Spoiler Alert: This article discusses plot points from Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I really like Star Wars, and I enjoyed The Force Awakens. With so many repetitions of motifs and storylines from the other movies, it got me thinking about what the movies assume about the nature of good and evil. If we’re going to talk about good and evil in Star Wars though, we first have to deal with the metaphorical elephant in the room: The Force.
Many people, much smarter than I, have analysed the religious influences in Star Wars—particularly in relation to the Force. They generally conclude that it’s a mash-up of mostly Eastern religions. George Lucas has very carefully said that he wasn’t trying to promote any particular belief system, but just wanted to get young people to think about spiritual things in general. So we can’t critique the force as if it represented a particular mainstream religious view.
Chris Sunami does an admirable job of showing that the three primary religious influences on the movies are probably:
- Buddhism; and
He also makes a good case that mashing them up the way Star Wars does makes the whole thing internally inconsistent.1 So I tend to agree with James Harleman’s summary:
Truth be told, “the force” is nothing more than a few proverbs, axioms, and religious ideas—plagiarized from a plethora of sources—sandwiched between battle scenes and special effects; they amount to nothing more than Zen sound bites. One could take the teaching of the Jedi Knights and extrapolate any number of philosophies, using them to reinforce existing religions or to kick-start a new cult. Star Wars philosophy is sparse, vague, and largely undefined.2
So, instead of trying to understand something that doesn’t make sense, let’s look at the moral assumptions this movie makes.
Light and Dark
OK. So ‘moral assumptions’; sounds boring, I know. But it’s more interesting than it sounds. If we ask the right questions we can tell a lot about what the writers and movie makers think: What assumptions does this story make about the way the world works (or ought to work)? What are we, the audience, encouraged to approve or disapprove of? What makes the bad guys bad and the good guys good?
Let’s look at a simple example: The Force Awakens opens with Stormtrooper FN-2187 (Finn) in a moral dilemma. He is ordered to kill innocent villagers, but he clearly feels that this is wrong—and passively disobeys the order. So, the movie assumes that killing innocent villagers is wrong—we the audience are expected to disapprove. Finn is therefore a good guy (at least for the moment).
OK. So that is a stupidly simple example. Assuming that killing innocent villagers is bad isn’t terribly controversial. But it is an assumption nonetheless. What about a bad guy then? Consider Kylo Ren. He’s the one who ordered the killing, so he’s clearly a bad guy. But how did he get that way? What motivates him?
We don’t know in detail what drives Kylo Ren yet, but the movie gives us some interesting clues. For starters, we see him praying to his grandfather’s crushed helmet. So there are definitely some family issues going on. Also, on two occasions we see him express violent rage with his light-sabre—against inanimate objects. Anger management is also an issue for this man. But what is it that makes him really bad?
Again, the movie hasn’t given us all the answers yet, but we can infer some things from what we know of the rest of the Star Wars movies. Kylo Ren is modelling himself after his grandfather, Darth Vader. The prequel trilogy deals with the issue of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader in some detail. Essentially, Anakin wanted more than anything to save his wife and child. And the key phrase there is more than anything. Anakin was willing to do whatever it took to save Padmé. If that involved destroying the entire Jedi order, then he was willing to do it.
So too with Kylo Ren. We don’t know precisely what he wants, but in The Force Awakens we see that it has something to do with finding Luke Skywalker. And, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal, including ordering the slaughter of innocent villagers and… other things.
Labelling the problem
What’s interesting here is that in spite of all the eastern religious influence, Star Wars and the bible give basically the same definition of what makes a person bad—they just use different labels. In the first six movies, the Jedi talk a lot about fear and anger as the path to the dark side. As Yoda puts it in The Phantom Menace:
Fear is the path to the dark side… fear leads to anger… anger leads to hate… hate leads to suffering.3
But where does fear come from? It comes from wanting something and being afraid of not getting it; or having something you want and being afraid of losing it. Someone desires something, and the more passionate the desire, the greater the fear. This is why the Jedi are discouraged from ‘attachment’, as we see from Anakin’s awkward conversation with Padmé:
- Are you allowed to love? I thought that was forbidden for a Jedi.
- Attachment is forbidden. Possession is forbidden. Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is central to a Jedi’s life, so you might say we’re encouraged to love.
At this point, you may be thinking that this talk of attachment and desire sounds a little bit like Buddhism. Wasn’t I trying to argue that this idea about what makes people bad was more like the bible? Well, as I said, it comes down to labels. The bible describes a very similar concept, but because it was written a few thousand years ago, it uses slightly different language.
In the ancient world, when someone wanted something a lot, and they were willing to do whatever it would take, they went and made a sacrifice to an idol. And there were idols, or gods, for just about anything your heart might desire. Money, sex, power, a good harvest… there was a god for each of them. But the idols were just symbols; symbols for the objects of our desire—the things we think will really make us happy.
