It’s All Saints. Depending on your perspective on saints it’s a commemoration of the lives of great servants of God from the past, or of all the people of God from all time, or something in between.
Rogue One is perhaps not the most obviously All Saints-themed film in the box, but I was rewatching it over the weekend and struck by the martyrological (if that’s even a word) perspective of the film.
Unlike just about any other film the Disney Corporation have ever had a hand in (since Disney bought the rights to Star Wars prior to The Force Awakens coming out), or to be frank, any American movie whatsoever, in Rogue One there isn’t a single major character from among the good guys (ie one with more than a single scene) that is alive at the end of the film. Everyone dies.
And yet the events of the film constitute a victory and a source of hope for the scattered Rebel Alliance.
Staring death in the face and seeing victory. This is sounding like what astonished the pagans so much about the early Church.
The mental connection finished forming in my head as we sang “A Mighty Fortress” at my church on Sunday. Martin Luther’s famous hymn is nearly inevitable in a traditional-type Protestant church on Reformation Sunday, but the hymn doesn’t really theologise much over the sola Scriptura, sola fide basis of what became the Protestant Reformation. Still, it’s the words of the hymn that tie in with what I want to talk about, not the fact that Martin Luther wrote it.
The lyric in question is in the third or fourth verse. I confess it’s not a hymn I’m intimately acquainted with from my growing-up; there are few Lutherans in Britain, my Baptist church didn’t really sing it, and the few times I’ve heard it at all in my home coutry it was with a different translation of the original German lyrics. Anyway, the third or fourth verse. “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His Kingdom is forever”.
Rogue One seems to have drunk deeply from that same metaphysical well. Everybody dies, but hope prevails, bigger than any one life or person.
Every character has their part to play in the story of getting the Death Star plans to the Alliance, and only once that part is accomplished can they die.
Lena Erso gets cut down by Director Krennic’s elite Death Troopers, removing the possibility of her being used as a hostage to ensure her husband Galen’s obedience to the Empire, but not before she makes sure that Jyn gets away.
Saw Gerrera, the big black dude with the breather mask raises young Jyn Erso, and he’s the one to which Galen sends the message, by way of the pilot Bodhi Rook. He dies in the Empire’s test attack on Jedha, but only after Jyn Erso has seen her father’s message.
Galen himself dies at the Imperial research station on Eadu, but only after allowing Cassian Andor to redeem his imperiled soul by refraining from assassinating him as per his secret orders. Chirrût Imwe, the awesome blind near-Jedi ninja warrior, has his parts to play, his deeds to do, and only once they are accomplished is he allowed to die, but I want to talk about him more later. Bodhi Rook makes the connection with the besieging Rebel fleet in order to let them know what’s going on at the surface, then, the crucial information passed, he dies. Admiral Raddus has his part masterminding the Rebel attack on Scarif and in particular in disabling the planetary shield by slamming a paralysed Star Destroyer into it so that the transmission can be sent. His ship’s disabled and boarded, and presumably destroyed, but the plans gets out on the Rebel blockade runner Tantive-IV, famous from the opening scenes of A New Hope. Even the brave nameless Rebel soldier fulfils his last and arguably most important duty in passing the copy of the stolen plans into the departing blockade runner before being killed by Darth Vader. Everyone dies, but not until their heroic task is complete.
Not that I want to appear morbid or anything, but this is the same sort of heroic mindset I try to have in my approach to serving Christ. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “I sincerely hope and eagerly expect that whether by life or by death I will glorify God…”
The late ’80s/early ’90s film The Blues Brothers expressed this immortal-until-my-task-is-accomplished setup with the memorable phrase “we’re on a mission from God”.
There’s a lot that’s theologically questionable about that film, but in a sense they did get that much right. We’re on a mission from God for the establishment of His Kingdom in the earth as the waters cover the sea, and in His economy He will not let either the lives or the deaths of His servants go to waste. And just like Chirrût Imwe from Rogue One, both our lives and our deaths have impact and meaning; they are not lost. We are not faceless stormtrooper mooks who can be gunned down in job lots without significance.
Chirrût is probably my favourite character from the whole of Rogue One (with Jyn Erso a close second because I love strong female characters). Mr. “I-am-one-with-the-Force-and-the-Force-is-with-me”, he’s our first in-universe glimpse of a class of people who were presumably quite common in the Old Republic: non-Jedi who nonetheless believe in the Force.
Chirrût Imwe’s approach to the Force is essentially religious, and amazingly for Disney and Hollywood, it’s religious done with respect and even positive approval toward those who are ‘religious’ (ie people of faith) in real life. This is probably the closest equivalence we’ve yet seen in the Star Wars universe for the Force being God in disguise. Chirrût doesn’t use or manipulate the Force; he has faith in it and acts accordingly.
Where Luke, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Darth Vader’s Force is a neutral and impersonal supernatural substance functioning as a sort of wellspring of power to be used for whatever the one doing the manipulating decides, Chirrût’s Force is perceived as almost having a will of its own; it would almost be more accurate to say that the Force uses Chirrût than the other way around.
