The Theological Politics of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Over the last few decades the Star Wars films have been part of a burgeoning industry of ‘pop apologetics’ in Christian periodicals. The recurrent motifs of temptation, fall and redemption have led some to assume that Lucas’ vision of conflict in a galaxy, far, far away, relies on an intrinsically Christian anthropology.

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Over the last few decades, the Star Wars films have been part of a burgeoning industry of ‘pop apologetics’ in Christian periodicals. The recurrent motifs of temptation, fall and redemption have led some to assume that Lucas’ vision of conflict in a galaxy, far, far away, relies on an intrinsically Christian anthropology. As Joel Hodge  has reflected in a recent article in the Washington Post the mythic structure of the first and second trilogies are seemingly hospitable to Christian concepts not only of sin, but also forgiveness. Noting the restorative conduct of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, Hodge suggests:

In a parallel way to humanity in the Christian story, Vader falls and cannot find his way out of the dark side – “You don’t know the power of the dark side! I must obey my Master,” he says to Luke. Yet, Vader is eventually redeemed, though not through his own power or by his manipulation of the Force, but through his son, Luke Skywalker. In the same moment, the Force is purified of evil.

Seekers after explicitly theological motifs may also look approvingly on the battle between the New Republic and the First Order. Here, the world is clearly divided between the followers of Light and Darkness. The films do not dice with ambiguity or relativism. We are confronted with clear factions with clearly defined motives. There is no question that we should see the conflict from the standpoint of Sith, nor is there any question that the New Republicans are in the right. The moral absolutism of the films, say the apologists, proves that Star Wars is really an exploration of an eternal moral order (read Plato and Aquinas) and the struggle of the human to remain faithful to that order (read Paul and Augustine at their absolute grimmest). Yet, if we look carefully at the most recent installment of the saga, we can see that in no abiding sense does Star Wars derive its structure from the Jewish/Christian story. Indeed, one could go as far as suggesting that it represents a mythic counter narrative to that story.

Take a key element of The Force Awakens, praised by both critics and fans; its subtle mirroring of the landscapes and aesthetics of New Hope. From the barren desert plant to a droid on the run with vital information, we are constantly being drawn back into the world of Episode IV. What does this tell us about the Star Wars universe? Principally, that the cosmos of George Lucas (reimagined by J.J. Abrams) is structurally pagan in the tragic Greek sense. In the experience of these forebears of ours the world and its meaning constituted a closed system, because there was never anything genuinely new. One could never escape an eternal chain of causality; one could only repeat the designs of Fate. What then of history? To the Hellenistic mind, the course of events were always cyclical; with the present always mirroring the past and past always mirroring the future. One achieves consolation in this world not by looking for the new, but rather by harmonizing oneself with the eternal verities of the world. The Jedis are the absolute epitome of this philosophy, so popular in our own era of ‘pop Buddhism’ and Self-Help sages. Here Religiosity involves a Stoical act of surrender to the way ‘things are’ rather than breaking free of anything. This cyclical cosmos is even at work in the film’s chief antagonist and rebel Kylo Ren. His life is not one of self-chosen malevolence, but the outworking of a particular past, namely the temptation and fall of Anakin Skywalker. As Kylo Ren admits himself (while standing before the charred remains of Vader’s mask), “Nothing will stand in our way. I will finish what you started.” Ren is but a pawn in a larger drama. Like the Greek anti-hero, he cannot go beyond the confines of his destiny.

What should be made of this dramatic scheme? While there are doubtless some readings of the Christian story which attempt to link the life and Resurrection of Jesus with some anodyne replay of the past, I think Paul Tillich called it right when he said that Christianity is fundamentally concerned with Christ, the New Being. The central thing about Christian faith (something noted again and again by the Apostle Paul) is that while Christianity is a creature of prophecy, nothing fully predicted God’s work in Jesus. The Messiah as ‘God made flesh’ is a scandal which furthers the mythic reorientation of Israel, first undertaken by the Hebrew prophets. In the deity who paradoxically declares, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” and yet sacrifices Himself- God lays bare his solidarity Israel and the world. Here divine power is revealed not in heroic strength but in the subversion of what is weak and lowly. Thus, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowds are expecting him to follow a prescribed narrative of the Davidic King, yet he manifestly refuses this narrative logic. His parousia is not imperial- it does not seek armies, victories or political mastery. Rather, it seeks to reveal God’s concern for the lives of people trying to survive. The King-Messiah is transformed in the unpredictable hands of Jesus into anointed healer and prophet. Even at his death people were trying to place Jesus in this same narrative box, albeit mockingly, by nailing the notice “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” above his cross. Jesus’ outward failure in the eyes of the world is ultimately one narrative unconformity. The people who cried, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (Jn. 1:46) could extricate themselves from the heroic  tales of old. They could not look beyond the surety of the cynical voice in Ecclesiastes which declares, ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun’ (1.9).

