Evangelizing Darth Vader

Perhaps, more than any other person, the responsibility for Darth Vader, the heartless butcher behind the deaths of billions of intelligent beings, lies with the Jedi Order. It was their example and actions that pushed their most promising student into the arms of a monster and plunged the entire galaxy into the darkness of Sith rule.

When Palpatine told Anakin that the Jedi were power-hungry, ineffective, dishonest, narrow-minded hypocrites, he did not do so to convince Anakin of these things. Anakin already understood them. Palpatine merely showed him that he was not alone in this realization. He offered a different way and Anakin followed Palpatine, and the Sith, because he could no longer bear to follow the path of the Jedi.

When Anakin had first come to the Jedi Order, they could not have hoped for a more eager student. Qui-Gon presenting Anakin Skywalker to the Jedi Council was literally a dream come true for the young boy. From the first time he heard some old Spacers talking about the Jedi Knights, Anakin had idolized them. To travel the galaxy righting wrongs and serving good captivated him. To his young mind they were gods, immortal and infallible. When he met the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn, he believed that the Jedi had come to right the horrible wrongs he and his fellow slaves suffered. When Qui-Gon refused, Anakin could not accept it. His young, idealistic mind could not understand that ending the slavery of everyone he cared about was not on the agenda of the Jedi,  who did not want to risk starting a war with the Hutts.

Once the Council reluctantly accepted him as a Jedi, Anakin threw himself wholeheartedly into his new life. His peers may have already been training for a decade, but he was determined to make up the difference. Every demonstration and lesson was taken to heart. He practiced his saber technique endlessly, meditated on the Jedi Code, and dreamed of the day he would leave the Temple to bring hope to those who had suffered as he had.

The tension between what Anakin expected and what the Jedi stood for was minimal at first. He accepted unquestioningly that it was best for his mother to remain a slave on Tatooine. It would help him maintain his focus and avoid the evil of attachment. When warned against becoming emotionally involved, he faithfully trusted that such commands were meant to make him a more impartial guardian of justice rather than a more reliable soldier.

Anakin listened enraptured when the Jedi Masters expounded on the nature of the Force, teaching him to detect its tendrils in everything, to recognize its warnings. He studied the differences between the Living Force and the Unifying Force. It had coursed through his veins from his earliest memories, but now he was gaining a more rigorous understanding. His teachers dissected and probed the Force like a lab animal, cataloging its features and detailing how it could be used to gain an advantage in every situation. Anakin’s immature ideal of the Force as his companion and guide was soon replaced with an image of the Force as a powerful tool for carrying out the will of the Jedi.

The first real split between Anakin and the Jedi Order began with a dream. The Force told him that his mother was in grave danger, but the Jedi responded with indifference. None of them had ever known their own mothers and, besides, it was only a dream. Yet Anakin could not sit idly by while his mother suffered. He finally defied his masters and went to rescue her, but it was too late. He had failed his mother because he had ignored what the Force was telling him. His training hadn’t made him better able to save her, but instead had actually made it possible for her to die. It was the first time Anakin questioned if he really wanted to be a Jedi.

That was not the only area of his life where Anakin was struggling with his Jedi training. Having lived the ascetic life of a Jedi, Anakin’s understanding of love was very limited, but he knew he had a special connection to Padmé Amidala. She had been his friend when he’d left his home world behind. She had borne the weight of being a queen just as he had borne that of being a Jedi. In her he found someone who would indulge his questions about the power structures of the galaxy and listen intently as he told of the adventures he had shared with his master. Having nothing else to compare them to, he called his feelings for her “love”.

Their marriage would have been difficult even in the best of circumstances. Anakin had to keep a part of his life hidden from the many Force-sensitive beings around him. If they uncovered his secret, he would be disgraced and expelled. Unfortunately for Anakin, it was not the best of circumstances. The Clone Wars were underway and Anakin was away from Coruscant, and his wife, for months at a time, carrying out the battle plans of the Jedi and the Republic.