It’s a deep visual irony that it’s the character who looks most East Asian who has the most Western, Christian theology of the whole Star Wars cycle, but this is what we have here. And the fact that he’s a blind super-ninja is just icing on the cake. He has a leg up on learning the lesson that Luke so struggled with early on: trust not in what is seen, but in what is unseen. Don’t anticipate with your eyes; feel the Force.
Chirrût Imwe has multiple tasks in supporting the main arc of the story, but two of his most important tasks are the two that prove to be his final acts: the switching-on of the data console that let Bodhi Rook make contact with Admiral Raddus’ Rebel fleet, and the redemption of Baze Malbus.
The first of these he accomplishes by walking through a hail of blaster fire to a data console you can’t see, without even another person to get you started in the right direction. Technically I suppose that’s possible if he’s merely using sensitivity to the Force in place of sight, but it looks far more like the Force has a will of its own and wants the Rebels to get the plans.
The film has far too many leaps of probability to make sense any other way; Rogue One constitutes a sort of baptising of the standard Star Wars cosmology and reinterpretation of the universe along more overtly Christian lines.
With this in mind, Chirrût’s mantra of “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me” is a statement of faith.
How does Chirrût do the remarkable things he does? Not through any innate power of his own – he’s blind and not very muscly – or personal godliness – in a sort of Star Wars sense of being a Force-user – but through being “one with the Force”, in tune with the senses and abilities and will of the Force itself.
And only flowing out of his oneness with the Force is the Force “with him”, that is, manifestly present with power to aid. The Force is in charge, and Rogue One is a picture of what this sometimes looks like in practice.
This is way more Christian than Yoda. This is faith, more or less. The follower of Jesus’ relationship to her (or his) Lord.
I’m not saying that God is completely focused on His goal to the point that as soon as our part in that is done we’re “Bantha fodder”, as Jabba the Hutt so charmingly put it. I’m saying that there’s a real sense in which it doesn’t very much matter whether we live or die. “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also”. All the things of this physical world that we cling to aren’t actually eternal. At the end of the day, only His Kingdom is forever.
The other main task of Chirrût Imwe is the redemption of his disillusioned colleague Baze Malbus, the really awesome black guy with the laser machine gun.
Baze is introduced to us as a former guardian of the Kyber temple, like Chirrût, but one who no longer believes in the Force like Chirrût does. Maybe the apparent victories of the Dark Side did it; maybe it was just the long slow grind of life in the evil galaxy-spanning Empire. Whatever, he maintains his disillusionment right up until Chirrût’s death.
It’s strange for us in the modern Western world to think of a death being “fruitful”, but it’s the right word here. Chirrût Imwe might have gone on and become a leader or soldier in the Rebellion, maybe even helping to shape Luke’s destiny, but maybe it was only by Chirrût losing his life that Baze Malbus’ faith could be restored.
Just like our God, this version of the Force seems to care about its followers. We who are followers of Christ know that death is not the end and that God really is the Lord of the Universe and sovereign over all powers and dominions. Whether this film’s version of the Force could ever be said to love, or to be Love, is not something I would like to speculate on, but Rogue One does seem to give a pretty good picture of how martyrdom works in God’s unfathomable economy. We don’t always get it, down here at ground level. So much of the time death looks like a waste; people taken out before their time, cut short from what might have been. I can’t and won’t pretend that there are easy answers for those of us who remain, nor that it would stop hurting if only we understood it from God’s point of view. But I have faith that there is a purpose beyond my sight. In the paraple universe of Star Wars, however, Chirrût Imwe lives and dies as a martyr, a witness to the power of God in the disguise of the Force. Blind yet able to see more clearly than any, shorn of his purpose as a temple guardian but having more innate sense of true purpose than any three other characters together, dying yet conquering, his faith brightens his world and brings hope to what would otherwise be a dark tale, and ends up bringing hope to the galaxy.
You never know what small deeds of yours will suddenly weigh heavy in the scales and tip the balance of the world. This is part of why we are instructed as believers in Jesus to “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of (that is, according to the authority and character of) the Lord Jesus…”, moment by moment depending on His Holy Spirit.
That’s how I want to live. The martyr’s crown wouldn’t scare me, if that’s what my Lord has ahead of me. I’m not foolish enough to seek it out, mind; I’ve got a family and I’m not looking to die. But I trust my Saviour to know what’s best, and I do hope that I fully trust that whether by life of by death I will glorify Him.
My other blog, the LEGO one, features as my latest post a model of a Roman gladiator under the title “Morituri te Salutant“: “We who are about to die salute you”. I wouldn’t want that as my epitaph, but in a sense it’s how I choose to live. This mortal life in the flesh is nice, but not as important as following Jesus. Let them kill the body if that’s what has to happen. I’m in the Kingdom still, abiding forever. To coin a phrase, “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me”.