Sin and Star Wars, Part I - Anakin Skywalker

As a lifelong Catholic and an almost-lifelong Star Wars fan, it's no surprise (to me at least) that I see a lot of Christian themes in Star Wars. By no means is Star Wars an overtly Christian work; on the contrary, it draws its spirituality from many religions, both Eastern and Western. But George Lucas did intend his story to have themes of good and evil. "I wanted it to be a traditional moral study, to have some sort of palpable precepts in it that children could understand." So while I wouldn't recommend taking Star Wars as your sole source of morality and spirituality, there is some truth to be found in that galaxy far, far away.
There is no God in Star Wars. (Some species and cultures may have gods, but there is no direct analog to the Judeo-Christian God.) However, good and evil are pretty clearly defined in Star Wars, at least in terms of the Force. For example, even though the prequels show us that the supposedly good Republic is corrupt, we can generally equate the Light Side of the Force with Good and the Dark Side of the Force with Evil. So when we are examining the actions of a Force-sensitive character like Anakin Skywalker, his good actions lead him towards the Light Side, and his bad actions lead him towards the Dark.

This post will focus on Anakin's bad actions, his sins. One of the things I'd like to explore is the motivations behind these sins. While I wouldn't consider him blameless (some viewers come to the erroneous conclusion that if the Jedi Order would have just allowed marriage, Anakin would have never turned to the Dark Side), I also don't think he set out to become one of the most evil people in the galaxy. As Aristotle puts it in Nicomachean Ethics:
"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim."
As it is for all rational creatures, so it is for Anakin. I believe that in each of Anakin's sins, he is seeking something good.

Sidebar: But What About Palpatine?
Some might argue with Aristotle's premise - or at least posit that it does not apply universally to the Star Wars galaxy - by pointing to Palpatine. Isn't he just pure evil? On first glance, he seems to be evil for evil's sake. But I would argue that even his actions are in pursuit of a good.

This prompts the question, what do I mean by "good"? In the book The Consolation of Philosophy, the medieval philosopher Boethius outlines several candidates for the chief good that one could attain:
  • contentment, which one gains through wealth
  • respect, which is attached to a high rank
  • power, which comes from being - or being attached to - the ultimate authority
  • renown, earned by seeking glory
  • joy or gladness of heart, gotten through pleasure
And Palpatine makes it very clear which of these five "goods" he is after. (Does the line "Power! Unlimited Power!" ring any bells?)

The Massacre of the Sand People
The first major sin we see Anakin commit is the massacre of the Tusken Raiders after the death of his mother (in Attack of the Clones). There are a couple of different ways to look at Anakin's motivations here. If I ask myself why he killed all those Tuskens, without the Aristotelian/Boethian framework I outlined above, my answer would be that he was angry. The Tusken Raiders captured his mother and tortured her to death. And that's absolutely true, but it's not the whole picture.

If I accept Aristotle's conceit that everything we do is in pursuit of a good, and ask the question again, I see it through a different lens. But what good was Anakin seeking? Justice? The Sand People killed his mother, so justice dictated they should pay for their crime? But that doesn't track. Anakin was not dealing out justice impartially. He was angry. And he didn't just kill those responsible, he wiped out the whole camp. "Not just the men, but the women and the children too."

The problem with that way of looking at it is I assumed "good" meant virtue. But that's not what was motivating Anakin's actions. The first answer actually gets us closer than the second. Anger. Anakin was following his passions. And the reason we follow our passions - sometimes without restraint - is because we are seeking what Boethius refers to as "gladness of heart." In other words, because it feels good.

Anakin followed his passions instead of doing what was right (or refraining from doing what was wrong). He sinned. That put him on the path towards the Dark Side.

Mace Windu and the Younglings
The next instance I'd like to look at comes in Revenge of the Sith. Rushing into Palpatine's office, Anakin sees Mace Windu about to strike Palpatine down. Anakin chooses to attack Mace Windu - saving Palpatine - for the same reason he disobeyed Windu's orders and left the Jedi Temple: he wanted to save Padmé's life. Then, having betrayed the Jedi (he knew Palpatine was a Sith Lord at this point), he did the only thing he thought he could. He submitted himself to Palpatine, becoming his apprentice. And obeying his new master, he went to the Jedi Temple with a legion of clone troopers and killed all the Jedi inside, personally slaughtering the Jedi younglings.

What good was Anakin seeking? Sure, Palpatine fed him a load of nonsense about the Jedi trying to take over the Republic, but I don't think that really motivated Anakin at all. I think that was a lie for Anakin to repeat to himself to help rationalize his actions. No, he did all this because he believed Palpatine could help him keep Padmé from dying. His immediate goal was power, but not power for power's sake. Power was a means to another end - saving Padmé's life. But I think even that seemingly noble desire was disordered. He wanted Padmé to live because he needed her. Because of how she made him feel. So that brings us back to "gladness of heart."

The Difference Between the Two Sins
After examining these two scenarios, I can't help but wonder how they are different. Why did the latter sin draw him completely to the Dark Side, and the former did not? Both sins involved taking innocent lives. Morally speaking, one does not seem more evil than the other. The lives of the Jedi are not more valuable than the lives of the Tusken Raiders. One's value is not derived from one's state of grace, so the Tuskens are not somehow okay to kill because of what they did to Schmi.

But I think the identity of the victims in each case is significant. After he killed the Tusken Raiders, he still wanted to remain a Jedi Knight. And since the Jedi do not kill innocents, he must have repented in some way, right? Although when he confesses to Padmé, he doesn't exactly admit remorse. He just tells her what he did and why he did it. Maybe that's key, though. He decides to remain affiliated with a group that would never do what he did, but he never admits guilt. And so that sin still has a hold on him. As a result, his passions still master him, instead of him mastering his passions.

Then, when he comes to the decision that only by rejecting the Jedi can he keep his wife alive, he falls completely to the Dark Side. He cuts himself off from the "grace" that the Light Side offers.

Redemption - Self-Sacrifice
But there is good news - Anakin's fall was not permanent (spoiler alert for a 35-year-old movie). He is redeemed by his son in a eucatastrophic turn of events. It all comes down to sacrifice. Two sacrifices, actually. The first was Luke's. He dropped his weapon, willing to die rather than fight his father any longer. That sacrifice showed Anakin a couple things. First, it showed Luke's love for Anakin. The only reason Luke was on the Death Star in the first place was to try and bring Anakin back to the Light. Luke was willing to die for his father. Second, it showed Anakin that Palpatine specifically (and evil generally) was not all-powerful. It could be resisted. Anakin had probably convinced himself that he had no other choice but to obey his master. Perhaps he had even convinced himself that he wasn't to blame for joining the Dark Side. But here was Luke, willing to die a painful death rather than join Palpatine.

Anakin finally accepted the love of his son, and responded to it. He made a choice to save his son, not for selfish reasons - as he had with Padmé - but totally selflessly, knowing he would likely die in the process.

Hmm, a sinner dying to self, responding to the sacrificial love of his savior. Sound familiar?


I plan to do more posts in this series. I definitely have some ideas about Luke Skywalker, so he'll probably be next. Eventually I'd like to do Kylo Ren as well, but first I'll wait to see how his story ends.

Did I miss any major examples? Do you have alternate theories about Anakin's motivations? Send me feedback!

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