The following guest post comes from Robert Towne, a member of the massive Catholic Geeks group on Facebook. (No, that isn’t our group. Yes, we predate it. Yes, I answer these questions a lot.) What with the premiere of the latest Star Wars movie this week, I asked Robert to expand on comments he’d made in that group about the applicability of Rogue One, truly the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy, has for a Catholic audience. Robert delivered this weeks ago, but I delayed posting it until this week solely because of timing.
Needless to say, this article contains massive spoilers for Rogue One. If you haven’t seen it, I highly encourage you to drop what you’re doing, head over to Netflix or your local DVD repository of choice, and watch it. This article will still be here when you get back. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s closer than we might expect. This article talks about one facet of why.
ROGUE ONE: A CATHOLIC STORY
-By Robert Towne
In a matter of weeks, we will be flocking to the theatres to witness a new chapter in a galaxy far, far away. But today I would like to discuss another recent entry into the Star Wars saga. Having seen “Rogue One” quite a few times over the last year, I can’t help but think of it as the most Catholic of Star Wars films.
Star Wars has always contained an element of faith in its DNA: inspiring us to have faith in a higher power; the spiritual battle between the light side and the “quick easy path” to the dark side. These themes are found throughout the film series, but I find that “Rogue One” expands some of these ideas in a way that feels uniquely Catholic. While there are many ideas and themes that can be seen as inspiring to Christians in general… there are a few moments that feel explicitly Catholic or can be compared with Catholic theology.
Before I proceed, I would like to clarify that I will not be offering a critique of the film itself. While not without some flaws, I still consider it a welcome addition to the Star Wars canon. Rather, I want to discuss certain moments of the film that I find inspiring from a Catholic perspective… as well as other moments that can be relatable to all Christians.
THE KYBER CRYSTAL
Let’s begin with the Kyber Crystal, an object referenced many times in the expanded universe but only now finding a place in a live action film. In particular, I was struck by the Kyber Crystal necklace given to Jyn Erso by her mother. It’s implied that this is a sacred object, not simply a “good luck charm.” After all, we know from Obi Wan Kenobi that there is “no such thing as luck.” In fact, as Jyn is being handed the crystal, her mother tells her to “trust the force.” The act felt very similar to the way one would hand a child a holy medal, rosary, or other sacramental. This parallel was felt even stronger during the shield gate scene as Jyn and the Rogue One crew were trying to gain access to Scarif. As they wait for clearance, the camera focuses on Jyn holding her crystal necklace. We are told the risks of not gaining clearance, and the possibility of all the characters dying (except for K2SO who jests that he’d be able to survive in space). What purpose would it serve to focus on this object at this moment… unless Jyn was trusting in the force to protect her and her fellow soldiers on board the shuttle? I couldn’t help but feel that the use of the necklace in that moment was very similar to the idea of a scapular… or in my own case… a St. Benedict medal I also wear for spiritual protection.
CHIRRUT IMWE’S REPETITIVE PRAYER
Let’s face it… I will be talking a lot about this guy. He has quickly become one of my favorite characters in the Star Wars universe simply due to his inspiring faith! And not only that… there is something he does which feels uniquely Catholic. In several scenes we see him repeating the prayer “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me…. I am one with the Force and the Force is with me… I am one with the… ” (you get the picture). I couldn’t help but notice the fact he was praying with repetition. Repetitive prayer is a complaint often leveled against Catholics, particularly with the rosary. While Jesus did warn against “vain repetition” in prayer – it is important to note that He was critiquing the pagan idea at the time, that such repetition was needed in an effort to be heard by pagan gods. However, since God already knows what is in our hearts, we do not need such repetition to get His attention. Rather, the Catholic idea of repetitive prayer is not for mindless vanity, but for the sake of meditation and molding our hearts to what that prayer teaches us. In the case of Chirrut, the intent of his prayer was not to mindlessly gain the attention of the Force, but rather to meditate, focus, and align his will with the will of the Force. That brings me to my next point….
THE WILL OF THE FORCE
“I fear nothing… all is as the Force wills it”
Chirrut places his complete trust in the force, and specifically in the will of the Force. His words echo perfectly the Christian ideal of trusting in God and why we should not fear what God has planned for us. In Psalm 27, it is said…. “The LORD is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear?”
This also brings up a story critique that Star Wars fans know too well. The internet is filled with memes regarding the precision (or lack thereof) stormtroopers seem to have when shooting their targets. It often feels unrealistically convenient for our heroes to dodge the constant barrage of laser fire.
