I wrote this shortly after seeing The Last Jedi in theaters at the end of 2017. I’m re-posting it as it initially ran, without adjusting the initial paragraph to reflect the change in time. But everything else should be fine.
It took me long enough–well longer than it took some fellow fans– but I was finally able to see The Last Jedi. I definitely enjoyed it (I still prefer The Force Awakens amongst the new films and would still put all the original trilogy above it too) and would highly recommend it to anyone. What stood out to me is something that I’ve noticed throughout all these films (and something that I’m not alone in noticing). Namely that there was an element to The Last Jedi that is decidedly Christian and, more specifically, Catholic.
Because I’m going to be getting into things that are spoiler-y, I will put the warning here that if you have not seen The Last Jedi you shouldn’t continue reading this.
Also, I’ll put a break here and if you’d like to read more and you’ve seen The Last Jedi, you should continue.
A mystical body, more than just texts and space
One thing running throughout The Last Jedi is an engagement with the past, myths and narratives, and our occasional need to cast those things off or resist them. Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo puts this very succinctly (and Futurist-y).
Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.
But this notion of rejecting the past and the old ways also applies to Luke Skywalker as well. At one point, Luke says to Rey that “it’s time for the Jedi Order to end.” Later, in a moment of great regret and pain at what all things Jedi have led to, Luke brings a torch to the room where he kept the remaining Jedi texts to destroy them. But he doesn’t, stopping short of doing it, but the Force ghost/apparition of Yoda appears and creates a lightning bolt that does the job.
As it burns, Yoda makes the point that the Jedi are not contained in just those books and structures. Despite the failings of the Jedi and this Jedi (Luke) in particular, their ways will live on because there are those, like Rey, who strive to better understand the Force. Yoda says “we are what they grow beyond,” referring to those who study the ways of the Jedi and the Force. Things will go on and progress, but they cannot be contained by the strictures and structures that form an order.
As I see this, it connects to elements of the Catholic Church and its teachings, particularly ones emphasized in the Second Vatican Council, that the Church is the people of God, the mystical Body of Christ. A passage from scripture also comes to mind, specifically Matthew 18:20, in which Jesus says “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
The ending of the film, which shows a young boy who had an encounter with Finn and Rose and the Resistance playing out the legend of Luke Skywalker before being shooed away, only to look up to the night sky to gaze out into the stars, connects to this idea of those myths (and structures) serving some purpose. There is the reality of the person of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi and then there is the legend (a term that was first used in conjunction with the lives of saints) of those things that can inspire.
The saints of the Catholic Church were by no means perfect (Peter, the rock upon which the Church is founded, is perhaps the greatest example of this) but their lives and stories inspire us to be better. The film depicts that tension that exists between the two but it gives us the best of both elements, the imperfectly human and the inspirationally legendary.
Another thing that comes up in the film, which directly relates to my initial point, is that idea that institutions quite often let us down and are imperfect. But even though those institutions do not always do as well as they could, it does not and should not devalue what they stand for. This is true for both the Jedi and, I would argue, the Church.
When talking with Rey, Luke says “The legacy of The Jedi is failure, hypocrisy, hubris.” And that is true in the sense that Luke mentions–they were unable to stop the rise of the emperor and the destruction that Darth Vader wrought.
One could certainly apply those same descriptors to the Catholic Church. They have, in many ways, failed those they would serve or fallen behind in the world. There have certainly been elements of hypocrisy and an overreaching pride that has led the Church to make some poor decisions.
But through all these faults, and because the Church is not just its building and institutions, the goodness that it brings into the world and the truth to which it bears witness rings through. In the end, I would argue, that is what Luke sees the Jedi and the Jedi. Though that has been their legacy, one of failure, it still has the greatest capacity for doing good. In that regard, I profoundly disagree with this article that says
“The Jedi order claim to be righteous, but fail to hold up their end of the bargain […] The Force is changed in a lot of ways, from the powers it grants people to how it works, but most importantly, it’s finally freed of its connections with religious orders and old texts. It’s freed of the Jedi, who interpreted it so strictly that it resulted in the fall of the Republic, and it was abused by the Sith, who only wanted its raw power.”
The notion that “Yoda understands this, which is why he tells Luke that it’s okay to be imperfect, to have some dark side tendencies” sort of misses the mark. While Yoda is acknowledging that failure is a part of existence, even for a Jedi, that does not equate with an acceptance of “dark side tendencies.” Rather, what it allows for is the possibility of forgiveness and mercy, ideas very important to Catholicism and stressed under the papacy of Francis. Here I want to refer to an article with which I was much more in line from the Jesuit-run America: “His journey in the film is not to once again forgive another but the much harder journey of facing his own past choices and trying to forgive himself.” Institutions are imperfect, and those who populate them are imperfect, but we must remain open to that possibility of mercy and forgiveness because of the possibility of a greater spirit with which we are connected.
I also think the failure of Luke in training Ben/Kylo, his distrust of the power he felt in him and that it pushed him towards the Dark Side, mirrors how some can unfortunately be lead or driven away from the Church because those in the church take the wrong attitude. Again, I have an eye towards Pope Francis’ teachings and proclamations that stress the pastoral and healing work that the Church must undertake. The Church must be open and receptive to all, bringing in and caring for rather than pushing away. In The Last Jedi, Luke sees that overwhelming power and potential in Ben/Kylo and, because of his fear, pushes him away (to the point of considering killing him). Just as some in the Church itself have not understood their pastoral obligation, Luke turns away from this responsibility relative to Ben/Kylo and it ends up hurting them both.
I’m nobody, who are you?
Another thing I am not the first to acknowledge is that The Last Jedi brings a certain populist streak to the Star Wars mythos. Beyond characters like Rose, who is a mechanic for the Resistance, and Finn, a former Stormtrooper turned Resistance member, the characters in the film feel more grounded (or as grounded as a character can be in a space opera).
