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Discernment in Star Wars

It’s May 4th, Star Wars day! There’s a lot to like about Star Wars. Lightsaber duels, blasters, starfighter dogfights, and the magic and mystery of the Force have helped to make it a beloved franchise. At the heart of all the action, though, is the tilt between good and evil. While several of the films have underpinnings of Eastern worldviews, the fundamental concepts of good versus evil are still easily identifiable.

That said, once you’ve experienced all the Episodes, you may begin to see a pattern that reveals a couple very specific attributes respective to light and dark. Zooming in on good versus evil in Star Wars shows that this struggle actually has some complexity. If I were to put a face to that complexity, I would identify it as compassion versus manipulation. The most powerful antagonists in the films are manipulative, while some of the best protagonists are compassionate. You can definitely see these two forces clashing. Sometimes manipulation wins, sometimes compassion wins. What really makes the topic worth contemplating, though, is how evil tries to use its manipulative tendencies to turn good’s compassion from a virtue into a weakness.

There are plenty of morally deviant agendas/movements whose advocates will attempt to sway us or bait us by speaking to our virtues. Within the Star Wars saga’s narrative, we can observe scenarios which run parallel to that reality. We can see it when Palpatine uses Anakin’s concern for Padme to lure him to the dark side. We can see it when the Empire uses the capture of Luke’s friends to set up a confrontation with Darth Vader which leads to a revelation for which Luke is (at first) emotionally unprepared. And we can see it when Vader uses Luke’s relationship with Leia to bait him into a fit of violent rage.

So if evil sees virtues like compassion as a weakness to be exploited, then why equip ourselves with it? To answer, I’m going to mix my fandoms a little bit here. There’s a quote from Batman Begins which I believe summarizes it perfectly: “It separates us from them.”

If compassion, then, is a distinctive quality we can’t do without, how can we use it without allowing evil to take advantage of us? Well, here’s something to keep in mind: compassion should be patient and loving, but not blind. Pure compassion, like any good virtue left undiluted, will draw a line in the sand. Uncompromised virtues are tempered with discernment. That may sound like a slight paradox, but hopefully you understand where I’m coming from.

In Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan doesn’t want to fight Anakin. It’s not hard to figure this out when you consider that he debates him first instead of coming off the ship with his saber already ignited. Kenobi is somehow holding out hope, no matter how faint, that Anakin isn’t too far gone. That’s amazing when you think about the unspeakable things Skywalker has already done by that time. But even though Kenobi thinks there might be a slim chance for Anakin, he doesn’t leave himself vulnerable. He doesn’t want to use his lightsaber, but he understands that Anakin may not give him a choice. “I will do what I must.” When Anakin does attack, does that mean compassion gets taken off the table? Not according to what Obi-Wan does a little later. “It’s over Anakin. I have the high ground.” He’s still trying to talk him out of it.

But what about an adversary who is cunning in the art of manipulation? In The Last Jedi, Luke makes a prophetic statement. “This is not going to go the way you think.” There may be more than cynicism and frustration at play here. While Rey’s compassion toward Kylo Ren is commendable, Luke knows that manipulation is the enemy’s most effective tool because he nearly lost his soul to that tactic years ago.

Manipulators will often appeal to our compassion by playing the victim to make it easier to get their hooks into us. This turns out to be true of Kylo when it’s revealed that he’s even more opportunistic than Snoke. His overt approach at tempting Rey didn’t work in The Force Awakens, so in The Last Jedi, he adapts with a far more subtle strategy. He gains her sympathy and sets a trap, making himself the bait.

When it’s clear that Rey’s compassion doesn’t transform Kylo the way Luke’s transformed Vader, there’s a danger that Luke’s fear may be realized. But even though Rey goes to the trap against Luke’s judgment, it seems at least part of her is cognizant of his warning. When Kylo springs the trap, he finds Rey prepared to resist. The line in the sand is drawn.

But as I’ve already said, that doesn’t mean Rey stops being compassionate. In the time between the lightsaber explosion and Kylo regaining consciousness, there’s an intriguing moment that takes place offscreen. It’s so subtle that I didn’t even notice it until someone pointed it out, but once you see it, it really makes you think. When Kylo opens his eyes, Rey is gone. That means she wakes up before he does. Aaaand there’s still one functioning lightsaber in the room. What could all of that suggest? Rey has a golden opportunity to kill Kylo… and doesn’t take it.

I LOVE SUBTEXT.

Ahem. ‘Scuse me.

Could Rey’s departure imply something in addition to compassion, though? She hasn’t turned Kylo, she won’t join Kylo, she won’t kill Kylo, and she now knows his corrosive influence. So what’s her next move? Something’s got to give here. Maybe, just maybe, this can show us that there are times during the growth of our spiritual maturity in which it’s not only okay to run from someone we love, but entirely necessary.

What if Rey sticks around? What if she feigns acceptance to Kylo’s choices and tries to save him through her loyalty?

Though it’s no longer canon, it’s interesting to note that the story Dark Empire by Dark Horse comics can give us some insight regarding what could happen if the above strategy is pursued. Luke sees Vader as a template to overcoming a reincarnated Palpatine; join the dark side to defeat the dark side. His plan is to become a “double agent” and wait until the Emperor lets his guard down. From a purely logical standpoint, this makes some sense. However, idioms such as “flying too close to the sun” and “playing with fire” exist for a reason. Know your limitations. Vader himself couldn’t stop Palpatine until he let the light touch him again. You can’t overcome the devil by running with him, and you can’t help someone overcome their inner darkness by participating in their immoral activities. Luke’s plan backfires. Just like Vader needed Luke to lead him back to the light, Luke ends up needing Leia to do the same for him.

The moral compromise in Dark Empire is a pitfall Rey could succumb to if she doesn’t run from Kylo.

Compassion + discernment = heightened moral awareness

In an entertainment industry that often gives protagonists a pass for dark motivations like revenge, it’s fantastic to see a franchise that presents compassion as a worthy moral paradigm on more than one occasion. But Star Wars even takes it a step further when it shows us that agents of darkness can and will make an effort to exploit our good intentions. Virtue requires discernment. The fact that a commercial juggernaut like Star Wars has the guts to demonstrate that truth to its audience should be celebrated.

Andrew Walton

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