“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28
SPOILERS BELOW FOR STAR WARS EPISODE 9: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER
My favorite moment in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker comes just after Rey has healed Kylo Ren on the wreckage of the second Death Star. Kylo, briefly distracted by the sound of hearing his mother reach out to him in the force one last time before her death, is dealt a fatal blow from Rey with his own lightsaber. Regretting this momentary lapse into rage, she heals him and leaves him on the wreckage. Shortly after, Kylo Ren looks behind him and sees a vision of his father Han Solo. He says he’s afraid he can’t turn back to his former self because he’s gone too far and yet Han Solo tells him he can. They still love him despite what he’s done. In this scene, Kylo Ren dies and Ben Solo is reborn. The father forgives him and awards him a new life. From here on out, Ben is the Jedi who always should’ve been. Rey freely gifts him his grandfather’s lightsaber that he’s demanded in the previous two movies and he stands up to the Emperor and the Knights of Ren as a Jedi. It’s a beautiful scene in a movie that’s otherwise quite confused about how to approach the characters setup in the previous two films.
Part of what makes it interesting though to me is just what it suggests about the nature of good and evil. There are a lot of intuitive assumptions that back up the ideas presented in the entire nine film Saga that inform this moment of redemption. Some of them are explored in the new trilogy, but they go back as far as the first film in 1977. There’s a motif in the Star Wars films that suggests that evil is essentially a disingenuous performative act. Evil is a mask you wear to cover up your true self. People are inherently good. This mask of evil must be maintained by a constant outpouring evil and cruelness. In this view of humanity, you harden your heart to maintain your status. You see this idea pop up frequently in different Star Wars media. Characters visually cover themselves and embrace their masks as a symbol of who they’ve chosen to be.
Starting with a recent example in The Mandalorian, Mando reforges his armor using the money he made selling an orphaned alien child to the Empire and ignores his feelings to try and convince himself that he doesn’t regret his actions. His identity as a hard-bitten bounty hunter warrior in this scenario overrides his identity as an orphan himself and a protector of the innocent. He metaphorically buries his emotions under his identity. This forced cruelty ends up being something he can’t maintain when faced with the memory of the innocent child he’s left behind. The façade melts away and he changes his mind.
The Sith Lords are another obvious example of this. They mutilate their bodies through the manipulation of the force to make it reflect the soul within. Often their bodies are so destroyed that they’re literally only being maintained physically by their sheer hatred and cruelty. Darth Maul tattoos his body in black tatoos. Darth Nihilis in Knights of the Old Republic II is literally a corpse held together by hatred. Darth Sidious is connected to the Dark side so deeply that he can maintain his soul after death and possess other living beings.
Darth Vader is naturally the most pure example of this. In the confrontation between Ahsoka Tano and Darth Vader in Star Wars: Rebels, Vader’s mask is briefly broken and Anakin’s personality briefly resurfaces before Darth Vader’s voice returns. Being in the presence of his former apprentice during the Clone Wars briefly cuts through the layers of the evil identity he formed for himself. This brief, cutting moment ultimately isn’t enough to break that identity as a Sith Lord, and he affirms his status as Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker is dead to him. This moment mirrors the final reveal of Return of the Jedi in the final moments of Luke removing Vader’s mask. Darth Vader sacrifices himself and Anakin Skywalker is redeemed in his dying moments. This is expressed visually by the peeling off of the layers of Vader’s suit to reveal the fragile, broken man that’s long suffered underneath. Luke Skywalker resurrects the soul of Anakin Skywalker and then metaphorically frees him from the bondage of Darth Vader one time before his death.
At its face, this isn’t a biblically great view of evil. It’s lovely to believe that humans are good at the end of the day but it’s sadly not true. It’s contradictory to the Bible’s notion of the fallen state of humanity. The Book of Genesis establishes man as a fallen creature, doomed to repeat the sins of his father until the end of time. We are banished from paradise because of our nature and our choices to live separately from God. We are only saved from that fallen nature by the decision to give our hearts to God and live out our lives accordingly with abandon. We do not ultimately conquer evil, we’re rescued from it.
