What Darth Vader Taught Me About Heroes, Villains, and Robert E. Lee

Honestly, I hate pop culture references. So promise me now that you’ll for forgive me for this and then I’ll get on with it.


Twelve years ago, I watched Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader. (Oops. Spoiler.) And, in the words of my husband, “It wrecked me.”

The movie was kind of dumb. And I’m not really a fan of Star Wars to begin with. But the short story goes something like this: a young boy named Anakin is prophesied as the one capable of consummating space-world peace. He comes under the tutelage of the Jedi, who wield some sort of impersonal energy field called the Force which can be used for good or evil. The boy is proud and skeptical and, in an effort to save the life of the woman he loves, his loyalty to the Jedi wanes. Through a series of bad decisions, he ultimately chooses the dark side of the Force and becomes one of the most infamous villains in 20th Century pop culture.

There is molten lava and missing limbs and a space suit involved. (It’s all very dramatic.)

And, though movies like this rarely elicit any sort of deep, emotional response from me, what was going on in my head and my heart after seeing the movie was something along the lines of:

“How f-ing unfair! Anakin wasn’t trying to be the bad guy! He was trying to protect his family and the people he loved and he lost everything! He may have been corrupted, but he is a victim of circumstance. Give the guy a break! Give him another chance! You would have done the same thing! Have some mercy!”

Because, you see, I saw myself in the story.

At the time, I was in the midst of a spiritual “dark night of the soul” and I was treading water, doing whatever I could to stay afloat. I had probably made some dumb decisions, but I saw myself just as much as the victim as the villain of my story. And when I thought about the possibility that my road was going to end in my own metaphorical boiling lava pit, it pissed me off.

Here, twelve years later, I’m happy to say I’ve worked through my Star Wars-induced spiritual crisis. But, silly as it seems, what I learned then (and have learned since then) is helping me make sense of a lot of what’s going on in our world today. Most recently, the debate surrounding Civil War monuments and slavery/racism.

So, here’s what I’d like to contribute to the discussion:

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is that I am corruptible.

If you haven’t figured this out about yourself yet, then it’s only a matter of time. And I pray the lesson comes to you innocuously through something like a crappy pop culture movie, rather than through your own serious, life-altering error. Because certainly some of us don’t really figure out our corruptibility until we are years into an affair, thousands of dollars into embezzlement, or staring a police officer in the face after a drunk driving wreck. And, by then, the consequences can be devastating.

And this is one place I see my peers error the most. They believe they are above ethical reproach because they’ve so narrowly focused on self-correcting in one or two areas. These days, you can join the Women’s March or wear a #notmypresident t-shirt for extra morality points in public and online, but never have to reckon with your blind spots elsewhere.

Now, you need to hear me say that “women’s issues and racism are urgent, important issues to address.” (Quote me on it.) But it is a grave danger to believe that you’ve cornered the market on justice because you wear a BLM t-shirt. (I mean, “virtue signaling” is a real thing.)

Sidebar Bible lesson:

The Bible is pretty clear that “sin” is much more complex than just “doing something bad.” And our capacity for sin is complex, as well. If doing what is “right” is the goal then sin is, proverbially-speaking, missing the goal. Even by an inch. Sin is me as anything other than who I would be at the very height of my righteousness (or, you could say, “right-ness”).

(You may think the Bible is a bunch of hogwash, but it’s more-or-less the basis of our common laws and, whether you acknowledge it or not, the source of many of our unspoken social expectations and obligations. So it might be worth considering.)

Now, back to Robert E. Lee:

If you believe, like I do, in the inherent “fallen-ness” of humans, then while there may be circumstantially “innocent” parties (those victimized by racism, slaves, those defending their families from invading armies, etc.), no one is actually categorically Innocent. This is why the Tragic Hero archetype (which we see in characters like Darth Vader) is a little misleading for those trying to come to grips with their own sinfulness and the evil in the world around us. At its best, the Tragic Hero elicits our our empathy. It humanizes our enemies and helps us extend mercy to the villain. But, it can also exploit our pity (like it did mine) and lead us to justify and excuse evil rather than decry it for what it is.

And this is the other area where we really screw it up.

We have a tendency to pick and choose the people to whom  we assign the role of Villain and who we choose for the part of Tragic Hero. It’s usually based on what side of our favorite political issue they stand on and it usually involves a lot of pointing out the inconsistencies in the people on the other side of the issue while ignoring our own. (Now called “butwhataboutism.” Yes, it’s a thing.)

For some, Robert E. Lee is a Tragic Hero of the South; for others, he is pure villain. It’s possible that, circumstantially, both are correct. If we are honest, we have no idea what circumstances lead people to make the decisions they make about what side they are on. The same goes for other zealots and revolutionaries and political leaders throughout history. Sin–even pervasive sin–in the lives of great leaders and brilliant minds is not a new phenomenon. Mankind hasn’t really changed all that much.

It’s possible to understand how a man ends up on the wrong side of history without feeling the need to justify it. But this kind of empathy can’t happen until you are well acquainted with your own corruptibility and admit how easily you might have done the same thing.

This is why it’s okay to be honest. There is no need to save face. Some of our ancestors got it right; some of them got it wrong. You don’t need to protect anyone’s reputation. We’re all in the “sin” boat together and it’s okay to call evil what it is.

But identity politics has neutered our conscience. It has made us more loyal to those who are like us–Southerners, ethnic minorities, working class, women, Conservatives, Liberals, etc.–than we are to what is right.

We need to get more comfortable with the idea that justice (in the holistic, Shalom sense) transcends these identity groups. And until we’re willing to do that, we can’t work together for any sort of solution for the future. We’re at a stalemate. No one is going to budge. We may as well just relegate public discourse to yelling across across police lines and holding clever protest signs that prove our moral superiority.

So does this mean we should topple the statues? Tear down the monuments? Rename the churches and school and highways that were named after the Tragic Heroes or sometimes villains of our shared history? I can certainly understand the desire. Maybe we should. Heck, tear them all down. All our idolatrous memorials to history and heritage and power and superiority. (Don’t quote me on that. I’m being facetious)

Our idols need to be destroyed. You can either smash the idols in your heart or smash them in the public square. I don’t know that it really matters how you do it. But it needs to happen eventually because idolatry (idolatry of family, of nation, of sex, of power, of the past, etc.) will destroy us from the inside out. It will destroy our relationships and it will destroy our ability to see what is right and wrong in the world around us and in our hearts.

We were created to serve only one master. There is only one noble knight riding on a horse. There is only one King on the throne. He is the hero of this story. And–spoiler alert–his name isn’t Robert E. Lee.

(Or Darth Vader.)


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