Star Wars and the Temptation of Power

Perhaps no movie franchise has so captured our collective cultural imagination as Star Wars. Since its introduction in 1977, the franchise has exploded with numerous spin-offs, books, TV-shows, video games, and stand-alone films. In this article, we’ll be looking at the eight episodes in the Skywalker saga, as we anticipate the release of the ninth and final episode this Christmas.

Most Christian audiences are well aware by now that Star Wars includes pantheistic elements in its storyline. There’s a lot to be said about that, but in this article, we want to talk about something that the Star Wars series gets right—the temptation of power. In each trilogy, our heroes are tempted to join with evil powers or to use dark power to accomplish their own ends.

Return of the Jedi

In the original series, the temptation to ascend to power comes in a straightforward offer from Emperor Palpatine to Luke Skywalker. The argument is simple. The Emperor is the ultimate power in the universe. He can foresee everything. The Rebel fleet will be crushed and all of Luke’s friends will be destroyed. Luke’s only chance is to turn to the dark side. He is coaxed by Darth Vader and the Emperor with phrases like “It is pointless to resist,” “It is unavoidable,” and “It is your destiny.”

The critical moment comes when Luke has bested Darth Vader in a duel and the Emperor encourages Luke to finish off Darth Vader, taking his (Vader’s) place. With one stroke of the lightsaber, Luke could become the second-most-powerful person in the Empire. However, Luke knows it is a devil’s bargain. In giving in to the Emperor’s invitation to become the second most powerful person in the galaxy, Luke will be merely a slave to the Emperor’s designs.

The Emperor makes a critical mistake, however, when he tempts Luke with abandoning his friends. Luke immediately sees through the temptation and gives himself up to torture, rather than reign with the Emperor. This is among the best scenes in the Star Wars franchise. The Emperor’s offer is revealed for what it truly is: a heartless, cruel, self-focused tyranny that leaves friends in the cold and fathers on the floor.

In the Gospels, Jesus is tempted in much the same way. Satan offers him the world, if only Jesus will bow to him (Matthew 4:8-10). However, Jesus knew that accepting Satan’s offer would short circuit God’s plan to bring salvation to Israel and the world. Even at the end, when it seemed like the powers of evil would win the day, Jesus went faithfully to the cross, sacrificing himself, rather than using his power as God to eliminate his enemies.

Revenge of the Sith

In the prequel trilogy, the temptation to assume power takes the different method. This time, it is Chancellor Palaptine tempting the young Anakin Skywalker. Anakin is struggling with his rejection from the Jedi Counsel, while worrying that he will lose his wife, Padmé. Palpatine plays on Anakin’s fears and disappointments. Palpatine strokes Anakin’s ego and bemoans the injustice of what the Jedi Counsel has done to him, offering himself as a true friend.

Next, Palpatine challenges the notion of good and evil, essentially saying they are the same thing. “Good is a point of view,” he says. “The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way . . . including their quest for greater power.” Finally, Palpatine appeals to Anakin’s desire to save Padmé. He offers the dark side of the Force as the only way to save her. “The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural,” he says. Unfortunately, unlike Luke, the temptation proves to be too much for Anakin, and he begins his transformation into Darth Vadar.

Palpatine’s tempting is perhaps one of the most slippery temptations of all; and it is one that many of us face. To use shady, unethical, and sometimes downright evil methods to accomplish good things. During the French Revolution, the revolutionaries thought they could bring about “liberty, equality, and fraternity” by cutting off people’s heads. Marxists slaughtered millions in order to bring about utopia. The church burned heretics and dissenters in order to “protect” the truth; and the list goes on.

Today, we are often tempted to align ourselves with a political party or an immoral candidate who will further our interests. We may be tempted to cheat on our income taxes so that we can better care for our families or to break the law so that we can get to work on time. However big or small the temptation may be, Francis Schaeffer provides a sobering reminder to Christians in his book No Little People. He essentially argues that if we are doing the Lord’s work in ways that are not the Lord’s, we are no longer doing the Lord’s work.¹ So it must always be. Ultimately, using evil to accomplish good doesn’t accomplish anything good after all. This is what Anakin missed. We cannot align ourselves with evil powers to accomplish good and then simply discard them. In the end, using evil methods leads us to become more and more like the evil powers we abhor.

The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi offers the temptation to seize at power by throwing out all that has come before. After working together to destroy the evil Snoke, Kylo Ren wants to work with Rey to bring a new order to the galaxy. His reasoning is appealing: The Sith were evil, the Jedi were corrupt. Throw them both out. Kylo Ren says they must “let old things die.” The temptation is all the stronger because Rey is “nobody.” She has no family and all her hopes of having “special” parents have been dashed; but Kylo Ren offers her value and significance. If she will join him, perhaps she will find meaning at last. Together they can be better than the Sith or the Jedi.

However, why should Rey think that Kylo Ren’s “new order” will be any different from the old one? Kylo Ren apparently still feels no sympathy at this point for killing his own father, nor for the countless other lives he has helped to destroy. He is as ruthless, heartless, out of control, and (may we say) childish as ever. Kylo Ren’s error is to think that he can create a “good” order without cultivating virtue.

The lesson is similar for us. It is not wrong for Christians to be in places of power, but it is wrong to think that we will automatically use that power well if we are not already people of virtue. We are foolish to think that we can be better than those who have come before us, if we do not know the difference between good and evil, if we have not cultivated lives of virtue, if we are not walking in the Spirit, if we are not living faithfully in community with other believers. Good intentions are not enough.

Despite the fact that Star Wars sees good and evil as two sides of the same coin, the characters usually act as though they are two separate things. In each series, the heroes have a choice—the same choices we must make today. Will we choose to align ourselves with those who misuse power, falling in with the ways of the world, or will we humbly serve Christ in the midst of our daily life? Will we try to use evil to do good, or will we follow God’s ways, even if they seem longer, harder, or even counter-intuitive? If we find ourselves in places of power, will we serve others out of our weaknesses or will we naively assume that we are immune from the temptation to use our power for our own ends?

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.