I’m happy to run this guest piece by Dylan Pahman of the Acton Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanPahman.

In his recent essay at Public Discourse, “The Family and the Force,” my colleague at the Acton Institute Jordan Ballor examines the treatment of the family in the Star Wars franchise, focusing especially on its most recent installment, the record-setting “Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” (Spoilers ahead!) In particular, Ballor takes issue with both “the Jedi and Sith alike” for viewing “the family [as] a problem rather than a solution.”

While the Jedi may underestimate the importance of family, on the whole they are wise to worry about the compatibility of family and the religious calling of the Force, demonstrating a lesson applicable beyond the Star Wars galaxy. Family may not always be a problem, but to brand it “a solution” may equally swing the pendulum too far—far away from the facts.

Attack of the Ballor

On the one hand, for users on the dark side of the Force, Ballor argues, “The loves, interests, and goods of the individual are subsumed by the will, desires, and lusts of the tyrant.” He demonstrates this with examples throughout the Star Wars series, including the “Sith rule of Two” (“a parody of parent-child relationships”), “Darth Sidious’s manipulation of Anakin’s love for his mother and for Padmé … to seduce him to the dark side,” “the use of cloning technology to artificially manufacture an army in Episode II,” and those taken from their families from birth to be trained as stormtroopers by the First Order, such as the character Finn in Episode VII. All of these, certainly, amount to “perversions of natural familial bonds” by the dark side.

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On the other hand, Ballor writes, “While the First Order emphasizes the collective’s obeisance to the tyrant’s will, the Jedi emphasize cultivation of the individual’s special gifts and talents.” Yet, reiterating his thesis, he adds, “Still, for either purpose, the natural family is seen as an obstacle rather than an aid.” He continues, “The Jedi think that the opposite of hate is a kind of disinterested, impartial benevolence,” noting that they too, “like the First Order” (!), take children from their families. (Ballor omits that they do not do so by coercion.)

He submits the Skywalker family as the prime example of how “the Jedi disdain the family as much as the Sith.” Because Anakin is separated from his mother and unaware of her circumstances her death “sets up the conditions for Anakin’s guilt and subsequent fall.” In the original (good) trilogy, Episodes IV-VI, Ballor notes,

In the case of Luke and Leia, Anakin’s children, we see similar disdain for natural family bonds. Instead of keeping the siblings together, the Jedi separate the twins, keeping each completely unaware of the other’s existence. Obi-Wan keeps up this manipulation even to the point of lying about Anakin’s death. It is only much later that Luke dramatically learns that he has both a father (Darth Vader) and a sister (Leia).

Ballor then examines the Skywalker family as the unique exception to this “disdain.” When Vader says to Luke on Cloud City (after cutting his hand off), “Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!” he was shirking the “Sith rule of Two.” Thus, “Even when expressed as a disordered and prideful desire to rule the galaxy, love of family is still of primary importance to the Skywalkers.” Later, when Luke expresses his solidarity with Darth Vader (after, again, cutting his hand off), saying, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me,” he is joining “the Jedi ideals of goodness and justice with … familial love and identity. In this conjunction, balance is brought—however fleetingly—to the Force.”

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Turning to Episode VII, Ballor highlights the importance of family to the Skywalkers once again, which, of course, is a prominent theme in the film from beginning to end. He writes,

Leia searingly indicts standard Jedi protocol for the fall of their son and the breakup of their family. As Leia tells Han, it was when they sent Ben away to train with Luke that she lost both Han and her son. As she implores Han to try to bring Ben home, Han protests: “If Luke couldn’t reach him, how can I?” But Leia knows and clearly expresses the difference between family and Jedi, telling Han: “Luke is a Jedi. You’re his father.”

Closing his case, Ballor asserts, “The family, not the Jedi academy—either in its original manifestation or in its newer form under Luke—is the school of love.” And contra the Jedi, he concludes, “The opposite of hate is love, and proper recognition of the bonds of love is what is needed to bring balance to the Force.”

Apologia Pro Obi-Wan

Ballor weaves together the various strands of his thesis through the Star Wars series to make a compelling case. But he’s mistaken: Obi-Wan and the Jedi were right, at least when they were at their best. Family may be an aid or an obstacle, a problem or a solution, depending on one’s calling in life. The Jedi—like their counterparts on Earth, religious monastics—rightly discern that family can be an obstacle to an exclusively religious calling.

