As a child of the 1980s, Star Wars loomed large in my psyche. I built the models. I played with the toys. I named my pet goldfish Luke. But most of all, I watched the original trilogy of films – over and over and over again.
By the time The Force Awakens came to theaters, my imaginal world was no longer populated by X-Wings and AT-ATs, but I dutifully purchased my ticket. I wasn’t expecting any surprises, at least not any good ones, but during the First Order assault on the village of Tuanul, I was proven wrong. As stormtrooper FN-2187 (aka Finn) turned to help a fallen comrade in the midst of battle, the dying trooper reached out and left a bloody handprint on Finn’s otherwise pristine and menacing white helmet. Unbidden, a thought raced across my mind: “Wait! I’ve never seen a stormtrooper bleed before.”
In the original Star Wars trilogy, stormtroopers collapsed in showers of sparks and blaster fire by the dozens. When they died, we felt nothing because they were nothing. The stormtroopers of the original films – regardless of the human forms underneath the armor – were faceless, loveless automatons. We did not value their lives. We did not feel any compunction at their deaths. Stormtroopers were purely two-dimensional characters set in a moral universe as black-and-white as their battle dress.
But in the more recent films this is no longer entirely the case. The Star Wars universe is starting to gray at the edges. Stormtroopers are now characters in their own right, like FN-2199 (aka Nines) and Captain Phasma. And if we steps outside the theater and enter the livelier world of video games and fan films, the portrayal of stormtroopers has become even more compelling and complex.
For instance, there’s the fan film Together, which features a stormtrooper commander who violates his orders in order to save those under his command – men and women whom he is proud to call “his friends.” There’s also the Star Wars Battlefront II video game, which tells the story of Commander Iden Versio, who is eventually compelled by conscience to defect from her elite Imperial unit and join the Rebel Alliance. And of course, there’s Bucketheads, a fan film that has become a fan mini-series, combining elements of Band of Brothers and Star Wars to tell a story of loyalty, suffering and self-sacrifice within a stormtrooper unit.
In fact, it was Bucketheads that first alerted me to the moral significance of this narrative shift. While I was watching the initial film, my son Ezra joined me on the couch. Being a fully enfranchised eight-year-old, he is well-aware that stormtroopers are “bad” and rebels are “good,” but when the rebels finally launched their carefully planned ambush on the stormtroopers we had followed throughout the episode, Ezra instinctively shouted, “Get down! Dad, they need to get down!”
Followers of Jesus Christ are well-positioned to reflect on the theological weight of such a moment. Christians, after all, are not dualists. We believe God created all things from nothing and called them good. In the story we tell, sin enters creation on account of creaturely will, not Divine will, and so the Christian account of the world’s bondage to sin and death is always set against the backdrop of a prior and more original goodness. As Paul reveals in Romans 9-11, for those who are in Christ no simple moral separation can truly get at the heart of things – no diabolical dualism between vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy can be ultimately upheld – for God will not abandon His people. Indeed, the people of God are enslaved to sin and permitted to live as prisoners to disobedience only so that the full number of Gentiles may enter in and all Israel be saved with them. God, as Paul explains elsewhere, has no will for His creatures other than salvation (1 Timothy 2:3-6).
Paul’s words remind us that our moral and spiritual struggle is never against creatures per se, but against the personal, social and spiritual forces that corrupt creatures, deceiving them and turning them away from the Good for which they were made. This is an essential ethical and spiritual insight. It allows us to take evil – and our moral obligation to resist evil – absolutely seriously without slipping into a totalizing worldview that encourages us to unmake our enemies, to see them as nothing. To do so, I believe, is to become the very Devil we hate and fear. God’s declaration of original goodness cannot and must not be forgotten: this is a Christian imperative.
I’m well aware, of course, that Star Wars is rarely praised for its theology, but I think it’s worth pointing out that we can actually see this conviction at work in the original trilogy. Yes, the morality is flat and monochrome. Yes, the Force is a poor, pathetic, pseudo-magical substitute for the Holy Spirit. And yet, a true Gospel vision resolutely flickers in the heart and mind of Luke Skywalker, who contrary to all worldly wisdom and a preponderance of evidence, never abandons his mostly dearly held belief about his father: “There is still good in him.”
The elation we feel when Darth Vader turns to the Good at the final moment and rescues his son; the joy that rises up in our hearts when we see Yoda, Obi-Wan and Anakin reunited as friends in the end – these feelings aren’t arbitrary. They spring forth in us because these moments are echoes of the Gospel. We all yearn for redemption, and the Imago Dei is strengthened in us when we recall that our enemies are like us. They are complex, imperfect, finite, and yes, they bleed. They too, need a savior.
Perhaps this is why fans and script writers are increasingly drawn to humanize stormtroopers. Sin has entered the world and we need to take it seriously. Hell too is terribly real, and for a time its fires torment both the living and the dead. But we must never forget that God is greater. He too has entered the world, and He has declared victory over the forces that bind and corrupt His beloved creation. The defeat of death, the last enemy, is certain. Hell’s gates are already torn asunder. Divine justice will correct and cleanse all things. True, on this side of eternity our fallenness remains, but the proclamation of the Gospel now shines a bold and beautiful light upon this temporary darkness. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians now witness and worship, trusting in the saving will of God in Christ. For we know that God permits our world to live in fractious disobedience only so that He might prove Himself utterly merciful to all – so merciful, in fact, that even the full number of stormtroopers might one day enter in.