Saturday, March 17, 2012

Anakin Skywalker: Tatooine's Messiah

Star Wars is more than the sum of George Lucas’ films. The symbols, characters, and themes go beyond anything he could have dreamt up, intelligent as he is. They touch on lodestones in the human spirit, the stories that rise up in every religion, every culture, and every generation.

I’ve written elsewhere of Anakin Skywalker, the lynchpin to the whole saga. He is the one who rejects both the strict, unyielding dogmatism of the Jedi and the unrestrained evil of the Sith. He successfully treads the line between moralism and relativism. His ultimate, deepest motivation is love.

I did not make it explicit enough in my previous blog. In many ways, Anakin is like Jesus.

But my previous blog largely used evidence from Episodes 2 and 3; here, with the film fresh in my mind, I shall focus on Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Anakin, like Jesus, is a Messianic figure who must face down institutionalized injustice and slavery. And similar to Jesus in some of his dealings with Jewish religious leaders, Anakin is constrained by the Jedi, who forsake what’s actually right to follow arbitrary rules. Unlike Jesus, Anakin goes too far…but he’s still an incredible character. I don’t think the similarities are an accident.

"I will become a Jedi, and I will come back and free you, Mom... I promise." -Anakin Skywalker
Social justice is a powerful theme in The Phantom Menace. From the opening scrawl, the viewer sees that the greedy capitalists in the Trade Federation are holding innocent Naboo hostage in protest against taxation. And what does the Republic do, as galactic protector? The Senate “endlessly debates.” Bureaucracy and regulations get in the way of true justice. Palpatine, the secret Sith Lord, says it best: “The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates who are only looking out for themselves and their home systems.  There is no interest in the common civility, only’s disgusting…there is little chance the Senate will act on the invasion.”

In contrast, we have the Jedi! The guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy! Surely they can help! And indeed that’s how the Jedi are portrayed in much of the film, as well as the whole Star Wars saga. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi dispatch dozens of battle droids and help Padme Amidala navigate the treacherous Outer Rim so that she can make her plea to the Senate, and then go on to accompany her on a daring last-ditch effort to wrest Naboo back from the capitalists.

This is the view of the Jedi that Anakin Skywalker holds. Anakin is a slave, out of reach of the Republic. Unseen forces trap him: invisible detonators hidden within slaves’ bodies prohibit escape. But he hears of distant worlds, and has powerful dreams…Perhaps this is due to the Force in him. As his mother confesses to Qui-Gon, Anakin was the product of Virgin Birth: the Force conceived him, the Chosen One, to “bring balance to the Force.” He had more potential than the even Yoda. Why was he then born into a world of slavery? Why would the Force “waste” him in a dry and thirsty land, rather than birthing him into the center of the galaxy? He could have been born on Coruscant, have been found by the Jedi, trained, and developed…

Two theories. First, perhaps the evil Darth Sidious intentionally used his Force powers to create life, and he chose to create this vergence of the Force in a system (a) near to his home planet of Naboo and (b) with institutionalized slavery. He may have hoped that this would hopelessly corrupt the young person, making him an ideal candidate for Sith indoctrination later in life. This indeed was the case, as we see.
But alternatively, if we assume the Force, not Sidious, chose Anakin’s birthplace, then perhaps the Force wanted him to grow up a slave in order to learn to overcome challenges and to make wrongs right.

Perhaps the greatest evidence for the second view is the scene at the Skywalker dinner table. It’s so powerful:
“I was wondering something…you’re a Jedi Knight, aren’t you?” Here Anakin asks the question that’s been burning on his heart ever since he saw Qui-Gon.
Qui-Gon looks at him. “What makes you say that?”
“I saw your laser sword. Only Jedi carry that kind of a weapon.”
Now Qui-Gon puts on a poker face but grants a subtle smile. “Perhaps I killed a Jedi and took it from him.” He tests the boy.
“I don’t think so. No one can kill a Jedi Knight.” A sense of finality, as if the statement were too obvious.
But Qui-Gon’s gaze goes blank. “I wish that were so.” A pivotal moment; perhaps Qui-Gon is remembering other Jedi he’s lost. But more importantly, he may sense a foreshadowing of his approaching death at the hands of Darth Maul. Anakin has (unexpectedly) caught on to something…

But I digress; my main point in saying this is that Jedi are almost mythological to Anakin, the boy who believes in angels (“They live on the moons of Iego,” he tells Padme). They are omnipotent.

Most importantly, we see that for Anakin the Jedi are bringers of justice. In the most momentous lines of the scene, Anakin declares:
“I had a dream I was a Jedi. I came back here and freed all the slaves…have you come to free us?”
Qui-Gon starts, “No, I’m afraid not…” and pauses.
Anakin looks at him doubtfully. “I think you have…why else would you be here?”

