To stop evil, we don’t need to examine our souls but our societies
In “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a sermon that captured the spirit of colonial America, Jonathan Edwards begins with the quotation “Their Foot shall slide in due Time.” While his sermon’s climax is a vision of God as punisher—“The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire”—his opening move, which will justify that treatment, is a four-point reflection on the nature of sin. First, we are always already going to fall; second, when we fall it will be sudden and without warning; third, we fall of our own nature rather than “being thrown down by the Hand of another”; and lastly, that God’s will is the only thing preventing us from falling right now.
Original Sin: It’s All Your Fault
Edwards’ exegesis of sin creates a labyrinth from which there is no earthly escape. Sinfulness is at once a private concern of each individual and a fact of humanity in general—it is inside every one of us and outside of us as a standard against which we are measured. While Jonathan Edwards represents a particular moment in American Christian history, his work is both representative of the formative years of what has become the world’s most militarized nation, and not fundamentally different from the role sin plays in a wider discourse.
Sin and its opposite, confession, are everywhere, from the seventeenth century to the present. “We have become a singularly confessing society,” as Michel Foucault puts it in volume one of The History of Sexuality. “The obligation to confess is now relayed though so many different points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us.” Sin is always already inside everyone, and we deserve to be punished for it.
That ugly and unempirical conception of sin has damaged billions of people, but fortunately it is absent from the world of Fullmetal Alchemist*. Here, the monstrous qualities of sin are rightfully identified with imperialism, militarism, and a self-serving political ruling class. Sin, in Fullmetal Alchemist, is not something inside you, but, at a personal level, the obstacles that distant elites put in your way, and at a social level, the apparatus seeking to destroy all human life. It is a vision of evil as political that is apropos for our time.
Sin as Demonic Enemy
The heroes of Fullmetal Alchemist—a series about the search for the mythical Philosopher’s Stone in a world modeled after Europe during the height of industrialization—are Edward and Alphonse Elric, brothers whose skill in alchemy has given them a tragic start in life. An attempt to resurrect their dead mother—a violation of alchemy’s core taboo—results in Elric losing an arm and a leg and Alphonse becoming a sentient suit of armor, kicking off the brothers’ quest to find the stone and restore their bodies.
In the series, the Elric brothers are the good guys and their antagonists are the Seven Deadly Sins, homunculi who personify lust, sloth, pride, envy, gluttony, wrath, and greed. The Sins are superhuman fighters conjured by the power of Philosopher’s Stones, magical artifacts created through the sacrifice of human souls. They fight on behalf of the character known as Father, the baddest guy of them all and the ur-homunculus, whose goal is to sacrifice the souls of the nation of Amestris in order to become God, or something like that—the politics of the series are complicated enough without trying to get through the metaphysics.
As part of Father’s project, which has extended over hundreds of years and includes even the founding of Amestris, he and the Sins incited a war with the neighboring country of Ishbal in order to harvest their souls for Philosopher’s Stones. Much of the series involves the Elric brothers uncovering this secret history, implicating the homunculi, Father, and human collaborators in the highest ranks of the military. Part of the Elric’s personal progression is coming to terms with the idea that their country, the army in which they fight as State Alchemists, and their official national history all exist to facilitate a massive demonic sacrifice.
The horror of this revelation, however, is not that they are fighting against demons, but that the institutions of ordinary life are themselves already demonic. The Amestrian army and government plan atrocities and lie to their citizens about it. The police, prisons, and hospitals conspire to experiment on convicts in order to develop the technology for creating Philosopher’s Stones. This is the closest that Fullmetal Alchemist gets to the idea that sin is already inside of us—the Elrics are already sullied by working in an army that has betrayed its mission. That inherited sinfulness, however, is associated with institutions, not individuals. The institutions that the Elrics have participated in are revealed to have been secretly poisoned, and they are horrified by their collaboration. But that is the end of it—once the Elrics learn the army is working for the Sins, they simply fight against the army.
The Elrics’ enemies are always outside of themselves, though who they understand that enemy to be changes throughout the series. Importantly, there is never any suggestion that the Elrics’ battle against the Sins is really a battle against the sin within themselves. Like the police and army, the Sins are not metaphors. They are the material opponents of the Elrics. While the character designs of the Sins represent their namesakes, they are ultimately just bad guys, entirely exterior to the Elrics’ inner life.
