Warning: Episode VII spoilers ahead.
“You cannot deny the truth that is your family.” Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow) speaks these prophetic lines to Kylo Ren, the master of the Knights of Ren and the main villain in the latest installment of the Star Wars film franchise, The Force Awakens. Ren’s violent response to Tekka’s words underscores the fundamental dynamic that appears throughout the films.
For Force-users in the Star Wars universe, the bonds of love characteristic of the natural family are—almost without exception—a barrier to be overcome rather than a source of virtue. For the Jedi and Sith alike, the family is a problem rather than a solution.
The Dark Side
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The Sith and users of the dark side generally represent perversions of natural familial bonds. This makes sense, as the evil designs of someone like Darth Sidious require isolation and manipulation of others. The loves, interests, and goods of the individual are subsumed by the will, desires, and lusts of the tyrant.
The Sith Rule of Two, in which there are only two Sith, a master and an apprentice, is a parody of parent-child relationships. The master dominates the apprentice until the apprentice is destroyed and replaced or until he becomes powerful enough to destroy and in turn become the master. Then the process is repeated. The Sith turn what ought to be the natural love between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, into an endless cycle of Oedipal violence.
Anakin’s turn to the dark side, a confusing and convoluted tale told in the prequel trilogy, revolves around Darth Sidious’s manipulation of Anakin’s love for his mother and for Padmé. Anakin’s concern for Padmé is used to seduce him to the dark side. Anakin’s beloved mother was lost, and he fears losing his other great love so much that he is willing to do anything to save her. The tragedy of Anakin’s love is that, by seeking to save Padmé by any means necessary, he destroys her. Under the influence of Sidious and out of a misplaced sense of justice and love for Padmé, Anakin turns on the Jedi and embraces the dark side. At the end of Episode III, we see what this perversion of family and love looks like for the Sith: Anakin has become Darth Vader, his mentor and his beloved are lost, and he lives alone and in thrall to Sidious.
The dark side’s disdain for the family is apparent in many other forms throughout the films. Think, for example, of the use of cloning technology to artificially manufacture an army in Episode II. The latest film reiterates this common feature of the Empire and the First Order in the character of FN-2187. Although the First Order’s soldiers are not clones, they are taken from their families at a very early age and trained to be obedient Stormtroopers.
When his conscience is pricked by the massacre of villagers in the opening scenes of The Force Awakens, FN-2187 decides that, even though he was nurtured for this single purpose, he will not kill for the First Order. As Finn (as he becomes known) puts it, “I was raised to do one thing . . . but I’ve got nothing to fight for.” Indeed, Finn has “nothing to fight for” until he meets Rey. As Chewbacca tells Rey when they find her, the rescue attempt was all Finn’s idea.
The Light Side
Like the First Order, the Jedi take children away from their families at a young age, but their justification for doing so is rather different. While the First Order sacrifices the individual’s will for the sake of some greater purpose, resorting to reeducation and coercion to form them into unthinking cogs in a machine, the Jedi take children out of their families to focus on individualized training. A natural family, without knowledge of the Force, would be unable to properly educate a Force-sensitive child. Specialized training is necessary. While the First Order emphasizes the collective’s obeisance to the tyrant’s will, the Jedi emphasize cultivation of the individual’s special gifts and talents. Still, for either purpose, the natural family is seen as an obstacle rather than an aid.
The Jedi are primarily concerned with cultivating enlightened, disinterested benevolence. This requires removing Jedi students from the natural bonds of familial love as soon as possible. According to the Jedi, there is a thin line between love and hate. Thus, in the interest of avoiding the dangerously strong feelings of hate and fear, they swear off emotions altogether. The Jedi think that the opposite of hate is a kind of disinterested, impartial benevolence toward all things.
The Jedi treatment of the Skywalker family demonstrates that the Jedi disdain the family as much as the Sith do. We hear a constant refrain throughout the films that the Skywalkers—first Anakin, and then later Luke—are too old to be trained as Jedi. The reason that their age matters is not simply that they have already ingrained patterns of thinking that would need to be unlearned, but also that their benevolence has already made concrete connections to particular persons and cannot simply be inculcated as an abstract or generic goodwill toward life.
In Episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn attempts to extract Anakin from the only loving relationship he has ever known, with his mother Shmi, remaking him into a Padawan learner in the standard Jedi mold. In the years it takes for him to grow to adolescence, Anakin is kept entirely unaware of his mother’s circumstances. This radical sundering of the bonds of familial love sets up the conditions for Anakin’s guilt and subsequent fall.
In the case of Luke and Leia, Anakin’s children, we see similar disdain for natural family bonds. Instead of keeping the siblings together, the Jedi separate the twins, keeping each completely unaware of the other’s existence. Obi-Wan keeps up this manipulation even to the point of lying about Anakin’s death. It is only much later that Luke dramatically learns that he has both a father (Darth Vader) and a sister (Leia).