The same people could not understand how such a seemingly powerful figure had allowed himself to be executed, grumbling, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:40). Behind such remarks is doubtless a sense of narrative betrayal. How could it end like this? Humiliation and  desolation were definitely not meant to be part of the plot. This sense of incredulity is preserved in the post-Resurrection scenes of Jesus opening the eyes his disciples to the presence of their Master’s life and death in the Hebrew Scriptures: ‘At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him’ (Jn 12:16). They could not be led there on their own; they needed the shattering presence of Jesus (that utterly New Being) to do it. Yet the narrative scandal of Jesus could never be confined to the world of ancient Palestine, but also  had the potential to transform an entire culture regimented and scared by the story of Rome and her empire. This shattering power is first glimpsed in the Gospel itself. When the Centurion looks up at the dying body of Jesus he breaks through the conventional reading of this man, by declaring, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mk. 15:39). Such a redescription fundamentally challenged the Imperial cosmology of Rome. In the midst of deathless Olympian deities (who were said to delight in their own perfection), a helpless and dying man becomes a perverse figure of theophany. Nothing could be newer, nothing could be stranger. There is nothing like this in the on-screen universe of Star Wars.

Yet if The Force Awakens fails to encapsulate the radical narrative logic of Christianity, it also fails to grasp a truly Christian conception of peace. At its heart the cosmology of the Jedi is Manichean and not Christian. According to the religion of the Force, the world is divided between two equal and opposite forces of light and darkness. We are never given the sense that this is a temporary standoff (awaiting a final liberation) but a permanent reality. All that can be hoped for is a balance of power; an equilibrium of hostile parties in the context of a cyclical cosmos. There is no evidence that the Jedi can finally undo the Sith, nor that the tools of violence can ever be exchanged for those of peace. There is no triumphant Mount Zion in the prophecies of the Jedi. There is no Isaiah, calling for the renunciation of the tools of war. Instead there is the watchword of American democracy: Eternal vigilance. This implicit theme of perpetual violence is given expression not only in the Jedi valorisation of ‘balance’ but in the political goals of The First Order who oppose them. As Kylo Ren notes in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the film:

The task of the First Order [is] to remove the disorder from our own existence, so that civilization may be returned to the stability that promotes progress. A stability that existed under the Empire, was reduced to anarchy by the Rebellion, was inherited in turn by the so-called Republic, and will be restored by us. Future historians will look upon this as the time when a strong hand brought the rule of law back to civilization.

Here, we are offered two options: the ‘balance’ of the Jedi (the administration of democracy by a military aristocracy) or a tyrannical order, where democracy is suspended, but organized violence still remains. In both cases, there is no option to cease the enactment or preparation for war. Indeed, it is the threat of violence which give both the Jedi and the First Order their identity. Nothing could be a greater inversion of the politics of Christianity. At the heart of the Christian revelation is the ultimate triumph of goodness and peace over the forces of war and violence. The cross is the ultimate rebuke to those who would have us believe that peace is established through force. Rather, ultimate peace is always a work of sacrificial love. This is not merely a pleasant platitude for the Christian, but always refers to an ontological reality- what Hauerwas calls ‘the grain of the universe’. Augustine, in his conflict with a dying dualistic paganism, concluded that evil was not a force in its own right, but a deprivation of ultimate good. Such a declaration (although Platonic in garb) was meant to guard the hard won Jewish/Christian claim that creation is good and it is meant for a reign of peace and justice.

When we refuse this reality (replacing it with a stale dualism) we labour under a lie, the fruit of which can only be a kind of  trudging futility. All we can do is fend off the worst, in the hope that some restbite can be established. It is here that the Star Wars offers a mirror into the narrative impoverishment of our own post-Christian culture. It is impoverished because it is deeply conservative. Our tired liberal democracies (wearied and compromised by the last century) now desire balance, if not stasis, at the expense of some of their highest ideals. From the peculiarly termed ‘war on terror’ to the abuses of Guantanamo Bay, our liberal global order is slowly beginning to accept that violence and domination are the unquestioned currencies of both political and social life. The world of Star Wars is a cultural symptom of this general acceptance. The Jedi may be noble yet their commitment to balance does nothing to alter the supremacy of violence. This is rooted in what we might call their spirited liberalism.

Such political minds want to be ‘useful’, ‘humanitarian’, ‘just’ but above all they want to be good rulers. It is this last motive which make both they and liberal Democrats stumble. In their eagerness to run civilized life (to initiate some improvement or social reform) the liberal’s talk of peace takes second place to order. This might be pragmatic, expedient or realistic, but it is not Christian. Indeed as Terry Eagleton has recently noted, ‘the New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship. It is not a ‘civilised’ document at all. It shows no enthusiasm for social consensus. Since it holds that such values are imminently to pass away, it is not greatly taken with standards of civic excellence or codes of good conduct. What it adds to common or garden morality is not some supernatural support but the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities.’  If we want a Republic without the return of violence (some Darth Vader rising from the ashes) we must relinquish all attempts to be conventionally useful or noble-especially if that means any resort to violence.This kind of relinquishment is the first step in understanding what Jesus meant by the Kingdom. His polis does not represent some delicate balance between the light and dark, but as the Creeds put it, belongs to ‘the true God, light of light’.

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