“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together,” says Obi-Wan Kenobi, in A New Hope.
In The Force Awakens, Han Solo reflects, “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light? Crazy thing is, it’s true. The Force, the Jedi – all of it. It’s all true.”
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, we are told that Luke Skywalker, the heroic Jedi who defeated the evil Galactic Empire, has vanished. “The sinister First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire” to rule the galaxy through oppression and terror. And the Resistance, now led by General Leia, must find Luke if they have any chance of defeating The First Order, because “without the Jedi, there can be no balance in The Force.” But what exactly is The Force, and what would the galaxy look like if this balance were achieved?
There are many revelations of the nature of The Force that we are given throughout the eight films that comprise the Star Wars canon thus far. And taken together, amidst the wisdom of many other characters, Obi-Wan and Han’s words reveal that this story is not merely an epic contest between good and evil. There is some deeper power at work: one that “binds the galaxy together,” one that is magically “holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light.”
However, time and again, the Jedi philosophy of seeking to live in harmonious balance with the nature of the universe is secretly subverted and sabotaged throughout the major story arcs and conflicts between the characters. It proves to be a philosophy that is self-defeating and simply unliveable in the face of the serious challenges posed by the Dark Side of The Force and those who wield it. If you look closely at the stories throughout the saga, you will begin to see the fatal flaw in the philosophy of The Force. You will also see a deeper truth emerge, one that is often suppressed by our postmodern culture: there really is a war that is raging between good and evil in our galaxy.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: The Force is awesome. It can lift rocks and spaceships. It can manipulate the minds of others so that you can escape unwanted attention or – if you’re in touch with the Dark Side – discover information that someone would not have given up willingly. It can guide your proton torpedoes better than any targeting computer. It can communicate telepathically with others who are in touch with The Force and it can empower you to become an incredible warrior with a lightsaber. Apparently, it can even save your life if you’ve been sucked out into the vacuum of space. But the discovery of these powers, having them awaken within you, can be a confusing, intimidating and sometimes even terrifying process.
Consider Luke Skywalker’s training of Rey on the hidden, ancient island temple of the Jedi. Luke tries to help Rey comprehend the nature of The Force by encouraging her to reach out with her feelings into her surroundings. In a moment of insight, Rey sees “the island, life, death and decay…that feeds new life. Warmth, cold, peace, violence…” And between it all, she senses “balance and energy: a force” – and inside her, she feels that same force. However, she also senses a place beneath the island, a dark place. Responding to the fear and tension in her voice, Luke identifies that she is merely encountering the other side of balance: with powerful light comes powerful darkness. Suddenly, the narrative takes a dramatic shift. As she feels drawn to the darkness which is calling out to her, Luke frantically encourages her to resist that dark power. We see the potentially catastrophic effects of embracing the darkness as deep cracks fracture the rock she sits on, boulders crash down from the cliff behind her and smaller stones levitate in the air. When she finally breaks free, Luke recoils from her, horrified: “You went straight to the dark… It offered something you needed, and you didn’t even try to stop yourself.” But if The Force was truly about seeking balance, why should Luke and the other Jedi Masters be so vigilant about living in the Light and be so afraid of exploring the Dark Side of The Force? Why should Rey fear a dark place she believed was “trying to show [her] something?” What is Rey to make of this Jedi religion that seems to be at war with itself?
The fatal flaw in the philosophy of The Force lies here: there is both a claim that a powerful life-force is guiding the universe towards some sort of cosmic balance and a competing claim that there are morally right or morally wrong choices that the characters face when they interact with that Force, which are not based on balance. We know, intuitively, that it is wrong to “give in to your anger… [and] let the hate flow through you,” and that Emperor Palpatine’s appeal to Luke to kill his own father as he kneels, defenseless and defeated, should be resisted. We believe that it is right and admirable that Luke stands up to the Emperor and refuses to become his father’s executioner. And we see Darth Vader’s choice to rescue his son from the cruel, torturous death that Palpatine has designed for Luke as an incredible redemption story.
The philosophy of The Force, that the way of the Jedi is all about balance, that they are trying to live in harmony with both darkness and light, is conveniently forgotten when push comes to shove. Because we don’t want an equal amount of darkness and light to coexist in the universe. We want the light to triumph over the darkness. And the darkness certainly wants to snuff out all of the light. When Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star, he is not merely providing the galaxy with A New Hope that the rebellion can maintain their resistance to the evil Galactic Empire in an endless, but balanced, struggle. He is giving them hope that one day they may actually defeat the darkness, liberating the galaxy from tyranny and oppression. And what do we hear of Darth Vader’s intentions when he and Luke battle on Cloud City? “Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.” It’s all about sovereignty and subjugation – there is no thought of balance given by either side.