In Episode V, when Han Solo responds to Leia’s profession of love with a self-assured, “I know,” this was more than just a brilliant improvisation by Harrison Ford. Even if his cocky retort was really bravado that covered genuine concern, Han’s attitude here is a fine image of the posture of a decadent, arrogant, and corrupt Jedi order. This exchange between Han and Leia captures the essence of the Jedi’s attitudes toward the family and love more generally. Where the natural family expresses the loving relations of husbands and wives, parents and children, the Jedi arrogantly rest in their superior knowledge and disinterested benevolence.
Balance and the Force
When we identify the mutual disdain for the family that is characteristic of users of both the light and the dark sides of the Force, we can begin to understand the revolutionary depth the Skywalker family represents in the Star Wars universe. Contrary to both the Sith and the Jedi, the Skywalkers are deeply committed to their familial bonds. We see this first in Anakin’s love for his mother and later in his ardor for Padmé, even though he expresses his disordered love perversely in the murder of countless innocents.
Less obviously, we also see this commitment to family in Darth Vader’s concern for Luke in Episodes IV-VI. In their pivotal encounter at Cloud City, Vader takes a sharply different tack than the standard Sith Rule of Two would dictate. It is clear that Vader wants to supplant the Emperor, but he wants to do so not by simply having his own apprentice to dominate, but by reforging the bonds of the Skywalker family. Thus Vader implores Luke: “Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!” The invocation of the father-son bond should not be seen as simply rhetorical, but rather as deeply constitutive of the character of the Skywalker family. Even when expressed as a disordered and prideful desire to rule the galaxy, love of family is still of primary importance to the Skywalkers.
This is also demonstrated in Luke’s confrontation with Darth Sidious on the second Death Star in Episode VI. When faced with destruction, Luke invokes that same father-son relationship, but this time as a reversal of the libido dominandi that defines the Sith: “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” In this expression of solidarity with his father, Luke joins the Jedi ideals of goodness and justice with his own commitment to familial love and identity. In this conjunction, balance is brought—however fleetingly—to the Force.
In Episode VII, we see again how definitive familial identity is to the Skywalkers. This time, however, that love comes to focus in the family of Leia, Han, and their son Ben, now known as Kylo. The climactic meeting of Han Solo and his son on the Starkiller Base is brought about in large part by Leia’s pleading with Han, “If you see our son, bring him home.” Just as Luke continued to see the goodness in his father Anakin, even in the darkened visage of Darth Vader, Leia continues to hope that the goodness in their son Ben persists, even in his chosen identity of Kylo Ren.
The Bonds of Love
Leia searingly indicts standard Jedi protocol for the fall of their son and the breakup of their family. As Leia tells Han, it was when they sent Ben away to train with Luke that she lost both Han and her son. As she implores Han to try to bring Ben home, Han protests: “If Luke couldn’t reach him, how can I?” But Leia knows and clearly expresses the difference between family and Jedi, telling Han: “Luke is a Jedi. You’re his father.”
The family, not the Jedi academy—either in its original manifestation or in its newer form under Luke—is the school of love. This is why the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck emphasizes the critical role of the family in civilization and acculturation to love, defining the home as “the first and best school of nurture that exists on earth.” This is as true here and now as it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Indeed, his observations might as well be applied to the Jedi academy as to more familiar human institutions: “no other institution, whether through the efforts of particular individuals or societies, established through the church or through the state, can replace or compensate for the family.”
The family is the crucible of love, in which we learn to forgive and be forgiven. In a unique way, the Skywalkers can bring balance to the Force because they unite it with love—a love learned first through familial bonds. The destruction of the Jedi order was due, in large part, to their persistent blindness to the deep, essential, and ineradicable power of familial love.
The Jedi are wrong: the opposite of hate is not disinterested benevolence. Such benevolence often manifests itself in the arrogant indifference that came to characterize the decadent Jedi order and the old Republic more broadly. The opposite of hate is love, and proper recognition of the bonds of love is what is needed to bring balance to the Force. Love must temper justice, mercy must sweeten duty, and family must strengthen society.
Han Solo’s self-sacrifice on Starkiller Base—a genuine expression of parental devotion—sows the seeds of his son Ben’s possible redemption. The narrative of the films to come probably will be based on the dynamics of familial love and affection, even where these are rent by sin, tyranny, and selfishness. For his part, Luke will need to rediscover his love for his sister, his nephew, and his friends. In so doing, he may again take up the responsibility of a life defined by the bonds of love first constituted by the natural family.
Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is a general editor of Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology, and his latest book is Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action).