Avatar is a record-breaking cult classic. No, not the blockbuster film nor the lamentable movie remake, but the animated TV show that debuted in 2005 and recently resurfaced on Netflix.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a coming-of-age story about a preteen protagonist (Aang) and his friends who seek to end an ongoing war to restore peace on earth. Along the way, they adventure in a fantasy world and discover themselves. But the antagonist’s character arc is undeniably the best.
Warning: spoilers ahead!
Scarred by Shame
Zuko is a 13-year-old banished from his country by his father (Fire Lord Ozai, king of the Fire Nation) because he dares to speak up against his father’s orders in a war meeting. Zuko may only return from exile and restore his honor under one impossible condition: capture the Avatar (Aang) who has been missing for 100 years. Zuko’s shame is manifested on his face—a glaring burn scar over his left eye from his abusive dad. Though determined to capture the Avatar, Zuko slowly discovers the surprising path he must take to overcome his shame.
The Asia-inspired world of Avatar is the perfect backdrop to highlight honor and shame. Yet shame is universal. Ed Welch defines shame as “that all-too-human experience of worthlessness, failure and not belonging. It can come from what we have done or from what others have done to us.” If guilt tells us we’ve done something bad, shame tells us we are bad, dirty, and unlovable—irredeemably so. Shame shapes our identity and keeps us in hiding (Gen. 2:25; 3:7–8).
If guilt tells us we’ve done something bad, shame tells us we are bad, dirty, and unlovable—irredeemably so.
Like the leper’s spots (Luke 5:12) and the woman’s persistent blood (Luke 8:43), Zuko’s scar is a constant reminder that he is a failure, a disgrace, a shame.
Scars of shame show up all over Scripture. Look for the outcasts—the Hagars, the Leahs, the barren, the lepers, the tax collectors, the poor—and you’ll see that shame is often God’s preferred setting for redemption (Luke 4:18–19; 7:21–22).
Thankfully for Zuko, he doesn’t travel alone. His empathetic, humorous, tea-loving uncle Iroh accompanies him. Iroh gently questions his attitude and decisions, at one point declaring, “Zuko, you must let go of your feelings of shame if you want your anger to go away.”
Iroh is a legendary warrior and the true heir to the Fire Nation throne, but he chooses the disgraced life of a suffering servant to accompany his banished nephew. He reminds us of “the King of glory . . . the LORD, mighty in battle” who became the Suffering Servant, “despised and rejected by men . . . acquainted with grief” (Ps. 24:8; Isa. 53:3).
Opting for the lowest rung on the social ladder, Jesus touched the untouchables (Matt. 8:3; Mark 7:32–34; Luke 7:14–15) and befriended those defined by shame (Luke 7:34).
Yet Zuko’s shame is not easily overcome. At a personal crossroads, Iroh tells Zuko, “You are going through a metamorphosis, my nephew. It will not be a pleasant experience, but when you come out of it, you will be the beautiful prince you were always meant to be.”
Shame is stubborn. It can’t be purged by material success, positive thinking, or self-affirmation. “Release from shame cannot be earned,” Welch observes. “It comes by being connected to someone of infinite worth.”
Zuko’s painful metamorphosis from disgraced prince to beloved son hinges on his association with his honorable but dishonored uncle, rather than with his honored but dishonorable father. But he learns this the hard way.
At a crucial crossroads, Zuko finally corners the Avatar. The chance to restore his honor is within his grasp. But there’s a catch: he has to turn on the only person who ever truly loved him—Iroh. Zuko chooses partnership with his manipulative and murderous sister, Azula, who becomes his advocate before their father. Iroh, in turn, is thrown into prison.
Zuko finally sits at his father’s right hand, but he can’t shake his overwhelming angst. Shame still imprisons him. And when he realizes who he has dishonored, he is wrecked.
At the cross, Jesus was utterly victimized—denied, slandered, abused, abandoned, cursed, and crucified. We can and should see ourselves in Christ’s victimization (Isa. 53:4), but since he bore our sin (1 Pet. 2:24) we must also see ourselves in his victimizers.
We can and should see ourselves in Christ’s victimization, but since he bore our sin we must also see ourselves in his victimizers.
When Zuko witnesses his uncle’s victimization—caused by his own betrayal—he forges a new path toward honor. He forfeits his royalty to join the Avatar and his friends as they wage war against Zuko’s father. First, though, he must find his uncle, who escaped from prison.
In a scene doubtless influenced by the parable of the lost son (Luke 15:11–24), Zuko rehearses his apology before begging for forgiveness. Before he can finish, Uncle Iroh wraps him in a tear-filled embrace and declares, “I was never angry with you. I was sad because I was afraid you’d lost your way.”
With Iroh and his new community, Zuko helps the Avatar win the war. He’s crowned as Fire Lord Zuko. But his scar remains—no longer a symbol of shame but a testament to redemption.
We have scars, too. Is the gospel good-enough news to redeem the scars of our victimizing and our victimization? Christ’s scars shout a resounding, “Yes!” (John 20:27).
Shame’s grip isn’t broken through our striving, but by our association with the King who became the ultimate outcast (Luke 18:32–33; Gal. 3:13). On the cross, he took our shame (Heb. 12:2); at his resurrection, he gave us his honor (John 20:17; 1 Cor. 15:57).
Will we hide our scars or hope in his?
In Mandarin, the name “Zuko” can mean “failure” or “loved one.” His story is every Christian’s story (Isa. 62:4). Christ’s wounds transform our scars of shame into glorious trophies of grace.
Will we hide our scars or hope in his?