Living in the Fire Nation

"Commission - Zuko" | Art by Blue-Ten. Used with permission.
Imagine that you lived in a world where all nations got along. Then, your nation suddenly attacked the rest of the nations, attempting world domination. According to the opening of Avatar: The Last Airbender, that was what happened in their world. The Air, Water, Earth and Fire Nations lived in harmony, “then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.” Now, a world that didn’t know strife was in need of a saviour—an Avatar, a master of all four elements.

It takes a special kind of person to think that world domination is a good idea; and I don’t mean special in a good way. It’s an expensive proposition—it costs lives, money, comfort, safety, and identity. More importantly, it costs your soul. Because, if you are so full of hubris that you believe your way is the only right way, that you are so much better than everyone else, that you should rule all, that other people’s rights and dignities are negotiable according to what suits you… if you have placed yourself in the position to judge others, then you have set yourself up as God and that’s always a losing proposition.

We are emperors of our own little worlds, oppressing others not by force, but by indifference.

When Firelord Ozai gathered up an army and sent them to take over the world, there must have been some confusion among the people. I have often wondered how the average citizen in such a regime would feel about what was being done in their name. What did the average Roman feel during the rise of the Empire, or the Canadian and American settlers as indigenous people were being relocated or wiped out? Did they believe the Manifest Destiny (or whatever that particular group called it) rhetoric, or did it make them nauseated? Were they embarrassed? Did they come to agree that the people they had been good neighbours with and in business with a little while ago were suddenly inferior to them? Were they indifferent to their suffering? Or, maybe it was far enough away that the average person didn’t actually see what was going on, and so they didn’t have to deal with it. We know that there were some who stood boldly against these powers—many of them are called “saints” now. But, what about the silent majority?

In the episode of The Last Airbender called “The Headband,” Aang and his companions find themselves in a Fire Nation village and need to blend in. We get a glimpse of the propaganda that Fire Nation children are being taught in school. Part of the oath they recite daily is, “My life I give to my country. With my hands I fight for Fire Lord Ozai and our forefathers before him. With my mind I seek ways to better my country. And with my feet may our March of Civilization continue.”

The Fire Nation children are being trained in a dangerous kind of nationalism—one that states they are the keepers of civilization. Their lives are rigid; bullies abounded, there’s no dancing or anything creatively expressive; they are being groomed for a utilitarian future. But, that’s what happens when you disregard the humanity of others; you lose your own. Joy can’t dwell in hearts bent on oppression.

When we meet Uncle Iroh and Zuko in The Last Airbender, they seem complicit to the Fire Lord’s goals. We eventually learn they had both been personally harmed by him; Zuko was scarred physically, emotionally and politically, and Iroh lost his son and what should have been years of peace and prosperity. They had both been robbed by their cooperation in Ozai’s hunger for power and disregard for others. It was only through their personal loss that they are able to see the incorrectness of the evil that they had leagued themselves with.

These days there aren’t too many Firelord Ozai’s to worry about; monsters of men who forcibly take over whole nations. We’re too smart for that anymore. Our enlightened society would never stand for injustice so blatant. Instead, we sit comfortably surrounded by cheaply manufactured products that were made in sweatshops, women and children victimized through human trafficking, cultures being taken advantage of because they have what we need to stay cozy, violence against innocent people being tolerated because we have to take care of our own first.

Joy can’t dwell in hearts bent on oppression.

There’s really no need to ponder what it must have been like for the average person in the Fire Nation; most of us are living it. But our brand of world domination is much smaller than Ozai’s—we are emperors of our own little worlds, oppressing others not by force, but by indifference. I wonder what cost will be too great so that we finally stop being complicit.

Educating myself in the injustice that’s being done in my name as a citizen of the world and a consumer is a place to start. Having models to help shape and guide me like Iroh did for Zuko also helps. Being Catholic, I take great interest in what Pope Francis has to say. He talks about being joyful Christians and removing from our routine the habit of complaining. He speaks regularly about spending time with the poor and suffering; not just fundraising or having clothing or food drives (which are really great ideas, by the way), but going where the poor are and getting to know them.

One of the best things Zuko did to prepare for leadership was to go and meet the people his nation was oppressing. He saw them for what they really were—mothers, fathers, children, siblings, friends. When we form bonds with those in need, when we enter relationship with them, we will fight for them. The humanizing effect of spending time with someone who is suffering is the antidote to complaisance, the recipe for joy, and the key to peace.

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Jen is a pastoral minister, wife, mother, ninja and writer. She loves sci-fi, superheroes, and classic literature, and prefers to share her Catholic faith through such lenses. Her book, "Comic Con Christianity" is available from Paulist Press.
Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

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