Yet when we read the Bible… how many conveniences do we find there due to God’s will? While these conveniences exist in all Star Wars films… “Rogue One” addresses the issue directly. We actually see stormtroopers hitting their targets with other characters… but Chirrut explains the Force protects him (at least until his appointed time). While it might seem as a form of overdone Deus ex Machina in storytelling, at least “Rogue One” explains that the force has something to do with stormtroopers’ notoriously bad aim. This “hero armor,” as it were, is what also kept David from being killed by Goliath and later by King Saul. It’s also what kept Christ Himself from facing death before the appointed hour.
A HOLY DEATH AND MARTYRDOM
This brings me to one of my favorite scenes from the film. While the “will of the Force” protected Chirrut on many occasions, he was not immune to death. Chirrut basically couldn’t die until his appointed time. His death was one of the best scenes in the movie and the Star Wars saga, in my opinion.
The imagery of the scene reminded me very much of Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Surrounded by laser fire and the bodies of fallen rebel soldiers… in what has now become a cloudy and shadowy sky… Chirrut literally grasps a rod and staff… and walks through the battlefield chanting “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.”
“I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”
This simple prayer actually aligns well with Christian theology, and got me thinking about my own beliefs as a Catholic. We know the Lord is with us. That part is a no-brainer. But what about being one with God? Or rather, do we align ourselves with God? That’s something that doesn’t happen right away. Never-the-less, God calls us to be one with Him by being attracted to His mind and Will. St Paul says “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me”. Of course, we as Catholics also have another way of becoming one with God, through the Eucharist. It would seem then that Chirrut is already far enough in his spiritual journey to claim that he is one with the Force, much like St. Paul.
Thinking upon this, it’s hard for me to hold back tears during this scene. Watching Chirrut walk through laser fire showing his complete trust in the will of the Force, his faith reaches the same level as countless martyrs and saints throughout the history of the church. Just imagine Chirrut on Earth, walking bravely into gunfire in a period like 1920’s Mexico (more on that later), praying the words “I am one with the Lord and the Lord is with me.” You’d have an automatic Saint!
We also see Chirrut reciting this prayer at the time of his death along with Baze Malbus. This should call to mind our own longing for a holy death. The witness Chirrut gave to his faith in his final moments was not only for his benefit… but also for the benefit of those around him. Notice how his friend Baze also begins praying in that moment when he never prayed earlier in the film?
CASSIAN’S SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
In contrast to Chirrut, Cassian Andor has much further to go in his spiritual journey. When we first meet him, his respect for life is at a low-point. He is willing to kill his own allies to save his own skin. His respect for life is based purely on utilitarian ideals. However, we see a crisis of conscience once he sees the conflict between Galen Erso and Orson Krennic. He is unable to take the shot that was ordered. We see in his eyes that his conscience will not allow him to follow the laws and commands of men when there is a higher law that nags at his heart. The conflict between following the laws of men or following a higher divine law is pointed out by Jyn once they are in the Imperial shuttle. She tells Cassian that if he had followed through on his orders he would have been no better than a stormtrooper. This accusation causes Cassian to react with anger and a hint of interior hurt. It’s an attitude eerily similar to someone whose pride won’t allow his or herself to admit they made a mistake. “You can’t talk your way out of this,”Jyn tells him, pointing out a spiritual truth. Even if we think we can talk our way out of something with a person, we can not talk our way out of something with God. While it was good that Cassian ultimately didn’t follow orders, he is still dealing with guilt and Jyn knows it. The truth is that Christ and the Church teach us that the sin doesn’t begin with the act itself, but with the will and intent to commit it. In Matthew Chapter 5 27-28, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery;’ but I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” While this particular case is not in regards to adultery, a similar logic applies. Cassian already had the heart and intention to kill a man who was innocent. While he ultimately prevented himself from doing so and falling further from grace, he is still dealing with the aftermath of a sinful mindset and the guilt of what he was about to do. This guilt ultimately motivated Cassian to make atonement by helping Jyn to carry out her quest, even though he was hesitant to believe her earlier.