But this is most prevalent in the character of Rey. Because her origins and background were left so unexplained in The Force Awakens, everyone was left wondering who Rey was, who her parents were, why was she someone who was Force-sensitive. The mystery is kept until Kylo Ren has her confront the repressed memory, that she knows exactly who her parents were, namely junk traders who sold her off. Kylo then says to Rey, “You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You are nothing,” ending by saying “But not to me” as a way of enticing Rey to co-rule the galaxy after Kylo killed Supreme Leader Snoke. Kylo says, “It’s time to let old things die. Snoke, Skywalker, The Sith, Rebels – Let it all die, Rey. I want you to join me. We can rule together and bring a new order to the galaxy.”
However, while Kylo Ren wants to build something new, it is still in the mode of the Empire, and of Snoke, that which would “rule” and “bring a new order to the galaxy,” harkening back to what Darth Vader said to Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back. Because she can see this, she rejects him and continues to fight against him and what he stands for.
However, this linking of Rey and nothing, or nothing special/important, does not actually begin with that moment late in the film. We get it from Rey’s first encounter with Luke.
Luke Skywalker: Where are you from?
Luke: No one’s from nowhere.
Luke: All right, that pretty much is nowhere. Why are you here, Rey from nowhere?
While Luke acknowledges that Rey is from “pretty much […] nowhere,” there is still an acknowledgement that she is someone. That struck me as very much in accordance with the more liberation-minded theology of the Church. In societies that are so geared around the rich and powerful (even more than the one in which we all live), what Christianity can offer to someone who is at the very bottom is the knowledge that they are still loved by God. This is why countries organized in a feudal way tried to prevent Christianity from taking hold (I’m thinking of seventeenth-century Japan in particular as depicted in Shusaku Endo’s Silence).
Because those in power want to maintain their power and all that goes along with it, a power supported through the subjugation of those beneath them, they try to keep out anything that allows those on the margins to realize their significance and importance. That is what makes Christianity such a radical idea for a religion. God born as a man to humble workers, who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, who promises that the meek shall inherit the earth and the poor in spirit shall have the kingdom of Heaven, who is killed in a most horrific way? This speaks much more to the marginalized and forgotten rather than the triumphant and worldly powerful.
This also comes out when Luke and Rey start talking about the Force. This is how the bulk of their initial discussion goes:
Rey: It’s a power the Jedi have that lets them control people and… make things float.
Luke: Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong.
Luke: Breathe. Just breathe. Reach out with your feelings. What do you see?
Rey: The island. Life. Death and decay, that feeds new life. Warmth. Cold. Peace. Violence.
Luke: And between it all?
Rey: Balance. An energy. A Force.
Luke: And inside you?
Rey: Inside me, that same Force.
Luke helps Rey in her better understanding of what the Force is and what it does. But after this, Luke says “The Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies, is vanity.”
This ties together these three ideas I’ve been discussing. It is saying that, just as the Catholic Church subsists in the larger church in which we are all members, the Force is available to and can be sensed by even those who are not Jedi. It also relates to the ideas that the Church is not the forms and structures but those who make it up, something mystical and not necessarily physical. In many ways, the Jedi are like the Catholic priesthood, who play a very specific role within the faith but who do not have some kind of monopoly on holiness as the laity play an enormous role in the Church as well.
In the final part of the film, we see Luke Skywalker finally confronting his failed student, Kylo Ren. Kylo first orders all of the Imperial walkers marching toward the stronghold where the remaining Resistance members are hiding to fire on Luke, who has come out alone. When the barrage of laser bolts does not destroy Luke (he emerges unscathed), Kylo comes down to fight and finally destroy Luke. They have the following exchange:
Kylo: I’m sure you are! The Resistance is dead! The war is over! And when I kill you, I will have killed the last Jedi!
Luke: Amazing. Every word of what you just said was wrong. The Rebellion is reborn today. The war is just beginning. And I will not be the last Jedi.
The two engage in lightsaber combat before Kylo strikes Luke, only to find that his blows have done no damage. It turns out that Luke was actually there as a Force apparition, as he is still on his island hermitage, and that this plan allowed Rey, Leia, Poe Dameron, and the rest of the Resistance to escape. When Kylo realizes this, Luke’s apparition vanishes and the real Luke, having used up the last of his energy, dies and is assumed into the Force, disappearing. Rey describes feeling this happen, but that it is not something that was painful or sad but was with “peace and purpose.”
Luke has done what the Christian martyrs did, he giving his life to bear witness to the things he believes. He did not do so carelessly and recklessly (not literally “going to walk out with a laser sword and take down the whole First Order”) but rather doing so in a way that makes the sacrifice of his life a worthwhile testament to his belief. It is perhaps the Star Wars universe-equivalent of the beatific vision that Luke receives as his life force is given up, with the double sunset occurring before his eyes that recalls one of the first moments with the character in A New Hope. The Jedi will live on because they will move forward, progress, learn from failures, while bearing a witness to the most important truths that go beyond or outside of strictures and dogmas.
OK, if we’re being perfectly honest I could continue discussing these things but I feel as those I’ve rambled on for long enough. But what I feel like The Last Jedi did for the Jedi Order was to provide it with its aggiornamento, its Second Vatican Council. There were changes that needed to be made, failures to be learned from and progress that needed to happen for the Jedi. But those changes and corrections did not change the most essential and lasting truths. Rather, it made those things more resonant and better able to be felt. The Last Jedi does push back against tradition and the past, both in its narrative and how the film was directed and written, but it does not throw it all away. The Jedi, like the Church after the Second Vatican Council, are now clearly the pilgrims, moving forward, in the world, but always striving towards the good and the light.