Soon appointed a General in the Grand Army of the Republic, Anakin became even more distant from the Jedi Order. No longer under the constant attention of his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin had time to stew over what had happened to him, and what continued to happen. He watched in frustration as strategy and political manipulation prevented him from doing what was needed. He chafed when told that a certain crisis should be ignored because it was outside the Jedi’s jurisdiction while other times he was sent on “strategic” missions that were little more than protecting the wealth of powerful politicians. The war claimed many lives, some right before Anakin’s eyes. Every time it was a sickening reminder of how powerless he had been to save his mother. His frustration grew, especially he began having premonitions of Padmé’s death and realized that all of his years of training provided no way to prevent it. Early in his training Anakin had listened unquestioningly to teachings about the dangers of emotional attachment, but now he wondered whether it might not be the opposite that was the real danger.

Though Anakin spent the vast majority of his time with the Jedi, his only real confidant was an outsider: Chancellor Palpatine. Palpatine was an attentive and sympathetic listener, quick to praise Anakin for his bravery, to voice indignation when Anakin was passed over for an assignment, and to cringe as Anakin reported the mistakes of his Jedi masters. Anakin, unaware of his mentor’s sinister intentions, found himself more and more dependent on Palpatine. When the moment was right, Palpatine revealed his true identity. Anakin was bewildered. His teaching about the Sith had portrayed them as unfeeling monsters, yet here was a Sith Lord offering him help, something the Jedi had never done. However, Anakin’s loyalty still lay with the Jedi, and he knew he must warn them that a Sith had gained control of the Republic. He left with Palpatine’s parting words ringing in his ears; he could uncover the truth of the Jedi’s intentions.

The Jedi were alarmed at Anakin’s report and set out immediately to confront Palpatine, ordering Anakin to stay behind in the Temple. In those moments alone, Anakin began to reconsider everything. What if the Sith weren’t monsters? What if the Jedi were actually the power-hungry villians? Palpatine could have chosen to remain hidden instead of offering his help, yet he had risked everything to help Anakin with a problem for which the Jedi would only have shamed him. If they took Palpatine away, locked him up or worse, Anakin knew Padmé would die just as he had envisioned. Ignoring his orders, he raced to observe the confrontation between the Jedi and the Sith. He had to know the truth.

When he arrived it was worse than he had feared. Master Windu stood over his mentor, ready to execute the man without a hearing or trial. It was not the last time Anakin would witness this method of Jedi problem solving. Racing to Palpatine’s aid, he disabled Master Windu. Palpatine finished the job. The line had been crossed: a Jedi was dead, and Anakin was responsible. The rest of the Jedi would quickly learn what had happened. If Anakin, and Padmé, were to survive, the Jedi could not. Anakin marched on the Jedi Temple and fought like never before. In his own way, he saw his purge of the Jedi as a mercy. He was rescuing them from being pawns as he had been.

The Jedi responded as expected, sending assassins after both Palpatine and Anakin. While Palpatine was able to best his attacker, Anakin’s rage clouded his judgment and he was defeated by his former master on the lava fields of Mustafar. When he awoke, Padmé was dead and he was confined to a black exoskeleton, the only method Palpatine had for keeping him alive. He assumed his place at Palpatine’s right hand as Darth Vader and buried his former identity.

Serving under Palpatine was not the life Vader had hoped for. While Palpatine gave him total freedom to deal with matters as he saw fit, it seemed as though his best efforts resulted in only more turmoil. He would wipe out one bickering family only to see three more arise. He would impose his rule on a disorderly planet, only to see it rebel even more fiercely. In answer to his frustration, Palpatine placed Vader in charge of overseeing the ultimate answer to rebellion: the Death Star.

When the Death Star was destroyed by an unknown force wielder, Vader was furious. His rage increased when he learned the Jedi was his own son, trained by Obi-Wan Kenobi. He could not abide the thought that the Jedi had now turned his own child into a weapon against him. He remembered his own training by the Jedi and knew his son must believe him a monster. He needed a way to get through their web of lies. In a foolish attempt to reach his son, he lured him to Bespin. Luke, like every other Jedi in Vader’s recent memory, tried to kill him, but the boy was unskilled and reckless. Vader quickly gained the upper hand and, after disabling his son, he revealed the truth and offered Luke the opportunity to escape the Jedi. That his son would rather leap into death than join his father was the final insult of the Jedi to their prophesied Chosen One.

