Why Does Anakin Really Become Darth Vader: The Logic of Empire Versus the Peaceable Kingdom

(Reposted from July 26, 2018)

In an interview with Time George Lucas explains the fall of Anakin Skywalker as a failure to live up to the way of the Jedi (“pop-Buddhism” or, as Lucas describes himself, “Methodist-Buddhist”) teaching: “He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.”[1]  If Anakin could have remained detached from his passions, Lucas indicates, he would not have become the evil minion of the Dark Side. Think here of the fully enlightened Obi-Wan Kenobi floating in the ether urging Luke to “Let go.” He has already been struck down, willingly, by Darth Vader but having passed through the veil of death he has come out on the other side, devoid of the hindrance of a physical body and fully in possession of his true essence.

Buddha’s original insight into the human predicament (suffering, disease, and death) was to lay the blame on desire or attachment. It is not that detachment gets rid of suffering and death—but the point is to posit a reality which is untouched by suffering and death and, so, relinquish a grip on the material world in a way that takes hold of this alternative reality. In actual practice in Japan, this has not meant a refusal of violence but a fearless embrace of death—as in Bushido. To be struck down or to strike down (by light saber or sword) is of no great concern as death is a passageway into a more substantial reality. Isn’t this the teaching of the Bible and Christianity? Consider the hymns we have sung for decades: this “world is not my home I am just passing through,” “I’ll fly away,” and “we will meet on that heavenly shore.” Those who accept Jesus into their heart have the assurance of a spiritual heavenly home and this is why Jesus came. Now we can see that death is not a reality and this material world will soon be burned up.  Our souls will depart for heaven, upon separation from our bodies at death, and we will spend eternity in disembodied bliss.

The irony of the many post-evangelicals who have passed into various forms of neo-Gnosticism (see the fine blog and podcasts with Bret Powell) is that they have not changed their basic worldview. Reformed theology along with the many forms of disembodied Christianity (see Philip Lee’s Against the Protestant Gnostics) presume that Christianity addresses categories removed from death and the life-long orientation to death.  This understanding was never far from the Gnostic Christ or from the Star Wars‘ portrayal of Anakin as a Christ-like figure (his immaculate conception, his Ben-Hur like chariot/pod race). The New Age pagan universe is not so different from the second century pagan universe, as in both good and evil are not really opposed forces but each is a necessary part of the other. The point is not to rid the world of the dark side but to keep all things in balance. The serpent and Judas are joined to Christ in the same way that Anakin, a Christ figure, is joined to Darth Vader.  The neo-Gnostics, like the originals, presume that the serpent represents a feminine principle which has been demonized and so we need to hear this voice which would have us imbibe in the fulness of knowledge.  Those with true insight, as the Zen Buddhist philosopher Kitaro Nishida puts it, recognize that the principles of good and evil, God and Satan, can be conjoined and harmonized within the self so that the enlightened individual is greater than God and Satan. The goal is to achieve balance and harmony through detachment from both principles.

Within this pagan horizon, one who claims to be the “way, the truth, and the life,” or one who advocates selling everything, not simply to become detached but so as to become attached to Him, must be the ultimate devil. Christ explains that he did not come to bring balance and harmony, but a sword. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” Christianity is not paganism precisely because it opposes, divides itself from, and does not presume to explain and incorporate the “necessity” of evil. Darkness is not a counter-balance to light, and death is not a doorway to life; death is the final enemy and darkness will be penetrated and overcome.

On the other hand, the sign of a Christianity turned Gnostic (whether by post-evangelicals or evangelicals) is the willingness to accede to the necessity of evil as a tool in bringing about righteousness. Violence, nationalism, or personal betrayal (in my experience “raising up new servant leaders for the Church” requires that the old ones be expendable) in which doing evil to singular individuals is justified in bringing about the greater good for the kingdom (an actual theological explanation I received). There is no end to the evil (war, keeping the foreigners out, imprisoning children, or simply doing evil to a friend) which may be required to usher in the kingdom. Calvin maintains the Fall, Judas, and evil, are a necessary part of God’s plan, so it should be no surprise that, in the name of this sort of Christianity, some are willing to play the role of Judas so as to advance the kingdom.  After all, don’t we need Judas to betray Christ so that the world revolution can begin? Maybe Judas recognized he was the necessary cog in fomenting a showdown.

In its exclusiveness, orthodoxy is intolerant of this sort of evil because the kingdom established on this principle (“Let us do evil that good may abound”) is itself evil. (Which is the interesting part of Star Wars – the Republic turned Empire – “we ourselves have become evil” – to which I will return below.) To state it differently, there is the possibility of defeating evil and not simply the presumption that Good and Evil are two sides of the same coin, false opposites to be harmonized in a higher principle. Christ presumes to separate good and evil and not reduce them to mere appearance. His harsh judgments of the Pharisees (“You are of your father the Devil”), of his own disciples (“One of You is a devil”), and even his chief apostle (“Get behind me Satan”), are meant to divide and separate the good from the evil. Where paganism would obliterate differences – good and evil, male and female, darkness and light – Christ draws lines and distinguishes elements, such that the imbalance is not undermined but accentuated.

