The Eggplant – Dying to Save What We Love
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi and, to be quite honest, will be incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t seen the movie*
The Last Jedi is a remarkably deep mine of topics for conversation among Christians; I could fill this entire essay simply by listing possibilities (some of which have been excellently addressed in Ben Varnum’s essays). The Luke-Rey-Kylo storyline traces the tension between rebuilding the past (at the expense of fruitful new directions for the future) and burning the past (without trying to preserve what might be worth keeping), which is always a fruitful topic of discussion for a Church with almost two thousand years of history. The conclusion of Luke’s journey as a hero speaks to both the power and limitations of people as symbols, reminding Christians that we must neither forget the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection nor detach our understanding of Jesus as symbol from the reality described in the Gospels. Poe’s character arc reminds us of the difference between being a war hero and a leader and the problem of male distrust of women within hierarchical structures, which are important issues for our lay leaders, priests, and bishops to consider as we struggle to find our place in this modern world and slowly move toward equitable representation of women at all levels of authority. Even Finn and Rose’s (totally unnecessary to the plot) casino sidequest illustrates the problem of defining good and evil in ways that fail to consider the morality of extant economic systems.
All of that said, I was particularly drawn to two parallel scenes in the film’s climax. In one, the First Order flagship is picking off the Resistance’s unshielded transports as they attempt to escape to a fortress on the nearby planet Crait. General Leia’s lieutenant, Vice Admiral Holdo, concludes that the only way the transports might survive is for her to turn around the otherwise-empty Resistance cruiser (which had been trying to lead the First Order away from the transports) and suicidally ram the enemy ship at lightspeed, crippling it (and giving us the coolest visuals of an already beautiful movie). In the other scene, the Resistance is fighting outside the base on Crait, attempting to prevent a First Order cannon from blowing a hole through the fortress door. When it becomes apparent that the Resistance speeders lack the firepower to disable the cannon, Finn begins a suicide run, planning to crash his speeder into the cannon, but as he approaches, Rose crashes her speeder into his, saving his life, telling him something along the lines of ‘we win this war not by destroying what we hate, but by saving what we love,’ and kissing him.
Within the movie, the parallel draws attention to the fact that not all suicidal heroism is created equal. Although the military situations are comparable (each act would buy the resistance time but cannot by itself accomplish a lasting escape), the characters approach the situation from very different places relationally and motivationally. At least in the movie, Holdo appears to be respected more than loved: Poe knows her reputation but couldn’t pick her out of a lineup and has no trouble recruiting confederates for his mutiny against her, while her interactions with Leia and the other crew look more like the relations between soldiers who appreciate each other’s capabilities than friends who enjoy each other’s company. Finn, by contrast, is shown to have warm (and possibly romantically-inclined) relations with Rey and Poe and a budding (if possibly one-way) romance with Rose; the trust Poe shows Finn in dispatching him on the sidequest is the trust between friends, not the trust a leader has for his most capable subordinate. Holdo’s decision is shown to be rooted in military tactics: she looks around the bridge for other options before concluding that nothing else will save the transports. Finn’s decision is personal: he intends to hurt those who hurt him even at the cost of his life. Holdo sacrifices her life because she believes that without doing so none of her subordinates will live, while Finn attempts to sacrifice himself out of desperation to eliminate the cannon by any means necessary.
This contrast is relevant because, as Christians, we follow Jesus, who chose to die on the cross rather than rally twelve legion of angels to save him (Mt 26:53), who told his disciples to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” losing their lives for his sake (Mk 8:34-35), who said “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). As we were reminded in seminary, preachers must be very careful with the texts about self-denial and self-sacrifice because, historically, they have been applied to reinforce rather than reduce power differentials in Christian societies. Women have been told to deny themselves to support their husbands, giving up their ambitions and personal comforts to care for men. In America, Black slaves have been compelled to sacrifice their lives in service of white owners, for no nobler cause than a profitable cotton crop or an immaculate house. These texts have often been used to keep the poor and powerless in their place rather than to encourage the rich and powerful to make real, painful sacrifices in service of others.
But when Jesus tells us to deny ourselves and suggests that sacrificing even our own lives is an act of love, he is not talking about the poor becoming poorer to benefit the rich or the powerless giving their lives for the powerful. Jesus held a power greater than any person on earth, yet he chose to die to save everyone who has less power. The call to love your neighbor as yourself is an invitation for those with power in a given system to give it up in love of others so that all can choose self-denial rather than some having it forced upon them. Vice Admiral Holdo, a powerful and respected figure, sacrificed herself in service of those under her authority, dying alone instead of attempting to escape alone. Finn, a hero with authority so limited that he couldn’t even commandeer an escape pod, tried to sacrifice himself in anger and frustration over his powerlessness against his oppressors, before Rose intervened to insist that instead of dying alone, he live or die together with the remnant of the Resistance. The former shows how the powerful might sacrifice even their lives in loving service of others, as Jesus commands; the latter reminds us that, for those denied worldly power, living together in the face of oppression may be a greater sacrifice, and a greater act of love, than dying.
And on that note, my thanks to all of you for reading the Eggplant through its first dozen columns. Have a happy Christmas and a blessed New Year!
The Rev. John Adams