Monday, January 02, 2017

Rogue One: Lessons for Resisting an Evil Empire

We spent our New Year’s Eve in an IMAX theater watching Rogue One, the Star Wars prequel. We’d been wanting to see the film since it came out and the 7 PM showing allowed us to get home before the drunks hit the highway as well as to miss the preliminary rounds of the onslaught of local fireworks that continued until well after midnight. 

My sister had seen the film and set me up to be disappointed. ”I’m just  saying, everyone dies,” she said. And she was right. But only in part. 

Eerie Analogies 

We live in a post-Enlightenment age where the world has been disenchanted, at once willing to deconstruct our inherited myths and cast them aside while at the same time desperate for symbols to provide increasingly superficial lives with depth and meaning. George Lucas has always been our age’s best myth maker. His Star Wars movies have from the beginning provided an interesting mixture of religious and philosophical themes told by means of archetypal figures that speak to the human soul. Jungian scholar Joseph Campbell recognized that long ago when he included excerpts from the first trilogy of Star Wars films in his own film adaptation of The Hero With a Thousand Faces. 

The plot of the film may prove too close to home for many of us watching in apprehension as our own version of a Death Star nears perfection in Washington. Lucas' Empire seeks to make the universe great again, imposing peace through terror and military dominance. It is more than willing to project its own Shadow content onto those would dare to resist in branding them terrorists even as its own military actions annihilate entire cities, even worlds. 

Sound familiar?

 The leadership of the Empire is decidedly male and white. One has to look to the Rebels to see the equivalent of people of color, people of different cultures and religions and women in positions of leadership.

Only minutes into the film, it is clear which sex is valued in the Empire. The scientist who has temporarily fled the Empire’s deadly clutches to lead a lonely agrarian life on a bleak planet with his wife and child is taken captive to be returned to the service of the Empire. This occurs by means of his wife being killed in front of him and his small child being left behind to fend for herself. 

Sound familiar? 

While most in the Empire worship at the throne of power, it is among the wretched that true spiritual lives appear. The blind priest intones the mantra “I am One with the Force and the Force is with me” as his plight becomes ever more dire but it is the Force which enables him and his warrior disciple to survive.

Yet, in the end, (spoiler alert, as if this means much in any Lucas film), all the heroines and heroes die. All of them, just like my sister lamented. But the important thing is to recognize how and why they died. 

If there has ever been a good case for distinction of optimism from hope, this film provides it. The dying warrior, Saw Gerrera, inspires the heroine with the observation that “Hope is what builds rebellions.” There is absolutely no promise that the rebellion will succeed. Indeed, the reprogrammed imperial robot, K-2So, is more than happy to provide a running account of probabilities of the success or failure of every single portion of what proves to be a suicide mission. The numbers are never on the side of the Rebels.

But what is remarkable about the mission is that these people undertook it anyway, aware of the risks and the odds, but believing that there was something larger than themselves and their own individual interests worth fighting for, maybe even dying for. And so they did.

Hope is What Builds Rebellions 

There are a number of elements of this film that I would hold up as values. Truth be told, we live under the shadow of what may well prove to be an evil empire. Its leaders are driven by a lust for power and domination and the willingness to attain it through any means possible. Note that I refuse to say necessary here – that a means is available to those willing to exploit their power to use does not a necessity create. 

But the heroes of Lucas’ film are undaunted by their own relative lack of power. Like the mantra I have adopted in the wake of the rise of Trumpland, they have recognized the vital need to do what they must to survive, to resist the Empire in any way possible and to look to the day when they can give birth to a new cosmic order based in values of justice, dignity for all living beings and equality. 

More importantly, despite the odds, they do not despair. Gyn Erso, the daughter of the scientist who builds the Death Star even as he encrypts a self-destruct mechanism for his daughter to take to the Resistance, urges her fellow rebels to undertake what will prove to be a suicide mission. Echoing her childhood rescuer’s mantra, she tells them “We have hope. And hope is what builds rebellions.” 

This is no Pollyana vision. After all, the heroine and most of her compatriots will die before their mission is over. But her example is absolutely vital to those of us who have mourned the death of our beloved America and the rise of our own evil empire, Trumpland, which threatens to dominate every aspect of our lives: “Hope builds rebellions.” 

We must first survive at all costs. We must then resist in any manner possible. And we must patiently await our time to give birth a New America.

Something Larger Than Ourselves 

There is one last element of the film that I think bears mentioning. The success of this mission is ultimately due to the heroic and self-sacrificing acts of the blind priest, Chirrut, and his warrior follower, Baze Malbus. Both of them are grounded in a spiritual practice which includes recitation of the mantra: 

“I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.” 

Recognizing that we are all grounded in the One who has created all that exists is essential to a healthy politics of justice which evinces respect for the dignity of all living beings. Being grounded in spiritual community is essential to insuring that our actions correspond with our values. We need people to call us on our outlandish and hurtful thoughts. We need people to guide us where our good ideas need more polish and consideration. We need the humility of knowing our understandings are valuable but hardly exhaust the possibilities. 

Community reminds us that, like the Force within us, there is something larger than ourselves. We need each other. 

Daniel Berrigan, a brilliant Jesuit scholar who knew a great deal about resisting an evil empire, died this year in which so many brilliant minds and souls were lost. In an interview with The Nation, Berrigan argued that no resistance movement can survive without a spiritual core. 

Berrigan credits his own spiritual path to Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Berrigan, like Merton, said he was sustained by faith and participation in community life. The support from his community proved invaluable to a public career that included more than one extended stint in prison for civil disobedience surrounding the US war in Southeast Asia. 
Berrigan believed that those who seek a just society, who seek to defy war and violence, who decry the assault of globalization and degradation of the environment, who care about the plight of the poor, must stop worrying about the practical, short-term effects of their resistance: 

The good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere. I believe if it is done in that spirit it will go somewhere, but I don’t know where. I don’t think the Bible grants us to know where goodness goes, what direction, what force. I have never been seriously interested in the outcome. I was interested in trying to do it humanly and carefully and nonviolently and let it go. We have not lost everything because we lost today.

As I read Berrigan's words, I recognize that he is right. But I also realize that for so many of us raised in an instant gratification culture, steadfast devotion to justice work without looking for immediate results is a lot easier said than done. 

Being “one with the Force” is a reality that must be defined by each of us. But recognizing there is something larger than ourselves, our own immediate concerns and relations, is essential to any kind of effective resistance. If we are to survive the next few years of Trumpland, we will need to find spiritual grounding in our own lives and community with whom to share our hopes, dreams and sorrows. 

And of the latter I have no doubt that there will be far, far too many. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

1 comment:

Kay Davidson-Bond said...

This blog is both hopeful and frightening. Just like our reality. How do we form one community? Like me, I imagine lots of people are receiving countless email and FB requests to sign a petition and donate money. The resistance needs cohesion. Where to start? An old bumper sticker said "Think globally, act locally." Is this a viable framework? Florida Resist? Texas Resist? Etc. what say you. Kay Davidson-Bond