This sort of intolerance is counted the source of evil in New Age paganism. How can one achieve peace if continually caught up in this agonistic struggle? The quietism of the East accepts the inevitable cosmic conflict but presumes one can withdraw to a higher plane. Where Christ demands a definitive belief, the New Age principle would suspend belief and revel in non-duality, non-thought, and a primal Ground in which substantive reality is enfolded into Nothingness. The Force needs its “Anakins” as much as its “Lukes” and it is no surprise that the same principle should give rise to both. What I have argued in my previous two blogs, as with the Kyoto School, Martin Heidegger, and the head of Shambhala International, is that this form of enlightenment may “positively” impact the brain (as determined in the valuation system of neurotheology) while actively promoting evil. The Gnostic, in reply, would point to the relativity of terms such as “good” and “evil” and valorize the role of the serpent and Judas. What is a bit of groping, fascism, National Socialism, murder, betrayal, in light of the cosmic balance, the Empire, or the kingdom of God? (Perhaps Anakin should be made to realize the Emperor only appears evil through the limited perspective of the archaic league, the Jedi, and he is the true master.) Both the Gnostics and orthodox Christians would accuse the other of being deluded. (As I have argued, neurotheology does not have the tools to look at the brain and make a determination one way or another.) The precise nature of reality is under contention.

The Bible and Christianity (in its pre-Gnostic form) accounts for the drive to detachment and non-duality, not as acceding to the primal ground, but as a delusion arising from rejection of the divine perspective. The Fall consists, as Bonhoeffer describes it, of humans displacing the divine role and becoming the arbiters of their own ethic. Paul describes the cathecting of the law into the self so that both law and the subject are transformed in the process. The law, taken up into the subject, divides the “I” against itself so that the individual is simultaneously constituted and consumed in the ensuing struggle.

The law is not something distinct from the self but is that part of identity – that punishing voice within which would obliterate the ego. The key point is that the agonistic struggle is not something which happens to the “I” or ego; rather the ego is constituted in the struggle with the law. To succumb to the law (or to what Paul describes as a deceived orientation to law definitive of sin) is to give death full sway. Thus, Freud dubs it the Nirvana principle, as in a masochistic self-relation ultimate pleasure is to be had in a death dealing dissolution.  Obi-Wan’s succumbing to death, or the enlightenment goal of dissolution of the ego, succumbs to the deluding power of the super-ego or the law (which in the revised Star Wars would be the Evil Emperor).

Paul’s resolution (unavailable in psychoanalysis) is a deconstruction of the entire dynamic. The ego is identified as a spectral unreality, the law (superego) is one’s own voice given final authority, and the positing of these two realms denies the reality of the mortal body and death. The serpent, Obi-Wan, but every form of paganism, whispers, “You won’t die, you will be gods knowing good and evil.” Paul’s cry in regard to the real of the death drive, “who will rescue me from this body of death,” is to be found in the specific work of Christ in exposing the death dealing orientation of sin (the death drive). Death and desire, the controlling forces of sin, are displaced by life and hope. The “I” can be said to have been crucified with Christ, but it is not that the placeholder of the “I” remains empty. It is now, Paul says, Christ that lives within me. What this means in experience is detailed in his depiction in Ro. 8 of taking on the perspective of Christ in relation to “Abba Father” through the Spirit. Paul fills in each part of the tri-partite identity with a depiction of the work of the Trinity.

In place of the law (the punishing superego) is a first order relation with “Abba – Father,” and in place of the ego is the perspective and relational identity of Christ (“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives within me”), and in place of the orientation to death (id, death drive) is the life-giving work of the Spirit.  The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became “another law” (ἕτερον νόμον), but this law is now voided along with all of its various machinations.  The key difference between the living death of 7.7ff and life in the Spirit of ch. 8, or another way of describing the difference between life and death, is that the death of the “I” divides and alienates (giving rise to the three parts of a lie – what is denied (death), what is posited (the ego), and the controlling medium (the law), while life in the Spirit is a communion founded by the Father who has sent his Son (8.3) who leads by his Spirit (8.14).  The Trinity is a communion in which and through which the new humanity walks (8.4), has their mindset (8.5-8), sonship (8.15), endurance of suffering (8.17), and saving hope (8.20, 24).

The pertinent question/objection, in conjunction with Star Wars, is not simply why one individual became evil but why the Republic became the Empire and how Paul’s prescription amounts to a political intervention? In the end Lucas’ (or what has become the Star Wars franchise) portrayal of the fall of Anakin is not consistent. If Anakin had been portrayed as one who pursued the good or peace, such that like Judas he was willing to do evil to bring on the final confrontation which would bring about peace, this would have followed the trajectory from Republic to Empire. (As it is Anakin proves simply to be weak willed and drawn to power for its own sake.) Hardt and Negri sum up the problem of Empire: “the practice of Empire is continually bathed in blood, the concept of Empire is always dedicated to peace—a perpetual and universal peace outside of history.” This fits Lucas’ explanation that the Empire did not conquer the Republic, but the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’” The pursuit of peace through evil, at the individual and corporate level, produces Empire on the macro and micro scale. Anakin becomes Vader (and this would have been the more authentic portrayal) in the same way that the Republic becomes the Empire; not through attachment to the good but a determination to achieve peace by any means. Anakin should have become a monster through his commitment to fight evil by any means. A democracy becomes a dictatorship in its commitment, as Žižek puts it, “through the very way we, the ‘good guys,’ fight the enemy out there.” The war on terror endlessly reduplicates terror as it functions according to the presumption generating evil.

The enemy which Christ exposes, as Paul explains, is precisely this principle of doing evil that good may abound. The political alternative is the enactment of the good, in every circumstance and at any personal cost (laying one’s life down for the brethren), without falling back on evil. Though “necessity” may demand an immediate violence, a slight moral modification, a temporary suspension of peace, the Kingdom founded on the Cross refuses to succumb to the principle of Empire. The Peaceable Kingdom declares the struggle and its principle, “shall we sin that grace may abound,” as the delusion undone in an original peace devoid of the necessity of conflict.

[1] This was from a 2002 Time Magazine interview. I am employing Slavoj Žižek’s account from his article “Revenge of Global Finance” In These Times at http://inthesetimes.com/article/2122/revenge_of_global_finance.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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