One Piece and ‘Straw Hat Christians’

Sara Kyoungah White

One Piece, based on Eiichiro Oda’s best-selling Japanese manga series, became Netflix’s #1 global title in the first two weeks of release, sitting in the Top 10 in 93 countries. Cultural popularity doesn’t always indicate resonance with gospel truth, but in the case of One Piece, Monkey D. Luffy’s Straw Hat Pirates offer a fresh vision for what Christian community can look like in our polarized age.

Previously adapted as an anime series, this live-action version focuses on Luffy (Iñaki Godoy), an aspiring pirate with superhuman rubbery limbs. Luffy wants to become the “King of the Pirates” by finding the elusive, legendary treasure of the title. He assembles an unlikely crew along the way, all of whom seem to share only one thing in common: their initial hatred of pirates. This includes his first mate, Roronoa Zoro (Mackenyu), a pirate hunter who fights with three swords; Nami (Emily Rudd), a thief and navigator whose early life was traumatized by pirates; and Koby (Morgan Davies), who was formerly enslaved by a wicked pirate and parts ways early from Luffy to join the Marines, the organization charged with eliminating wayward swashbucklers.

Each of these characters comes to realize that Luffy is not like the pirates they’ve known in the past; in fact, he’s unlike any other pirate currently ravaging the world. Instead, Luffy is a “good” pirate, seeking to use his fighting powers for the sake of defending the helpless and to bring a sense of dignity to the pirate name. He’s deeply loyal to his friends, even when they betray him. Though he’s smaller in size and hardly muscular, he’s strong, weathering not just physical trials but emotional ones like failure and trauma, all while holding unflinchingly to his dream. It’s Luffy’s winsome character and ability to love against the odds, then, that brings together his motley Straw Hat pirate crew, so named for the handmade cap he wears.

Luffy’s crew reminds me of another one: Jesus and his disciples. The disparate groups within the world of One Piece—pirates, villagers, Marines, Fish-men—are often at odds with each other, just as tax collectors were enemies of the Zealots in Jesus’ time. But just as Luffy calls each person to join him despite their affiliation with a certain group, Jesus also calls both the tax collector and the Zealot to be part of his flock. He calls Paul, the once-persecutor of Christians. Some of Jesus’ closest friends are women, who were marginalized by society in his time. Like Luffy, Jesus reaches across ideological and cultural lines to form a new community rooted in love and common purpose.

Luffy’s ability to champion the “good” in the pirate life—the love for adventure and the sea, the camaraderie of the crew, and the boldness to use power in service of love and protection—forms a novel moral code that is not just personal; it’s a vision for a completely new world, in which pirates can be friends with Marines and villagers can live at peace without being terrorized by pirates. It’s a vision that Luffy’s new friends recognize as indisputably right, a vision they can get behind. In this way, Luffy can tell Koby, with affection, “Be a good Marine,” and Koby can likewise respond, “Be a good pirate.”

TC Podcast: One Piece

What would it look like today for Christians across ideological lines to be “good,” despite the ways that the groups we identify with characterize (and often mischaracterize) each other? What would a “good” Republican look like, for example, or a “good” social justice warrior—“good” not just in the eyes of those on their own side, but even those on the opposite end of the spectrum? What would it look like for us to truly live out Jesus’ vision of a community marked by an unlikely love for neighbor and enemy?

One example comes to mind. During the pandemic, after the police killing of George Floyd, several members in our church began a racial justice group. But this group was not just made up of Democrats, for whom racial justice is often an important issue. Some members were lifelong Republicans and also part of a Sanctity of Life group. People on every part of the political spectrum joined to talk together in a respectful and open way, united in concern about racism in America and humbly desiring to pray and seek change in our community. It was a powerful witness to me of the unity we can share in Christ, a small taste of what “Straw Hat Christians” can look like.

In our polarized age, it’s tempting to sort ourselves into various groups based only on our affinities, sticking with those whose ideologies, cultural backgrounds, and racial makeups align best with our own, while vilifying those who are different from us. But in assembling his crew, Luffy wasn’t just looking for fellow pirates. What would he have missed if he had done so? How different would the story of One Piece be? Likewise, how much less effective would the witness of the disciples have been if they had been all exactly alike?

To be a “good” anything, however, is not easy. It means that we open ourselves up to criticism from both sides. Luffy is constantly hunted by both Marines and pirates; all of his friends are initially puzzled by how he doesn’t fit neatly into a single box. To be “good” means to persevere in the vision of a new world where friendships can form across divides, a vision shared by the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. It means to constantly seek the kingdom to come, to live with the beloved community and the greater end in mind.

To be “good” also means to be willing to part from the long-held assumptions and traditions of our own groups. It looks like loving our enemies and calling them friends, just as Jesus and Luffy both do.

Thankfully, to be “good,” we as believers don’t need stretchy arms or the ability to fight with three swords. We need only walk in the way that God has already prepared for us, keeping our eyes fixed on a Father whose goodness and mercy follows us all the days of our lives.

Topics: TV