With all the hoopla surrounding the new Star Wars trilogy, I’ve fallen back into an old habit that once came quite naturally: navigating towering expectations and crackpot speculation about the future of the galaxy far, far away. Some people are partying like it’s 1999 again, others are still nursing the hangover the prequels left - me, I’m hanging out somewhere in between, in the land of Cautious Optimism.
It’s been fun to find the discussion fresh again. Star Wars was my first geek-love and remains my greatest. Whenever I see people talking about the finer points of my favorite modern mythology, I can’t help jumping in with both feet.
Which brings me to the point of this post: while browsing yet another dime-a-dozen article about Episode VII, I came across some interesting comments on the “questionable ethics” of Vader’s redemption story. This is a topic I’ve seen brought up before, but for some reason, it really struck me this time… maybe because I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about justice/mercy/”what people deserve” lately. You can blame The Killer’s Tears by Anne Laure-Bondoux for exacerbating the situation.
As far as I can see, the argument against Vader’s redemption can be boiled down to the following points:
- Protecting your son doesn’t redeem you for murdering other people’s children.
- Anakin’s actions in the prequels – slaughtering the Sand People (including women and children), killing the Younglings, choking Padmé – make it impossible to believe that Anakin is a character worth saving.
- Luke should have been the Chosen One, not Anakin.*
* (Soon after the release of the prequels, some fans speculated that it was Luke who really fulfilled the task of bringing balance to the Force, since Anakin had clearly failed as the Chosen One. When Lucas stated unequivocally that Anakin is indeed the Chosen One, and restored balance by destroying the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, some fans were upset. In fact, some people still insist that Luke is the real Chosen One.)
The general complaint underlying all these points is that Anakin has one too many murderous deeds, abuses, and abject failures staining his soul to ever be redeemed. After all, chucking the Emperor down a bottomless shaft is just too simple. It doesn’t give him the right to join Ben and Yoda as a shimmery Force-ghost, and it doesn’t absolve him of the countless lives he took as Vader.
Well, no. It doesn’t. If we’re seeing things through the lens of pure justice, Vader is damned through and through.
But let’s unpack that a bit.
Vader knows he’s damned. It’s for this reason alone he remains loyal to the Emperor all those years. His life as a Sith – with less than half a rotting body inside of a life-support machine, in service to the man who took everything from him – is pretty clearly his own personal hell. Even back before the prequels came out, Vader always struck me as a guy consciously accepting and living out that penance. He doesn’t believe in the possibility of his own redemption, which is why he resists the very mention of it when Luke keeps insisting: “There is good in you.”
Ben and Yoda also resist Luke’s foolhardy idea that something human might remain deep inside of Vader. They tell him to squash that notion, essentially saying: “Too bad, you’re gonna have to kill your dad. Just pretend he really died years ago, because you know – he did, from a certain point of view.“ Everyone is against Luke on this.
Luke is the only agent of mercy in the story at this point. Everyone else wants justice.
When we read about people committing horrible crimes – especially when they do so chronically – we often say: “They’ve lost their humanity” or “They’re dead inside.” We say that because remorse and empathy are considered such basic, elemental human traits (setting aside the unique issue of sociopathy for the moment, which is a whole other ball of yarn). And I’d agree: I think the worst criminals of the world have killed off what’s human inside of them, or else buried it so deep it can’t see the light of day anymore. Like Voldemort, who sliced his soul into seven different pieces (literally), they have made themselves nothing more than a shrinking, sniveling, pathetic creature at King’s Cross station.
But does that always have to be the end of their story? More to the point: do we want that to be the end of every pathetic person’s story?
Yeah. Sometimes, we do. I know I certainly do when I’m faced with the awful things going on in the world. But I’d argue that’s a fault, not a virtue. What good does it do us when yet another person is destroyed with no hope of redemption?
In The Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis’s fictional depiction of the afterlife – the gates of Heaven are always open. The residents of Hell are tourists who frequently visit the outskirts of Heaven, but find it distasteful for a variety of reasons. Many of them end up leaving. Some hang around and talk with the Spirits there, who try to convince them to stay.
In one scene, a ‘tourist’ recognizes someone he knew as a murderer in life, but is now a redeemed Spirit living in Heaven. Indignantly, the man tells him: “If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that’s their look out. But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I?… I may be only a poor man, but I’m not making pals with a murderer.” He ends up leaving Heaven in a huff.
The truth is, that’s how most of us see things. It’s scandalous to suggest otherwise: to say that even if a person doesn’t deserve redemption at all, they can be redeemed anyway. Grace is scandalous.
Mercy often makes us angry.
Luke saw the seed of good in Vader and insisted on drawing it out. He refused to believe it was gone, even when everyone else was telling him otherwise. His love for his father eventually re-awakened Vader’s own love for his son. When Vader kills the Emperor, it’s not an action borne of some hope of absolution. He doesn’t believe that’s possible. It’s a knee-jerk reaction because he doesn’t want to see his son die.
For this single act of love, the Force grants him wholeness.
This is where some people scoff. It shouldn’t be that easy. But what do we mean by that? When we say mercy is “too easy,” are we saying that love isn’t the most powerful force in the universe? That love is incapable of overcoming hatred and every other destructive force in the world?
I don’t believe that.
Luke’s compassion literally saves the galaxy. It is Luke’s belief in his father’s lingering humanity that makes him such a hero in my eyes – one for the ages. Because would I hold fast to that conviction when faced with someone who has inflicted pain and death on so many others? I don’t know. I can’t answer that honestly.
Of course, Luke nearly lets go of his stubborn insistence on his father’s goodness. When Vader threatens Leia, he loses it – which makes the Emperor quite happy, since hate is the bread and butter of the Dark Side. But once Luke has Vader at his mercy, the light switches back on again, and he realizes he’s at risk of becoming just like him: the vision in the Dagobah cave made real.
Even his righteous fury as an agent of justice cannot change the fact that he’s about to make himself a killer. Even though his deed would be entirely justified in the eyes of the Rebellion (and maybe even his own), it would not change the fact that:
To love righteousness is to make it grow, not to avenge it.
Luke looks down at the pathetic creature in front of him and decides: it doesn’t matter what Vader deserves. He tells the Emperor quite flatly that he’s failed. Love is more powerful than hate, he decides. Mercy more powerful than justice.
And that’s what changes his father.
Not every person reacts to mercy in the same way. Some of them will continue to hurt and abuse and kill because they literally know nothing else; they can no longer recognize goodness in themselves and in others. The world is nothing but darkness to them.
But what about the ones who regret their evil, but stay enslaved to it out of a conviction that they’re beyond hope? What about the ones who recognize the light in the world but believe it’s no longer for them? How does it help us to tell them they’re right?
I think the moment we stop wanting grace and restoration for others – no matter what they’ve done – is the moment our justice becomes unbalanced and our love becomes conditional. Others may disagree, but I don’t think conditional love should be our goal in life.
Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way:
Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says: “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals… just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.
There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.
So love your enemies.
(That man knew what he was talking about.)