Indeed, it seems that Ballor has played fast and loose with the facts of the Force. The Jedi do not “disdain” the family, but rather take it quite seriously. For example, Ballor indicts the Jedi Anakin, but he doesn’t give them credit for intensely debating whether they should take him on in the first place. Indeed, as it happens, they were right that his love for his mother could pull him away from the Jedi vocation. It did. It was Anakin, their one exception to their rule, who led to their downfall and became the villainous Darth Vader. The inclination of the Jedi council had been to reunite Anakin with his mother, according to their protocol, and they failed only because they did not listen to that intuition and bent their own rules.

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What about Luke and Leia? Well, first of all, it’s almost certainly a good thing for them to not have a relationship with a father who may suffer from undiagnosed borderline personality disorder and who’s known for prowling around the galaxy choking people with his mind. Jedi CPS to the rescue there, as far as I’m concerned.

Secondly, instead of training Luke from a young age, Obi-Wan looks after him from a distance and protects him, while he is raised not by strangers or other Jedi but by his own aunt and uncle. It is only when he receives a distress message from Luke’s long-lost sister, Leia, that Obi-Wan encourages Luke to come with him to save her (thus reuniting them) and learn the ways of the Force.

As for Leia, she was not denied her natural family either, but (contra Episode III, where her mother dies after giving birth) she reveals in “Return of the Jedi” that she did, in fact, know and live with her birth mother but that she died when she was very young. Leia then was raised by an adoptive family, not taken away to be trained as a Jedi, and only kept apart from Luke because, as Obi-Wan himself put it, “The Emperor knew, as I did, that if Anakin were ever to have any offspring, they would be a threat to him.” It is because Obi-Wan properly valued the Skywalker family ties that he hid Luke and Leia, because precisely as Vader’s children they were the galaxy’s “only hope” for his defeat and Anakin’s only hope for salvation.

No, neither Luke nor Leia was “completely unaware that they have natural familial relationships.” Leia knew her mother. Luke knew his aunt and uncle and Obi-Wan even told him about his father, leaving out all the nasty details that might traumatize him when he was too immature to face them. And it was because of Obi-Wan that Luke and Leia ever met each other in the first place.

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Lastly, turning to “The Force Awakens,” did Leia indict the Jedi for their practice of removing children from their families for training? It’s more complicated than Ballor suggests. First of all, Luke, being Ben Solo/Kylo Ren’s uncle, didn’t take him from his natural family at all, unless natural family is strictly defined as “nuclear family.” And, yet again, which of Luke’s students turned out to be a problem? The ones who had left their families? Not as far as we know. Rather, it was the one student with a natural family tie who would become Kylo Ren. Luke, then, blames himself and goes into hiding as a hermit, setting the stage for the great search for him that drives Episode VII.

In these examples, we see nearly the opposite of Ballor’s characterization. Both the Sith and the Jedi were right to see that family ties could be a problem to them, but only the Jedi could properly see when they could also be good. They did not “disdain” family but put it in its place: Familial bonds can be used for good or evil, and for some people their callings require the sundering of those bonds. For others, however, like Luke and Leia, those bonds should take precedence over any exclusively religious or monastic vocation. Ballor’s menace, it seems, is only a phantom.

A Theology of Jedi Monasticism

Of course, the world of Star Wars is not our own, but mutatis mutandis, there are several religions in our world with strong traditions of insisting that family ties can be obstacles to certain religious callings. Since Ballor and I hold our Christian faith in common (though he Reformed and I Orthodox), that’s what I’ll focus on.

First of all, every Christian, whether monastic or otherwise, is called to put family in perspective: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. And he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me,” says Jesus (Matthew 10:37). Secondly, St. Paul commends to the Corinthians as preferable to family life the calling of some—but not all—to live celibately, writing, “I wish that all men were even as I myself [i.e. celibate]. But each one has his own gift from God” (1 Corinthians 7:7). So too, St. John sees in his Apocalypse certain “virgins … who follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:4).

