The Lion King – Vivat Pietate!

Recently, I was watching Disney’s 1994 The Lion King, and though I’ve seen it countless times, it is only now that I am older that I have come to appreciate its message even more than the nostalgia it brings every time I see it.

In the aftermath of Mufasa’s tragic betrayal and subsequent death, his treasonous brother, Scar, assumes the throne, after manipulating the young prince and true heir to the throne, Simba, into going into exile, having made him believe that he was responsible for his own father’s brutal death by trampling by the wildebeest stampede. Simba eventually befriends Timon and Pumbaa, the unlikely meerkat and warthog inseparable duo, and learns from them the laissez faire concept of Hakuna Matata, defined by Timon as the philosophy of having “no worries for the rest of your days.” Let all ties to the past simply melt away. There is no such thing as duty or responsibility to anyone but yourself – no predetermined concept of destiny, duty, or fate. Ironically, hakuna matata seems to embody the motto of a godless society: Wihout God, every man is for himself. There is no creaturely duty toward God or filial duty to our fellow man (no foundation for “compassion”), as summarized in Luke 10:25-37. In fact, there is no such thing as fellow man – no “neighbor.” That is, we do not share an objective equalizing factor that obliges us to each other: Our humanity. This last concept is what has been generally known throughout history all around the world as piety.

What’s piety? It depends on who you ask. And yet, there’s a common thread in many of the main societies in history that have carried on the heritage of this great term.

Cicero, a Roman, said that “pietas [the Greek term for piety] admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations.”

The 16th century French Reformer, John Calvin, defined it as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.”

Thomas Aquinas in his magnum opus, The Summa Theologica, states that “As by the virtue of piety man pays duty and worship not only to his father in the flesh, but also to all his kindred on account of their being related to his father, so by the gift of piety he pays worship and duty not only to God, but also to all men on account of their relationship to God.”

Christ succinctly summarized the law in the greatest commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,’ and the second greatest, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10:27). This commandment enjoins reverence, fear, duty, and action, all under one umbrella: love as the action produced by thanksgiving to our Creator (Ephesians 5:4, 20) toward Him as superior to us, and to all other human beings as our equals.

In Confucianism, Xiao “consists in putting the needs of parents and family elders over self, spouse, and children, deferring to parents’ judgment, and observing toward them the prescribed behavioral proprieties.” 

Therefore, pietas, also called “the mother of the virtues,” can be defined, per Augustine, as “properly ordering one’s loves (ordo amoris).” Proper love for God and man. To each his due.

You might be wondering at this point, what does this have to do with The Lion King? Well, hakuna matata – we’re getting there.

Nala, Simba’s childhood friend, finds him years after his exile because things back in the kingdom have gotten much worse since Mufasa’s death. The following conversation between them ensues:

Simba: Isn’t this place beautiful?
Nala: It is beautiful. But I don’t understand something. You’ve been alive all this time. Why didn’t you come back to Pride Rock?
Simba: Well, I just needed to get out on my own — live my own life. And I did! And it’s great!
Nala: We’ve really needed you at home.
Simba: No one needs me.
Nala: Yes, we do. You’re the king.
Simba: Nala, we’ve been through this. I’m not the king. Scar is….I can’t go back.
Nala: Why?
Simba: You wouldn’t understand.
Nala: What wouldn’t I understand?
Simba: No, no, no — It doesn’t matter. Hakuna Matata.
Nala: What?
Simba: Hakuna Matata. It’s what I learned out here. Sometimes bad things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it. So why worry?
Nala: Because it’s your responsibility! Simba, doesn’t the Pride mean anything to you? Doesn’t your mother mean anything to you?….Don’t you understand? You’re our only hope….What’s happened to you? You’re not the Simba I remember.
Simba: You’re right. I’m not. Now are you satisfied?
Nala: No. Just dissapointed.
Simba: You know, you’re starting to sound like my father.
Nala: Good. At least one of us does.

After this encounter, Nala leaves, and there’s a transition in which Simba addresses his father,

Simba: I don’t care what anybody says. I won’t go back. What would it prove, anyway? It won’t change anything — You can’t change the past. You told me you’d always be there for me — but you’re not. There’s nothing out there. There’s nothing to believe in anymore. Nothing. Nothing.

It would appear that the hakuna matata life did not provide Simba with the answers he sought. Simply pretending his identity was not already found outside of himself but in some vague subjective self-centered life was killing him inside, exacerbating his guilt over his father’s death. Our creatureliness, which points to God, eventually catches up with us all.

Then Simba meets Rafiki, the mandril shaman of the kingdom, again (the last time he’s shown to interact with Simba is during his official presentation to the kingdom as a the cub prince and heir to the throne). This is quite the Luke and Yoda first interaction in The Empire Strikes Back. The following conversation will continue driving our point home:

Simba: I think you’re a little confused.
Rafiki: Wrong! I’m not the one who’s confused. You don’t even know who you are.
Simba: And I suppose you know?
Rafiki: Sure do. You’re Mufasa’s boy…

Simba chases after Rafiki and comes to see himself reflected in a pond. At first, all he sees is himself. Then, the image of Mufasa appears on the water instead of his. At this, Rafiki says,

“You see – He lives in you.”

