I felt nervous going into The Rise of Skywalker. Would the new movie continue the message of original trilogy or would it detract? Specifically, would Episode IX emphasize redemption and mercy, or would it just conclude the Skywalker saga with a big fight? I left the theater with a big smile, knowing the film not only affirmed the earlier work, but “finished what it started.” Spoilers follow.
Sacrificial Love, Redemption, and Nonviolence in Return of the Jedi
As I’ve argued in The Meek shall Inherit the… Galaxy, the original trilogy proclaims that the small and weak can overcome the large and powerful. While A New Hope shows a tiny fighter destroying the moon-size Death Star and the victory in Return of the Jedi hinges on the teddy-bear-like Ewoks, the latter film further emphasizes that the small and weak cannot achieve ultimate victory by copying the means of the large and powerful.
In contrast, Luke does not defeat Vader through violence. He does not kill him. His willingness to sacrifice his life for his father finally leads Vader to turn from the Dark Side, resulting in Palpatine’s defeat and the fall of the Empire. In other words, Darth Vader is not conquered by hatred and violence, but saved by kindness and mercy.
An early Christian named Paul identifies this path to redemption when he writes, “the kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). In this way, Return of the Jedi highlights the Good News of Jesus, showing that we can be transformed in response to God’s sacrificial love, and it exhorts us to love our enemies by extending mercy.
That said, the redeemed Anakin Skywalker attempts to kill the Emperor, which sullies the presentation of nonviolence, but more on this soon!
Sacrificial Love and Redemption in The Rise of Skywalker
In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren turns on his evil master without any change of heart, brilliantly showing we must live “not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.” In The Rise of Skywalker, he finds redemption like Vader had, not through his action, but through the actions of others.
Indeed, Kylo Ren needed a team effort. His mother reaches out to him, sacrificing her life. Though he is dying, Rey uses the force to heal him. Finally, he remembers Han’s tender affection as portrayed in The Force Awakens, leading him to throw away his lightsaber and walk away from the Dark Side. (I’d also like to praise the film as this happens well before the climax of the story, continuing the theme of Return of the Jedi without copying the plot.)
As the events of the sequel trilogy center on Ben Solo’s redemptive arc, it cements the fact that the Skywalker saga primarily focuses on the danger of falling to the Dark Side and the possibility of turning back to the Light.
Perfecting the Message of Nonviolence
Later in the film, Palpatine gives Rey the opportunity to save the Resistance by killing him. If she does, however, she will become possessed by generations of the Sith Lords. This elucidates the message that when we use violence to defeat violence, we become what we hoped to destroy. This, of course, creates a problem. If she cannot kill Darth Sidious, how can she save the galaxy?
In the Original Trilogy, the redeemed Anakin Skywalker uses violence to defeat the Emperor. In Episode IX, we learn that this act does not succeed completely. Though it effectively ends his reign, Palpatine lives in hiding, waiting to reconquer the galaxy.
After Rey refuses to kill Darth Sidious, he attempts to kill her with force lightning. Using all of his power to overcome her defending lightsabers (as “a Jedi uses the Force for… defense, never for attack”), it rebounds into himself similar to his attack on Mace Windu a half century earlier. This time, he does not merely deform himself, but kills himself. Demonstrating Jesus’s quip that “those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” the villain dies as a direct result of his violence, and the hero remains ethically unscathed (Matthew 26:52).
Earlier events further capture this theme in General Hux’s betrayal of the First Order, which proved itself critical to the Resistance’s success. As Kylo Ren continually abuses Hux, the latter prioritizes Ren’s failure over the victory of the First Order. The hatred within the leadership leads their government to self-destruct. Again, evil destroys itself.
The Inevitable End
Spoilers follow for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
One might note the defeat of Palpatine appears to copy the death of Voldemort: the other dark lord uses a killing curse on the other young hero, and it bounces off his disarming expelliarmus spell, causing his own death. Though Harry remains committed to non-lethal means, Voldemort’s violence literally backfires.
While I imagine the writers of The Rise of Skywalker could have found a more original fight sequence, they admittedly had limited options. By committing to the message of mercy and nonviolence, they could not have Rey kill Sidious. Since it would have been out of character for the latter to repent, the only possible satisfactory ending requires that he die by his own hands, which he does literally.
The inevitability of this end underscores a key emphasis of this blog, asyourpoetshavesaid.com. As authors attempt to understand and portray truth, storylines coalesce, and humanity keeps telling itself the same story. As John Eldredge says in Epic,
I want you to notice that all the great stories pretty much follow the same story line. Things were once good, then something awful happened, and now a great battle must be fought or a journey taken. At just the right moment (which feels like the last possible moment), a hero comes, and sets things right, and life is found again…
Every story, great and small, shares the same essential structure because every story we tell borrows its power from a Larger Story, a Story woven into the fabric of our being—what pioneer psychologist Carl Jung tried to explain as archetype, or what his more recent popularizer Joseph Campbell called myth.
By showcasing the truth that people become evil when they kill others, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and many other stories inevitably lead to similar endings.
Return of the Jedi proclaims the possibility of redemption. The Rise of Skywalker highlights that we only have two options: turn to the light or be defeated by our own darkness.
If, like Ben Solo, you find yourself “being torn apart,” know that you can find your path to redemption just like him. Star Wars and many of our favorite stories remind us that we find transformation when we experience sacrificial love.
In the “Larger Story,” the term John Eldredge uses to describe real life, God has loved you sacrificially. Though you have a Dark Side, which you act out more than you would like, Jesus Christ came to our world as God in the flesh and died to suffer the punishment that you deserved.
He rose again and offers forgiveness. Continuing to love you unconditionally, he offers to intervene in your life in and make you the kind of person you want to be. Personally, I have been amazed to see Christ’s continued mercy in my life, working to grow me through difficult circumstances. As I see God do this, my love for Him grows and I transform bit by bit.
You might not know what to believe about God or Jesus, but let the truth of Star Wars speak to your heart. Do you see a Dark Side within yourself? Do you find a need for mercy from outside yourself? What if you, like Ben Solo, have been sacrificially loved by a father figure, even God Himself?