Fighting Fire with Fire
The lack of a connection between the Sins as the enemy and the sinfulness of the self can be seen in any of the many fight sequences. In a confessional universe it would make sense for each Sin to be a kind of moral riddle with a secret weakness vanquished by a corresponding heroic introspection, but this is not what happens in Fullmetal Alchemist at all. Roy Mustang, an ally of the Elrics, uses his fire alchemy to kill both Lust and Envy. Despite those being sins traditionally thought of as “hot,” they have no resistance to fire. Rather, Mustang’s fight banter is entirely about the physics of fire and how, for example, he is able to boil the water in their eyes. He does not use any special tactics to burn them—he just lights them on fire over and over until the power of their Stone is overcome.
When Alex Armstrong fights Sloth he learns that the Sin is very strong and surprisingly fast, and adjusts his tactics accordingly. But his victory has nothing to do with the metaphorical features of Sloth or his own relation to it. Armstrong teams up with his sister Olivia Armstrong, the Elrics’ mentor Izumi Curtis, and her extremely buff husband Sig Curtis, and beats the hell out of Sloth. It is a scene that is noteworthy for its homosocial overtones—it might not be gay, but it’s not not gay—but has nothing to teach about the sin of sloth. Even when the fight scenes do include some obvious subtext, like the connection between Alex Armstrong and Sig Curtis, it is so unrelated to the sin at hand as to actively block any allegorical reading.
The same applies for the battles directly involving the Elrics. When Alphonse battles Pride over the course of several episodes, he first uses a flashbang to blind Pride and then entombs him in a mound of dirt with his alchemy. Later, after Pride has escaped, they fight again, and this time Pride makes sure to slice through Alphonse’s flashbang before he can use it. However, the one that Pride destroys is a decoy, allowing Alphonse to blind him again with a real flashbang he had hidden.
In Christian mythology, Pride is the number one sin. It’s the one that got Lucifer thrown from heaven and Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden. It is the sin of Doctor Faustus, the subject of high literary treatments by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Nowhere in the extensive literature on overcoming Pride is there any precedent for using decoy flashbangs. As in the previous examples, there is no moral allegory. The minutiae of the fight scenes deal entirely with the materiality of the combatants and their world in order to derail even broad confessional readings.
It’s OK to Win
Fullmetal Alchemist departs from the tradition of internalized sin by externalizing, materializing, and locating those forces in the world. The extent to which this seemingly logical arrangement is a radical position can be seen by comparison to the moral economy of a narrative that does not make this move. In Star Wars, for example, the impersonal law of the universe is one of balance between the dark and light sides of the force. The result is that every time a good guy fights a bad guy, he or she is at risk of actually becoming evil if they fight too hard.
Every fight where the light side might get an advantage and, for example, institute socialized medicine or pay reparations to nations ravaged by the Empire, becomes a fight within that Jedi to avoid going too far. Good Jedi must constantly restrain themselves and tend toward inaction to magically immobilize evil through the balance of the force. And yet, despite that balance supposedly being a metaphysical law of the Star Wars universe, it never seems to work for the good guys, who are always getting their ass kicked and whose greatest triumphs are losing less instead of winning more.
Fullmetal Alchemist also has a universal law of balance—the law of equivalent exchange, which requires that for anything created through alchemy, something of equal value must be given. This law, however, is closer to a physical principle than a moral one. If the Elrics fight too hard against bad guys, they do not become bad. They win. And that is essentially the whole logic of the series—the universe is governed by physical laws, not moral ones, and the evil in the world can be defeated because it, too, is material.
That description could work for many anime—Dragon Ball Z, for example, is an almost pure example of the aesthetics of effort—but Fullmetal Alchemist casts that materialism onto a story about fighting the Seven Deadly Sins. It is literally a story about defeating sin, albeit not in the sense that “sin” holds in a Christian universe. Sin is what does evil in the universe, and rather than locating that within individuals, Fullmetal Alchemist locates it outside of them in institutions of violence. Material conflict is the Elrics’ method for defeating evil incarnate, and materialism is Fullmetal Alchemist’s method for defeating “sin” as such.
The Elrics have their alchemical powers to help them defeat the physical incarnations of evil—we are not so lucky. But in Fullmetal Alchemist there is at least a blueprint to avoid the thinking that other elites have used as part of their own centuries-long plot to consume the bulk of humanity. Rather than identifying sin as a personal challenge, which would be correctly confronted at the level of the individual, it is something that operates at the level of social systems—to stop evil, we don’t need to examine our souls but our societies. That change is both subtle and fundamental, a rearrangement of the universe so economical that it could be alchemy. After that, the rest is physics.
*Fullmetal Alchemist is a manga that has inspired two anime series with different endings. The events I describe are those that happen in the manga and the anime Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.