When most people think of “idols” they have in mind literal statues—or the next pop star anointed by Simon Cowell. Yet while traditional idol worship still occurs in many places in the world, internal idol worship, within the heart, is universal. In Ezekiel 14:3, God says about elders of Israel, “These men have set up idols in their hearts.” Like us, the elders must have responded to this charge, “Idols? What idols? I don’t see any idols.” God was saying that the human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the centre of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfilment, if we attain them.4
Anakin Skywalker wanting to save his wife an child was not a bad thing. But he took a good thing, made it an ultimate thing, and it destroyed him. He turned his love for his wife into an idol. And we see same pattern of idolatory at work in his grandson. Not that Star Wars would ever use those labels, but that is how the story plays out.
We’ve looked at what Star Wars says makes people bad guys, but what makes someone one of the good guys?
Consider Rey, arguably the main character of the movie. What makes her good? One of the first good things we see her do is rescue BB-8 from Teedo. And though she is tempted to simply send BB-8 away, she relents and allows the droid to stay with her. The very next day she is tempted again—this time to sell BB-8 for food. 60 portions she is offered, when we recently saw how hard she had to work for even a quarter portion. She shows both compassion and moral strength in resisting the temptation.
Condider also Finn, the storm trooper who helps Poe Dameron escape from the the First Order’s Finalizer starship. He chooses to leave everything he’s ever known and help a resistance fighter he’s never met. This is an act of great moral courage.
Like Rey, Finn is tempted. Unlike Rey, he even briefly succumbs, when he starts to leave Maz Kanata’s castle, headed for the outer rim. But he (literally) repents at the first hint that Rey might be in danger.
So we have compassion, resisting temptation and moral courage characterising the good guys. And if you’re thinking that sounds a lot like Christianity, you’d be half right. Christians are indeed keen on compassion and resisting temptation and moral courage. But, if you understand Christianity, then you know that all these things are side effects—by-products of a much more profund change. But more on that in a moment.
While we’ve seen that Star Wars frames the issue of what makes a person evil in similar ways to Christianity, Star Wars doesn’t really give us a solution. The advice that the Jedi give both Anakin and later Luke—if you’re not so attached to your loved ones it will hurt less when they die—fails utterly. With Anakin it ends in him becoming Darth Vader, and Luke simply ignores the advice and takes a different path.5
What answer does Christianity give then? What does one do to become one of the good guys? We said earlier that what makes a person go bad is that they take a good thing and make it an ultimate thing. The problem is desire. That willingness to sacrifice just about anything to get what we want. Interestingly, the solution Christianity offers is not to try and want things less (by avoiding attachment), but instead to replace the object of desire with something infinitely better—the thing our hearts were designed for all along. As C. S. Lewis puts it:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.6
Jesus tells two short parables on the same theme, explaining that if you truly understand what God is offering, then you will be willing to give up just about anything for it, and be happy about the trade:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. when he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had, and bought it.7
When God is our treasure—our heart’s desire—then no other thing, good or evil, can gain mastery over us. We become free. And what’s more, God calls us not to love other things less (like a spouse or a child or a job), but rather to love them selflessly, without the neediness and desperation that comes with making something an idol. God is all about more love, not less.
But someone might be reading this and thinking “That’s all well and good, but if I’m honest, the idea of making God my treasure doesn’t actually seem all that exciting or amazing. In fact, what you’re describing sounds kind of boring and tedious; perhaps even impossible.” And that’s a fair point. But the reason we feel that way is because most of us unwittingly absorb a whole lot of (false) assumptions about God when we are children that we never re-examine as adults. We imagine that what God wants is for us to follow a whole bunch of seemingly arbitrary rules that suck the fun and spontaneity out of life. We imagine that what God really wants is for us to be permanently miserable and bored—like a petty school teacher in love with his own power. But the God of the bible is nothing like that. That is not what Christianity is about.
What Christianity offers is more than just list of rules. It offers the fulfilment of what your heart was designed to long for. Not a belief system but a person: Jesus. Jesus—God himself—desired something more than anything. He desired us. And he was willing to sacrifice whatever it took to have us. If that meant becoming human solely so that he could die in our place, he loved us enough to do it. We—you and I—were the thing Jesus wanted more than anything, and he went to the cross so he could have us.
We mentioned earlier that good deeds are only a side-effect for Christians. Most belief systems assume that in order to please God or reach enlightenment or go to heaven, one must obey the rules and perform good deeds; and one day, if you persist long enough, you might be found worthy. Christians, on the other hand, believe that Jesus already did all the good deeds on our behalf. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died. We don’t have to do anything in order to be found worthy. We already are because of what he did. So we do good deeds, not because we have to, but because they’re the kinds of things he would like. Because he’s what we really want.
God doesn’t promise that walking this path will be easy or simple, but he does promise that it will be worth it. And he also promises that he will be with us every step of the way. Star Wars is a great story, and just because it’s kind of confused about religion, doesn’t mean that it can’t point us to a greater story with a greater hero. And finding the Hero that our hearts secretly long for is exactly what we need.
Chris Sunami (2015) Jedi Philosophy ↩︎
James Harleman (2012) Theology, FORCEd ↩︎
Timothy Keller (2009), Counterfeit Gods, Hodder and Stoughton, London, p. xiv. ↩︎
James Harleman does a great job of discussing this in Star Wars: The Skywalker Legacy. ↩︎
C. S. Lewis (1949), The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses (2001 reprint), Harper Collins, New York, p. 26. ↩︎
Mathew 13:44–47, HCSB. ↩︎