Rafiki’s point is that Simba does not exist apart from himself, and that, though Mufasa died, he is still connected to him by duty, and by royal descent. We do not exist unto ourselves or in isolation from those who came before us. In a society that pretends to stand above the past, demonizing and erasing it, and only pointing out negative things from it, Mufasa reminds Simba who he was born to be,

Mufasa: Simba, have you forgotten me?
Simba: No! How could I?
Mufasa: You have forgotten who you are, and so, have forgotten me.

Mufasa exhorts Simba to take his place as the rightful ruler of the kingdom, and Simba explains that he can’t because he is not then who he used to be. Mufasa gives him one last important reminder as his spirit vision fades away,

“Remember who you are — You are my son and the one true king….Remember who you are….Remember….Remember.”

Mufasa ignores Simba’s focus on who Simba was, and reminds him of his duty because of who he is – the rightful king, he who was born to serve those under him in a way that would honor those that came before him and their memory, in a manner becoming his line of lion kings. Simba was out of line, enjoying the freedom that his own people were not enjoying, and living off their suffering. He was not acting in a way that was becoming a king.

In military service, if a soldier acts in an inappropriate manner, outside of the rules or expectations of such service, he is said to be acting in an “unbecoming” way. The entire fifth chapter of Ephesians is dedicated to the concept of piety in the Christian life – about what is becoming of one who claims to be a child of light. In this chapter, thanksgiving is directly linked to a holy life. One is thankful when one abstains from sin and the appearance of sin, and by virtue of the love of Christ in his work on our behalf – humbling himself by taking on flesh (Phil. 2), living the perfect life no one has ever lived (1 Pet. 2:22), and thus dying on the cross as the perfect lamb (John 1:29), and rising out of death by his own hand (John 10:18), and now ruling and interceding for us in heaven (Rom. 8:34) – we also surrender ourselves, body and soul, dreams and identity, purpose and value, “to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Rev. 1:5-6).

Christ not only perfectly obeyed the Father, but he also perfectly loved us, like Pumbaa was willing to die for his friend Simba (thus renouncing Hakuna Matata), by truly dying for his people (1 Cor. 15:1-4; Jn. 15:13).

That is what piety is all about.

Hakuna Matata might seem to be a freeing philosophy – but it is not. Simba might have been able to live blissfully ignorant for a while of the plight of his people, but he could not escape his creatureliness, his royal and filial duty, forever. It wasn’t until he renounced an empty philosophy of life in which he sought to be a “self-made man lion” and invent himself over from scratch (an impossibility and self-destructive endeavor, as our culture knows full well), and instead listened to his father and “remembered” who he was all along, that he was truly fulfilled. For that is what he was born to be: The Lion King.

The unbelieving world might call this enslaving and restrictive, but Simba had years of hakuna matata and he was no freer than he was before. Recently, my children were playing with other children in a patch of grass next to a pool. Us adults formed a line around the pool to keep the children from potential danger. They didn’t cry and complain about us being “restrictive” or somehow “enslaving” them. They actually ran around the patch of grass with glee and deep joy and freedom. They were able to be who they were, and act like it, with abandon: children hard at play. The fact that God expects his creatures to live within the boundaries he has set is not the work of an oppressive, evil God who enjoys to put shackles on our feet. It is a work of love that considers our frame, what we’re made of and for, and our fallen nature. His law is, in fact, a blessing.

If you are a Christian, then hakuna matata: The Lord has defeated sin and in love died to save you and me from our sins. Now go and imitate Him by the power of the Spirit, not to gain His favor (impossible!), but to live a life of thankful obedience. He gave His own life so we would share in his eternal felicity. Why wouldn’t you give your all for God and your fellow man?

If you are not a Christian, then you might ignore this article and sing hakuna matata to yourself. But you ought to be worried and not deceive yourself, “for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6). You were made in the image of God, and thus you owe a filial duty to God and man (Gen. 1:27; Ps. 24:1). You owe God perfect obedience and worship, but alas, not one of us can obey God’s law perfectly, nor do we naturally want to (1 Cor. 2:14; James 2:10). We have “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57) that Christ came from heaven and saved his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). The beauty of piety (a life of thanksgiving in holiness) is that we live in such thanksgiving, not because of anything we have done or tried to do (Rom. 3:20; Titus 3:3-8; Eph. 2:8-10), but because of His work on our behalf. But if you are without Christ, then you cannot live a holy life, for all your good works are abominable to God (Titus 1:16). Only the perfect work of Christ for salvation can make your works acceptable and pleasing to Him, not to save you, but as evidence of salvation. Turn to Him and live!

Therefore, don’t forget who you are (created by God in His image), and remember God.

The concept of piety is so vast, and there is so much more that could be said. But for now….

Hakuna matata!

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