I fear we in the church are in the process of creating an army of Darth Vaders. Promising young people are coming to us seeking Jesus and instead they find political discord and bureaucratic gridlock. These are men and women with a strong desire for justice, a belief in right and wrong, and a genuine heart for service. They come to us hoping to find kindred souls, but, too often, find indifferent structures, running on autopilot, that try to make them into drones rather than equip them to be disciples of Jesus.

Put yourself in the shoes of a young person today. She has heard about Jesus. She knows he cared for the sick and the outcasts. She knows he said “Love your enemies”, “Treat others as you want them to treat you”, and “Judge not”. She knows he died on a cross as a rebel. She may even understand that he died for her sins. Yet, if she investigates the church long enough, she will frequently uncover a system that is more like a corporation than the followers of a rebel. She will be encouraged to plug into an existing ministry, to volunteer when we need someone to babysit or read, to give generously to every cause, but never to change the world like Jesus did. Eventually these young people decide that in order to be like Jesus, they’ll need to find another path.

Please don’t take this as another judgmental potshot from someone sitting on the sidelines. I have been on the Jedi Council, so to speak. I know how hard it is to get out of the mindset of doing a job, and that every system seems messy once you see its inner workings. I’ve been frustrated at myself for not being a visible example of Jesus’s love and feeling tangled up by the obligations of leadership. Yet if we cannot find a way to reach out to our Anakins, someone else will. The image of our church is already tarnished in the minds of those who would be our Chosen Ones. The Palpatines of this world are eager to encourage the idea that we are bigoted, disconnected hypocrites, and I fear that if we don’t find a way to make church comprehensible to the current generation, we risk inviting our own Purge.

Of course, the saga of Star Wars is not only about the fall of Anakin, but also his redemption aboard the second Death Star, an irresistible trap set by Palpatine to crush the growing Rebellion. When Vader sensed the presence of his son among the rebels coming to disable the space station’s shield, he prepared to hunt down his son for the last time. When his son surrendered willingly, Vader suspected another plot to kill him, and his master, for daring to question the dogma of the Jedi Order. While his son pleaded for Anakin Skywalker, Vader probed the young man’s mind with all his skill, trying to uncover its secrets. He could see that his son still held to an idyllic view of the Jedi, much like he had at one time, but his master would soon uncover the boy’s corruption.

His suspicions where confirmed when Luke attacked the defenseless Palpatine. Vader defended his master. When Luke chose to hide rather than fight, Vader probed for his thoughts and soon discovered the secret the Jedi had hidden from him: Padmé had a daughter. Perhaps she, uncorrupted by Jedi training, could still be saved. When Luke realized he had failed to protect that knowledge, he attacked with righteous indignation. In an instant Vader lay at his mercy. Palpatine cackled horribly and ordered Luke to destroy Vader and become his new apprentice.

For the second time in his life Anakin realized he had been completely betrayed by the system he trusted. It was all clear now. He had been manipulated, led by promises that Palpatine would never fulfill. He hadn’t escaped being a pawn. He had merely changed masters. He had betrayed the Force, and now he would die for his blindness. He prepared himself for death, resolute but defeated.

Then something miraculous happened: His son tossed his lightsaber aside. “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” Vader was stunned to find that his son, the last of the Jedi, was unwilling to bend his ideals, even to avoid death. Luke’s refusal held little weight with Palpatine, however. A defenseless opponent was that much easier to defeat. Vader looked on as his master tortured the boy and, in the lightning-illumined Imperial throne room, he finally found a Jedi he could believe in. Though he had little left to offer, he sacrificed the last of his strength to save his son. He died knowing that Luke would be the type of Jedi he had dreamed about as a little boy. Anakin Skywalker had fulfilled his destiny.

The question for us in the church is how much are we willing to risk on the chance that Darth Vader can return from the Dark Side? Are we willing to risk investing everything in an Anakin Skywalker who may not follow our agenda? The risk is great either way, and it will take serious thought and prayer to find our way, but maybe this can be the beginning of a new hope.

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