There! That exchange! Anakin sees this mysterious Jedi as potentially the Messiah, the one to set the captives free, the one to overthrow the gang lords and slave masters, the one to break the chains of bondage! More importantly, Anakin hopes and dreams that he himself could perhaps be such a Messiah to his people.

"Are you sure about this? Trusting our fate to a boy we hardly know?" -Padme

Zoom out, fast forward. 30 C.E., in dusty, remote Nazareth, a woodworker stands up in the synagogue and unrolls the ancient scroll handed to him. “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the Year of the Lord’s Favor.” He rolled up the scroll, sat down; all eyes were upon him. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Anakin and Jesus. Both are born into institutionalized oppression, whether it’s the Romans or the Hutts. Both see themselves as the fulfillment of a centuries-old prophecy. Both face opposition from reluctant families and disbelieving local neighbors. Both have early, miraculous victories: Jesus heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, and raises the dead; Anakin is the only human who can race podracers, and wins the Boonta Eve Podrace, becoming a hero to the entire slave population on Tatooine. Yet neither Jesus nor Anakin lead a popular revolution against the evil rulers.

But this is where Anakin’s case is different from that of Jesus. For although Jesus’ decision against violent revolution reflected his own values of unconditional love for all, Anakin had slightly different values. Unlike Jesus, Anakin wasn’t God; he didn’t have to be totally perfect and could have overthrown the government of Tatooine even if it took a few lives. After all, this would fulfill the prophecy and would be the right thing to do. The Force does not require exactly the same moral code that Jesus preached.

So why didn’t Anakin bring freedom to the captives, release for those in bondage, to proclaim the year of liberty? Because the Jedi co-opted him, grabbing him from his home planet while neglecting the fate of all those left behind, enslaved. Anakin is the movie’s moral compass and knows the right thing for the Jedi to do is to free the slaves—it’s a clear violation of Republic law, to which Tatooine is signatory. Yet the Jedi do things “by the book:” they grab him and take him in for their own training. Indoctrination. And even then? Masters Yoda and Mace Windu look down upon this boy who doesn’t fit their preconceptions of a proper Jedi. “I sense much fear in you.”  Anakin and his abilities are constantly put down, rather than encouraged: “The Council forbids me to train you.” “Stay in that cockpit [away from the battle]!” Poor Anakin only wants to help, but in the end, the Jedi way constrains and hampers him…

All of these elements play into Anakin’s eventual framework shift that leads him to embrace the Dark Side in Episodes II and III, as I wrote about in my previous blog. The Jedi have fallen so far that they ignore the plight of an entire planet caught in slavery. Anakin is born to deliver them from captivity, but the Jedi—the very ones who should care most—are the ones who whisk him away just as he begins his messianic path. In Episode II, when Anakin returns to Tatooine and sees that not only have slavery and violence grown worse, they’ve taken his mother’s life, he vows to never let this happen again. Thus, when in Episode III the Jedi threaten to keep him from saving Padme’s life (a future he recognizes, again, from his dreams), Anakin decides to oppose the Jedi and side with the Sith. Not out of selfishness! But because he loves her too much and can’t afford to let dusty Jedi philosophy get in the way of that. (Similarly, when Jesus told a lame man to stand up and pick up his mat, he was ordering someone to break the Sabbath. The Jewish laws had gotten in the way of doing good, and he did not hesitate to break them when that was the case. There are many more examples; you can find a few at this blog.)

Anakin is a flawed character, yet ultimately very similar to Jesus all the way from his Virgin Birth to his sacrificial death and reappearance to those he loved. I do not think George Lucas intentionally made Anakin like Jesus. I think he wrote a gorgeous, compelling narrative. However, to write a story that rings true to us, he reflexively drew upon the same themes that are present in every great story: love, justice, sacrifice, reconciliation, good vs. evil, pride vs. humility.

But these are not just ethereal ideas. I believe they entered into space and time, becoming concrete in the most beautiful, wonderful, and truest story of all human history. In this story, God loves us, and came to us. Desperate to lift us from the mud to glorious, meaningful, new lives, God made himself a lowly slave boy, caught under the heel of the most powerful Empire in human history. Jesus lived among humans, tracing a narrative arc that culminated in his ultimate sacrifice for our souls. Yet, just like Yoda, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Anakin (and Osiris, Odin, Bacchus, and other myths that approach the truth) death could not hold him down. He conquered death and offered new life to all who chose the Way of life, the Way of love. And that is what I believe. 

If any of this intrigues you, email or call me and let's talk. It's only the most important story ever told.  I'm not too surprised some of its themes made it into Star Wars too.