Star Wars as a whole was born of George Lucas’ hodgepodge of contradictory philosophies and influences. There are A LOT of ideas in Star Wars that don’t actually make sense within the logic of the story or in a theological sense. For one, “Bringing Balance to the Force” seems to consist entirely of wiping out all of the potential force users who use the Dark Side of the Force. If it were balanced in a Taoist sense, there would be an equal usage of the light side and the dark side in the galaxy. In some ways, it’s really a more Calvinist sense of morality that suggests that brushing up against evil in any way is dirtying and will only serve to drag you into sin. In that sense, most of Star Wars’ moral foundations are ultimately born of Lucas’ very specific and radical intuitive assumptions about the nature of morality. He’s radically anti-authoritarian to the point where he fears ANY level of militarization, corporatism or corruption. He’s radically skeptical of money and corporate influence (although not necessarily the money he earned for himself). To George, these things all carry with them the implicit threat of corruption and power. Counter intuitively, he seems to carry the assumption in his heart that people are ultimately good. Luke Skywalker nearly dies to prove it. This notion is about as far from Calvinism’s assumptions about the depraved nature of humanity as you can get. I guess that’s the kind of theological snag you can develop when you self-identify as a Buddhist-Methodist. Lucas is ultimately quite a morally compromised and hypocritical man in many areas of his life (namely financially), but it was clear his life was ultimately driven by a great hope for ultimate redemption.
Star Wars is a story of good people ultimately becoming who they were meant to be. That’s why Kylo Ren’s “Tempted by the Light” story arc is so utterly fascinating in light of the rest of the story of Star Wars. He’s a dark side user who goes farther out of his way than anyone else to prove that he’s capable of embracing the dark, and yet the act of embracing it throws his soul into chaos. Ben Solo choosing Kylo Ren as an identity was ultimately an act of adolescent rejection. His master betrayed him and he crossed the line to spite them. Truly though, he never stopped wanting to be a good man.
While the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy questions whether or not it’s possible to break the great cycles of history, the story ultimately seems to resign itself that life comes with an inevitability. The Empire is reborn as the First Order and the Sith will rise again. This was also true in the Prequel trilogy. As George Lucas once put it, “It’s like poetry so it rhymes”. If we get sequels and spin-offs in the future with Rey, she’s going to have to deal with the dark side all over again. Like us, these characters are in some ways doomed to repeat the same cycles of lightness and darkness forever because that’s the nature of our fallen world. The cycle of good and evil is one we must eternally wrestle with for the sake of our own souls. What matters most is how we grapple with the temptation to lose our souls.
Though this view of people isn’t in itself Biblically accurate, Ben Solo’s redemption in The Rise of Skywalker does brings to light one of the most important lessons of the Christian journey: a Christian must make an affirmative stance for God and flee from the evil that tempts us.
“And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” -Matthew 5:30
Ben’s redemption calls to mind the famous scene near the beginning of The Pilgrim’s Progress—one of the greatest books ever written on the Christian life. The lead character, Pilgrim, realizes through a revelation that he is carrying a massive burden on his back and he’s only capable of being freed from it when he dedicates himself to his journey. Eventually, that burden falls from his shoulders and he’s renewed. From that point forward, Pilgrim is capable of making his journey to his true home in paradise. God has an ideal vision for who we are all supposed to be. He wants his children to be obedient because he wants what is best for us. Like the Prodigal son, we will waste our lives and flee from the presence of our fathers. Thankfully, the love of the father is endless. His grace and forgiveness are always welcome to those who relieve their burdens and flee from them.
In the film, that moment is symbolized by the rejection of the symbol of his identity as Kylo Ren. The red, burning lightsaber he built to represent his new identity in the Dark Side was an extension of his broken emotional state. It was unfocused and burned at the edges, reflecting the rage within himself. Ben Solo can only exist when everything that his lightsaber represents is cast far from him. The moment he throws it into the Endor moon’s ocean, he is reborn.
While we are born fallen, we all carry the internal God-shaped-hole in our hearts that draws us back to the light. While it’s wrong to say that people are ultimately good, such a radical depiction of the act of redemption and forgiveness is ultimately the most Christian thing about Star Wars. Ben Solo chose to give up the Dark Side and embrace his true destiny. For this, he was rewarded with love, forgiveness and the legacy he always deserved to embrace. In that way, evil is quite performative. We flee from goodness for selfish reasons and spite the Lord gleefully. Like a child, we swear and scream at our parents because we’re petulant and angry. We form identities in our sin and drown ourselves in this world. There is only freedom for us in forgiveness. We can only achieve salvation through an active decision to flee from evil. Thankfully, when we choose to run back to the Lord he will embrace us with open arms.