‘The Karate Kid’ and Turning the Other Cheek

Josh Larsen

“The Karate Kid” – both the 1984 original and this summer’s remake – is decidedly not a Gospel story.

In fact, this hugely popular franchise – there have also been three sequels – is pretty much the opposite of Matthew 5:39, where Jesus advises: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

“The Karate Kid” will have none of that. Ralph Macchio – and now Jaden Smith, son of Will – both play essentially the same character: the new kid at school who is harassed and beaten by a gang of martial arts-trained bullies. Hurt and humiliated, our young heroes each find solace and eventual fight training at the hands of a kindly Asian maintenance man (Oscar-nominated Pat Morita then, action superstar Jackie Chan in the remake).

In both versions, the main character learns not only to defend himself; he enters a martial-arts tournament, where he bludgeons his way into a championship fight against the head bully. He emerges victorious, of course, to the delight of the cheering crowd, including his girlfriend and mother.

Sounds a lot better than running to the principal for help, doesn’t it? It’s no wonder this anti-Gospel message has been so wholeheartedly embraced (the remake earned an impressive $56 million its opening weekend). “The Karate Kid” has always been an easy, wish fulfillment fantasy. It still resonates even in this post-Columbine era, when parents and educators have become much more sophisticated about confronting bullying in schools. We now have aggressive training programs and strict rubrics, but they’re far less enticing and often feel less effective than an old-fashioned, vengeful punch in the face.

When you think about it, turning the other cheek is one of the hardest commands Jesus gave us. To do so is to deny our pride – the very thing that C.S. Lewis identified as “the essential vice, the utmost evil.” Humility, which Lewis posited as the opposite trait, is far less appealing. Humble heroes don’t enjoy triumphant movie victories.

I’m hardly saying “The Karate Kid” is a vice, and it’s certainly not evil. But it does reveal one of the glaring weaknesses of human nature. We get awfully worked up about sex and violence in the movies – often rightly so – yet it’s here, in a benign, inspirational “kids’ flick” where we can also see the face of our own sin.

Topics: Movies