No Mercy

In the 1980s, every boy dreamed of being the Karate Kid, yelling “Wax on, wax off!” and throwing Crane Kicks at invisible bullies. Over thirty years later, the world of the Karate Kid is back though the series Cobra Kai. While the original movie focuses on Daniel LaRusso, this series is told from the perspective of Johnny Lawrence, who has had a difficult life following his loss to LaRusso at the 1984 All-Valley Karate Championships. Johnny seeks redemption by reopening the karate school in which he was trained, Cobra Kai, and coaching a new generation of fighters. While the show contains a lot of strong language and sexual content, it also explores many important themes, such as forgiveness, fatherhood, and whether or not people can change. The themes we will explore here are bullying and mercy.

Many of the students join Cobra Kai because they wish to fight back against bullies. Miguel, Johnny’s first student, is harassed by a group of classmates. Eli, later nicknamed Hawk, is picked on because of a facial scar. Aisha is targeted because of her weight:

When Aisha joins Cobra Kai, she tells Johnny how she is bullied by classmates through mean anonymous texts and emails. The bullies create fake accounts telling her she is ugly and should kill herself. Sadly, these are common practices of cyberbullying, which has become widespread among young people.

Cyberbullying
Johnny notes how cowardly cyberbullying is, saying that when he was younger, bullying would at least occur face-to-face. (Ironically, Johnny and his Cobra Kai buddies were the bullies in the original Karate Kid.) Nowadays, bullies can follow you everywhere, thanks to the ubiquity of social media and the internet. According to statistics, over 80% of teens regularly use a smartphone, making cyberbullying easy and common. As a result, over half of teens have been victims of cyberbullying, more commonly amongst girls.

One of Aisha’s closest friends growing up was Sam LaRusso. However, Sam abandoned Aisha for cooler friends—friends who were responsible for much of Aisha’s bullying. Eventually, these same friends turned on Sam, bullying her through false sexual rumors online and in real life. In one scene, Sam receives an Instagram notification, she is visibly agitated as she decides whether or not to check it. Thankfully, it is a funny message from her boyfriend, Miguel, which instantly cheers her up. This exemplifies much of the anxiety that teens face on a daily basis: Will a social media notification be positive or negative? Will it be happy or hurtful? Sam’s Instagram notification brightened her day, but it could have easily ruined the day if it were another case of cyberbullying.

Cobra Kai shows the sad reality many young people today face due to the prevalence of cyberbullying. As a result, Johnny teaches Aisha and his other students how to be confident and stand up to bullies. He does so, however, by turning many of them into bigger bullies.

No Mercy
The three rules of Cobra Kai are simple: “Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.” And following these rules proves destructive for the Cobra Kai students. They become aggressive and reckless, not caring about who they hurt, so long as they win, in the dojo and in life. Aisha gets revenge on her bully by humiliating her at a party. At the All-Valley Tournament, Hawk attacks his opponent, Robbie, from behind, injuring Robbie and disqualifying Hawk. In the final match, Miguel attacks Robbie’s injured shoulder, winning the match in a dishonorable way. They all followed Cobra Kai’s mantra, “No mercy.”

Johnny realizes that the rules of Cobra Kai are sending his students down a dark path, so he tries to teach them about honor. While Johnny’s old sensei had taught him that mercy was weak, he realizes that attacking an opponent while his back is turned or when injured is cowardly and dishonorable. Sometimes showing mercy is the stronger and more honorable way.

Blessed are the Merciful
In the most famous sermon of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Mercy is an act of compassion, choosing not to repay someone for a wrongdoing, no matter how much you think he or she deserves it. Sometimes, showing mercy means stopping or letting something go.

While Johnny tried to teach his students to be better and stronger, the same was true for himself. He wanted to be a better father and not let his past feud with Daniel LaRusso consume him; but we see the results of the “no mercy” mindset in the season two finale, in which Cobra Kai brawls with its rival school, Miyagi-Do, resulting in Miguel getting seriously injured. Ironically, Miguel is injured because he shows mercy, while his opponent does not.

Jesus also taught us to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-39), which is a form of mercy, by not retaliating over an insult. The kids from each karate school were consumed by their rivalry and by every offense, whether large or small. To be clear, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek when slapped, which meant when one is insulted. There are definitely times when bullies must be stood up to and even knocked down. But Jesus embodied a life of sacrifice and mercy, allowing himself to be nailed to the cross when he could have easily called down an army from heaven to rescue him (Matthew 26:53). And his death provided mercy to us through the forgiveness of our sins.

Saul of Tarsus was a bully, using his religious and political power to persecute Christians; but then God transformed his heart. Now we know him as Paul, author of much of the New Testament. He then went from being a bully to being targeted for his new faith. Yet he wrote, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20). Instead of retaliating against our enemies, we are to love them by doing good to them (Luke 6:27-31). In doing so, we will “burn” them in a good way, in their conscience. This will hopefully convict them of their sins and lead them to change their ways.

Conclusion
Cobra Kai displays the sad reality of bullying, both online and in-person. It shows how destructive people can become when they refuse to show mercy and forgive others. Hatred and resentment only grow until they consume everyone involved and someone gets physically injured, like Miguel, or emotionally scarred, like Aisha. The creed of Cobra Kai, “Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy.” does not prevent bullying, it creates bullies.

Contrary to the teachings of Cobra Kai, showing mercy is not weakness, it is an act of strength. Being insulted and not retaliating requires self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit, along with peace and gentleness (Galatians 5:22-23). And no one bore insults and injury more patiently than Jesus. He willingly carried all of our pain to the cross. He did this to suffer with us, to show us how to persevere in the midst of great difficulties. He also did it to take our pain onto himself—his suffering offers us spiritual healing. Lest we forget, Jesus not only died for the bullied, he died for the bullies as well.

God extends his mercy to all. Let us do the same for others.

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Timothy Fox

Timothy Fox has a passion to equip the church to engage the culture. He is a part-time math teacher, full-time husband and father. He has an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University as well as an M.A. in Adolescent Education of Mathematics and a B.S. in Computer Science, both from Stony Brook University. Tim lives on Long Island, NY with his wife and children. He also blogs at freethinkingministries.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @TimothyDFox.