The black cape billows, cresting in a dark wave as frigid silence fills the main corridor of Tantive IV. Modulated breathing exhales, takes shape into words resonating with portentous bass tones. Darth Vader has arrived. Doom and death arrive with him.
When I was a seven-year old plopped on the couch and wide-eyed while watching Star Wars with my dad, Darth Vader held mythic gravity over my imagination. I was struck by this imposing tower of darkness, masked and seemingly removed from all humanity. Palpable evil clung to his gleaming, samurai-like armor, though I reasoned he was a lot smarter than the hammy villains I wrinkled my nose at in Saturday morning cartoons. Even to a seven year-old, Vader represented something deeper and far more complicated.
Vader was an enigma. As his fists choked the life from hapless ship officers (job turnover on Star Destroyers is pretty quick) and his voice rumbled with orders to capture “those Rebels,” Vader shifted from ruthless to wrathful to reflective. He could sear our hero’s hand in one moment, and then in the next…he would be contemplating the stars, silent beneath that iconic mask. In that moment, I could sense histories unspoken within Vader, a misshapen entity of warring darkness and light now buried deep.
Return of the Jedi and the later prequels justified my childhood convictions by adding narrative layers to Vader’s story, endowing it with an almost-Shakespearean tragic quality. Whether you like the prequels or not (I appreciate them for what they are), they brought the story full circle by giving us the seeds for one of cinema’s most infamous villains enfolded within the origins of a slave boy from Tatooine.
Though the prequel trilogy does not attend to this detail as much as it should, Anakin spending the first nine years of his life as a slave matters. Inured to clinging to what he can call his own because there is little he can claim, Anakin is a boy molded by fear of loss and anger at being denied freedom, the ability to choose the course of his life. Anakin the man is shaped by those same forces, and because he does not have access to any outlet to process them, to heal from the trauma of his past, that tangle of anger and fear festers. A phantom puppet-master waits above, manipulating the man’s wounds to pave his own path to despotic power.
Anakin’s fall bears such harrowing weight because it could have been prevented. As a Jedi, his vulnerability and cravings for affection were largely neglected, and the relationships he did claim (Padme, his mother, and Obi-Wan) ultimately contributed to his fall because they were not enough to fill the chasmal void inside him. He is a black hole carved out by constricted, sweltering slave years, suctioning in love and affirmation and assurances of security as he teeters between darkness and light. Desperate to save those he loves and throw off the perceived shackles of the Jedi, Anakin makes a choice with galaxy-altering ramifications and finds himself enslaved again–this time to the Sith Lord Emperor Palpatine.
Those of us familiar with the Star Wars ‘verse know what follows. Jedi annihilation. Establishment of a fascist regime. Anti-alien persecution. Or, in layman’s terms: murder, brutality, and oppression. Anakin becomes Vader, and his last tethers to humanity disintegrate more and more with each act of cruelty. This is the villain over which we wait for the heroes to triumph. We rub expectant hands together for the depraved symbol of evil to thud to the ground with resounding finality.
When seven-year old eyes watched Emperor Palpatine’s body ravaged by Force lightning and hurtling into the abyss, thrown to his death by his masked apprentice, I was proved wrong.
Years later, when asked about my favorite scenes in the entire Star Wars saga, I will ramble on and on about my first: Luke watching the binary sunset on Tatooine, yearning etched on his boyish face. The second favorite is Vader’s pyre.
Vader’s pyre is the concluding note to what I think is one of the most profound stories of redemption. After decades of being caged in a mindset engineered by violence, fear, and hatred, Vader unearths a long-entombed hope for freedom, galvanized by the unflagging love of his son. After muted seconds battling between the deformed man he has become and the man he once aspired to be, watching his son tortured before his eyes, Vader chooses again. This time he chooses to overthrow the Master enslaving him–not just the Emperor, but his own fear and self-loathing. Years of depravity shrink away in that monumental moment when Vader embraces the flicker of goodness that his son sees in him and acts on it. Love compels his actions, and it is love that redeems him.
The years of collateral damage, the destroyed worlds and broken lives, do not disappear as if they never happened. They created the scars on his cheeks, are carried in the weight of the suit he depends on to survive. Yet as Luke lifts the mask at last from his father’s head, Anakin breathes the air again. Body slipping into death, he inhales new life, liberated from any man-made shield of twisted wire and cold metal.
When Vader is finally laid to rest in a wreath of fire, the steam and smoke issuing out of his suit, rising with the flames, resembles a spirit released to the air. The Force Theme loosens into space like a distant hymn, and the funeral’s only attendant lets the tears slip down. It’s such a beautiful image to me that encapsulates the Gospel I hold to, that even a fallen figure like Vader can change so profoundly and find freedom. It feels irrational and impossible, yet we can see the evidence of such change when we learn to stop clinging to the Masters that enslave us.
Maybe we’re not tyrannical space overlords with mystical powers, but the choices we make also arise out of what is in our hearts and what we value most. If we value the wrong things or grip too tightly to good things, dismissing the consequences as necessary, our choices can entrench us-and others-in suffering. There is always the danger that our pursuit or preservation of what we value can morph into a destructive fixation without that awareness. If we value our security and self-preservation most, we have found our Master. If we value our possessions and what our relationships can give us above all else, we will grasp for it. If we cling to what we are most afraid to lose, we will inevitably lose much more.
If I yearn for a job, or a romantic relationship, or the security of my friends and co-workers’ praise, or to just be seen as a good person and I make those the axis about which my life turns, when the axis topples, because imperfect things always do, where will I fall? When I see my pursuit for good things riddled with obstacles, what will I compromise, who will I hurt to keep reaching for what I want as mine? And if I get it, will it be enough?
The Gospel vibrating through the person of Jesus challenges us to leave our man-made Masters behind to discover who we are meant to be through relationship with the only Master who will never abuse us. We become freed to make choices that shape our context for flourishing rather than miring us deeper in regret and fear and doubt. We learn to value the things that endure, all that God gives us in their rightly ordered places so nothing else can hold us captive. Here we love and learn and pursue good things best. We no longer spend nights paralyzed with fear about losing what we care about or worrying about whether we will ever be good enough.
Despite our mistakes and our wrongs committed against others and against ourselves, Jesus endows us the hope of a new life where we do not stand condemned by our pasts.
Our world does not abide by this narrative–this thinking appears naive and foolish, applicable maybe to those “not-so-bad guys” but not “that trash.” Romans 3:23-24 defies this dismissal, heralding an age of grace we crave yet cannot understand because this story emanates from a source who transcends the fabricated systems that govern our morality and inform our perceptions.
The Gospel unmasked in the Bible is for the Vaders of the world. In this story, we can watch a spirit rise from its suited prison and rejoice because we too know what it is to be freed.
*This post was inspired by my original musings about Vader on my Tumblr blog