Cassian’s faith journey was also on display in the scene where he, Chirrut, and Baze were imprisoned in Saw Gerrera’s hideout. I couldn’t help but think that this scene was giving us a glimpse at the different levels of spiritual development. First, there is Chirrut Imwe – a man with complete faith, who turns to prayer and trusts that the force will get him out of this situation. Then there is Baze Malbus – a man with shattered, rocky faith that still fights for what’s good. He doesn’t pray himself, but he respects Chirrut’s faith and doesn’t ridicule him over it. Chirrut points out that Baze was once the most faithful guardian of them all. Then there is Cassian – who remains the cynical skeptic and doubts the force will do anything for him. It’s a small scene that calls us to question where we fall in our own faith journey. I know for myself there have been times where I act more like Baze and sometimes even Cassian. We are obviously called to be like Chirrut… but are we really like that?
PERSECUTION OF THE JEDI RELIGION
There is another part of “Rogue One” which feels consistent with the history of Christianity (and in particular with Catholicism), and that is the Empire’s persecution of the Jedi religion. This has been hinted at in previous films (namely Episodes III and IV), but in “Rogue One” we see its full blown effects with characters that are neither Jedi or Sith.
The Empire is militantly atheistic in nature. While not explicitly stated in the films, we can infer this from various comments made by imperial officers, and “Rogue One” doubles down on this depiction. In particular, we see the level of disrespect the Empire has for Jeddah, a holy site for the Jedi religion which the filmmakers explicitly stated was to be compared to Jerusalem. The Empire robs and loots the temples, shutting them down and giving the temple guardians nothing better to do than “make trouble” as Cassian puts it. But this is not sufficient enough for the Empire. The Empire seeks the complete eradication of not only the Jedi, but of all memories and reminders of their religion. This is made clear by comments from Krennic, who takes pleasure in making the “Holy City” the first target of the Death Star. With cruelty in his voice, he tells Galen Erso that the Holy City and the last reminders of the Jedi are gone. This vitriol is reminiscent of various regimes and political situations the Catholic Church has suffered throughout its history: from ancient Rome to Revolutionary France, 1920’s Mexico, and the Communist regimes of the 20th Century. However, in Star Wars we get an extra layer that is not always overtly obvious in our own world. While the imperial rank and file remains atheistic, its highest leadership has faith in the dark side. This is not to say that the world leaders behind past persecutions on Earth were directly worshiping satan… but we can agree that we are in a spiritual war with the devil. Make no mistake that the devil will use the political powers and leadership to get what he wants in his war with God.
We should also note that on this point… the rebels usually invoke the aid of the force in battle. We never hear the Empire say “May the Force be with you” prior to a major engagement. However, “Rogue One” continues the tradition of the rebels not only invoking that line before battle, but even Admiral Raddus says it as a form of prayer when he realizes that the crew on Scarif has perished.
WHAT IS TRULY IMPORTANT
In the midst of persecution, and any other time for that matter, we can be called to make difficult choices. While the scenes were brief, I was impressed by the values of the Erso family which should inspire us as Christians. In a flashback, we see that the Ersos once had a comfortable, worldly, and affluent life on Coruscant. They were once able to host parties in a well-to-do apartment. Their living conditions at the start of the film, however, are much more spartan. They forsake their old life to live out in the middle of nowhere. Away from all the distractions and hustle and bustle of the imperial capital, they have a simple existence. And yet, for as hard as their living conditions may seem, they have what is most important – their love for each other and their faith in the Force. This was the life they chose instead of a life of ease; because Galen knew any other choice would sacrifice his conscience…and that was a sacrifice he was not willing to make.
WE KNOW NOT THE HOUR
This brings us Galen Erso’s death scene. It provides a very poignant moral lesson: we must always be willing to do what is right, for we know not the hour in which our time has come. Galen had reached the final hour of his life. He was going to die either by a sniper shot at the hands of Cassian, or by the X-wing bombs. Because he stood up for the innocent scientists that Krennic was threatening to kill, Galen died in peace, goodness, and was given the blessing of being able to see his daughter again. Even though the scientists were killed anyway, Galen could have peace knowing that it was not because of his own silence in a selfish attempt to save his skin. The Catholic in me couldn’t help but think that he preserved his soul in that moment… and it is a reminder for us to do what is right and just at all times, even when it seems inconvenient, for we never know the hour when our lives will be demanded of us.
I’m sure that other Christians and Catholics can point out other themes and inspiring moments from “Rogue One” and the other Star Wars films. However, these are a few of the scenes that stood to me as a Catholic. I should note that it’s important not to view these films as perfect Christian allegory. That would be both inaccurate and unhelpful. Rather, the point is to notice those elements of fiction and fantasy which strengthen our faith. And with that in mind, I find “Rogue One” to be the greatest of the Star Wars films when it comes to inspiring my faith as a Catholic.