with him forever.
Our bridegroom is a better image of honor than Zen, who used his noble status not to promote himself but to honor others. For our bridegroom humbled himself to a status lower than a slave, that we might be raised to a position of immeasurable honor beside him.
Our bridegroom is a better image of sacrifice than Izana, who risked his life for the sake of his people. For our bridegroom offered up himself as a sacrifice, that we might be set free from the powers of sin and death.
Our bridegroom eagerly embraces us when we, like Raj, confess our sins before him. And he joyfully strengthens and upholds us as we seek to live lives in faithful obedience to his will.
The harvest is many, but the laborers are few. May we labor eagerly for the sake of the Lord’s kingdom. In short: may we cultivate fresh apples.
Snow White with the Red Hair can be streamed on Crunchyroll.
1 Quoted with minor edits from the Brothers’ Grimm version of Snow White, translated here.
2 Furthermore, Zen doesn’t seek to promote himself in his relationships with others in the show. He treats his guards as equals while others (Prince Izana and Lord Haruka) treat them as lesser servants. He speaks with his citizens as equals and constantly thinks of ways to improve their well-being. Snow White with the Red Hair might be a romance story, but it’s also a story about healthy leadership—leadership that doesn’t place rulers over their subjects, but that values the dignity of every human being.
3 For specifics, I’d recommend the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, which chronicles the dynamics of church abuse as they played out in a particular series of prominent American church plants several years ago, with some practical applications for church leaders today.
4 I’m reminded of that passage from Jonah where, as Jonah’s sleeping in the hold of the ship, the sailors are desperately praying to their gods to prevent the ship from going down. Jonah cares less about the true God than the pagans do about their idols. Jonah could care less about the sailors, but they do everything in their power to try to save his life. In many ways, the modern church mirrors Jonah. The world outshines us in its conduct, and we continue in our apathy and conceit. (See chapter 3 of Tim Keller’s The Prodigal Prophet for more on this topic.)
5 Again, quoted from the Brothers’ Grimm version of Snow White.