I discovered a rather amusing example of fan criticism of this inherent contradiction in the form of an internet meme. The still frames of the meme are a mashup of Obi-Wan’s heart-breaking lament at the end of Revenge of the Sith and an imagined response from Darth Vader which completely overthrows the foundations of Obi-Wan’s despair. In Revenge of the Sith, after an epic lightsaber battle, Anakin Skywalker lays defeated and limbless at Obi-Wan’s feet. Obi-Wan cries out to him, “You were the chosen one! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to The Force, not leave it in darkness!” The next frame of the meme reveals Anakin as Darth Vader, responding, “I am bringing balance to The Force, Obi-Wan. It was heavily unbalanced towards the good side till I showed up.” That response strikes at the core of all that we know to be good and true in this world, exposing the masquerade of balance for the false messiah that it is. The war between the Jedi and the Sith has never been about balance. Choosing the Dark Side is never portrayed as a neutral option, as one would expect if Light and Dark were truly working together in harmonious balance. To choose the Dark Side is to become the villain, for the struggle between Light and Dark has always been primarily a cosmic battle between good and evil. It’s not enough for evil to have met its match, for the Resistance to keep the First Order at bay. At its core, beneath its complicated and contradictory philosophies, the Star Wars saga reflects the truth of our hearts’ desires for redemption, for restoration, and ultimately, for victory over the powers of darkness.
For when we look at the world around us and consider the history of humanity, we are keenly aware that we are in the midst of a story of marvelous light fighting against terrible darkness. There is indeed a supernatural Power that is responsible for the energy and the life that animates all things, one who is magically sustaining the universe. Opposing that Power is one who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour,” and we are called to “resist him” (1 Peter 5:8-9). The apostle Paul exhorts us to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” As a Christian, you must “put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:10-12).
Because the heart of the Star Wars story is beautifully imbalanced, we can rejoice when the Light expels the Darkness. Our heroes – Luke and Rey – are not willing to accept that their enemies – Darth Vader and Kylo Ren – are pure evil, consigned to be agents of powerful darkness by a Force that is attempting to balance the powerful light that exists in the universe. They realize that their “struggle is not against flesh and blood,” but against “the spiritual forces of evil.” And therefore, no one is irredeemable. There is always hope that Kylo Ren will turn back to the Light – we’ve seen it happen before.
But if the philosophy of The Force is ultimately incoherent and inconsistent with the narrative structure of the Star Wars stories, why tell the story that way? Decades before A New Hope was released in 1977, C.S. Lewis wrote a compelling theory of why people love the philosophy of The Force:
“One reason why many people find [Life-Force philosophy] so attractive is that it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences. When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on throughout the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals or mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?”– Mere Christianity –
The philosophy of the Force may be “the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen,” but it is certainly not the only example of wishful thinking which pervades our culture and yet, when pushed to its logical conclusions, betrays our foundational beliefs in the nature of good and evil. Some rejoice in Nietzsche’s refrain, “God is dead,” and yet they still believe they can uphold something resembling a universal declaration of human rights. They fail to see that without a higher power in which to ground morality, there is no definition of good or evil which can withstand the will of the majority, the law of the stronger, or the whims of any particular nation or culture to treat its citizens however it wants. Or consider the rationalization we often give to excuse someone’s unusual or deviant behavior: “You do you.” There’s a strong implication there that everyone ought to be able to do whatever they want and that no one should ever judge them for it. That there is no such thing as a universal standard of right and wrong to which they may be called to account. It’s an attempt to set ourselves free from our moral responsibility to our fellow man, just as the philosophy of the Force would set us free from our moral responsibility to a higher power in favor of a balance between the Light and the Dark. But, as Lewis points out, “the most remarkable thing is this. Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.” You’ll never hear a Jedi Master telling his young Padawan apprentice, “You do you. The Light, the Dark… both great options, really. And since my previous Padawan became a Jedi Master, you should probably join the Sith – no pressure, but it would really help to balance The Force.” In the end, we cannot handle being completely untethered from God and his definition of good and evil. The logical conclusions of that are simply unliveable.
Lewis goes on to observe that the Power behind our universe is “intensely interested in right conduct,” that the moral choices we make are of great significance, a theme that we have seen ripple throughout the Star Wars narrative. From the moment we wake, we are confronted with a spiritual battle. There are right ways and wrong ways to interact with the powers of Light and the powers of Darkness in our world. What we love about Star Wars is that the Light represents what we know to be good and noble and true. Those that descend into the Dark Side have gone astray, causing great suffering to all with their pride, their ambition and their cold disregard of the inherent value of life. The Light shines in the Darkness and the Darkness does not overcome it. “Therefore, put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground; May the Lord be with you.” (Ephesians 6:13; 1 Samuel 17:37).