While formal Christian monasticism did not first begin until the third century, even before then in the early second century we see the following greeting in St. Ignatius’s Epistle to the Smyrnaeans which shows the existence of people who have forsaken family life to embrace a unique vocation: “I salute the families of my brethren, with their wives and children, and the virgins who are called widows.” Already in the New Testament, St. Paul mentioned a formal roster of widows under the Church’s care (cf. 1 Timothy 5:3-16), and only a generation later, in this passage from St. Ignatius, we see some who chose to be enrolled as widows even though they had not ever married, being “ever virgins” for God.

We may add to this that, however jarring it may be to our modern sensibilities, there is biblical and traditional precedent of parents willingly giving up their children to a religious calling at a young age like those who, in the Star Wars universe, gave their children to be trained as Jedi.

For example, take the prophet Samuel. His mother Hannah prayed that God would grant her a child despite her infertility, promising to dedicate the child to the Lord, and to her delight she conceived. As the Scripture says, “Now when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bulls, one ephah of flour, and a skin of wine, and brought him to the house of the Lord in Shiloh. And the child was young” (1 Samuel 1:24). In the context of early iron age Israel, as is still the practice in many countries in the developing world today, we may assume that Samuel would have been somewhere from 4 to 6 years-old. Indeed, “the child was young.”

A similar story is told in an early second century tradition about the Virgin Mary, whose parents Sts. Joachim and Anna also dedicated her to the temple in Jerusalem. And it was not unheard of throughout Church history for parents, on rare occasions, to give their children to the monastic life at an early age. Perhaps in response to worries similar to Ballor’s, the Tenth Council of Toledo in 656 forbade parents in the West from offering their children as oblates until they had reached ten years of age, but it still allowed it after that age.

Thus, we can see how monastic practices were a natural outgrowth of teachings and practices already present in the Apostolic and post-Apostolic era of the Church. The monastic calling, for Christians, involves distance from other family members in addition to a vow of celibacy, often even the taking on of a new name at one’s tonsure. It thus closely parallels the practice of the Jedi in Star Wars. But it would be a mistake to view even this as complete “disdain” of the family.

One story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers illustrates this well: Abba Poemen and his brothers all became monks together, but this meant leaving their mother alone. Seeking them out, she stood outside their door and lamented, “I want to see you, my sons. Why should I not see you? Am I not your mother? Have I not given you milk at the breast, and now every hair of my head is grey? When I hear your voice, I am in distress.” The story continues,

The old man [Abba Poemen] said to her: “Do you want to see us in this world or the next?” She said to him: “If I do not see you in this world, shall I see you in the next, my sons?” He said: “If you can suffer, with a calm spirit, not to see us here, you shall see us there.” And so the woman went away happy, and saying: “If I shall truly see you there, I do not want to see you here.”

Because of the Jedi, Anakin did not get to see his children for most of his life and only one of them, Luke, at the end. But because of Obi-Wan’s shrewdness, Anakin found salvation and the promise of reunion with Luke in the next life (whatever that means for Jedi religion). We see this indicated in the ending of “Return of the Jedi,” where Luke sees the spirits of not only Yoda and Obi-Wan but also his father Anakin smiling at him, finally at peace.

A More Excellent Love

Ballor contends that what the Jedi strive for is “impartial benevolence,” depicting it as requiring “indifference” to love, and claiming that the Jedi academy cannot be a “school of love.” On the contrary, the Jedi are at their best when they are dispassionate, demonstrating a more excellent love. As C. S. Lewis noted, there is a love that is above familial affection, romance, or even friendship: charity or agape. To quote St. Maximus the Confessor, “Dispassion engenders love [agape].” Such dispassionate love is hard, ascetic work that may require putting aside all other affection, perhaps even living as a hermit on a desert planet “farthest from” the “bright center of the universe” or in the wilderness of ancient Egypt. But it is this love without which “I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). This love is our only hope. And that is true not only for us, but for our whole galaxy and any other, far, far away though it may be.

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Advanced Research Forum for the Study of Eastern Christian Life and Culture.

Posted by Guest Writer

  • Excellent article – and fun! A welcome break from the obligatory Star-Wars-And-The-Force-Is-Bad[*1] stories every religious essayist and commentator appears to be obligated to write. It so often feels as if they have never seen the movie(s).

    [*1] All the riffs on it-is-all-about-following-your-emotions, etc… as a criticism of a [fictional] monastic order that strongly advocates celibacy for its members – clearly culture war fever obstructs the ability of many to watch a movie.