The Star Wars Prequels as a Journey from Religious Dogma to Mysticism by Dom Nardi
The Jedi in the Star Wars Prequels do not behave much like the Jedi in the Original Trilogy. The only two Jedi in the OT, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, resemble wandering Shaolin monks. They come across as humble wizards with a deep connection the spiritual. By contrast, in The Phantom Menace, the Jedi sit in a huge temple, debate prophecies, and participate in politics. For some fans, this depiction of the Jedi Order as a galactic “Catholic Church” proved jarring, a betrayal of the spiritual principles Yoda had enunciated in The Empire Strikes Back. However, rather than removing mysticism from the Force, the Prequels attempted to show what happens when Jedi deviate from those spiritual principles by becoming bureaucratic and dogmatic.
To be clear, the Jedi in the Prequels aren’t quite villains (well, except for Anakin Skywalker), but they’re also not the best role models. Unlike Pope Francis, the Jedi Order does not seem driven to support charitable causes. In the Prequel films, we almost never observe Jedi protecting the innocent or helping less fortunate.* Instead, the Jedi are depicted as part of the Republic elite, intensely political actors who interact primarily with politicians. When the Jedi do act to rescue somebody, it is almost invariably another member of the elite, such as Naboo Senator Padmé Amidala or Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. It is easy to see why the average citizen might not have cared when Order 66 wiped out the Jedi.
* In The Clone Wars TV show, the Jedi do seem more willing and able to help citizens as several episodes depict them protecting villagers from invading armies. However, even in TCW, the Jedi Council frequently makes foolish decisions based little evidence.
The Prequel Jedi are also surprisingly militaristic, despite Yoda’s admonition in The Empire Strikes Back that “wars not make one great.” When the Clone Wars break out, the Jedi appear too ready to take up arms. In Attack of the Clones, Yoda and the Jedi essentially launch a preemptive strike against the Separatists simply to rescue a few Republic operatives who were apprehended while spying (in the U.S. Civil War, Lincoln was smart enough to let the South strike first to gain the moral high ground). In Revenge of the Sith, Yoda and Kenobi even attempt to assassinate Palpatine and Anakin in cold blood (so much for using the Force only for “defense, never for attack”).
Like many bureaucracies, the Jedi Order is too rigid, unwilling or unable to treat people as individuals. This can be seen in how the Jedi treat Anakin Skywalker. The Jedi Council believes Anakin is the Chosen One, placing great weight in the words of ancient prophecy, but do little to actually guide or train Anakin for his role. The Jedi never takes the time to understand him as a person and remain completely oblivious to Anakin’s inner turmoil, especially his love for Padmé. In Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin seeks advice from Yoda about preventing Padmé’s death, Yoda simply responds with platitudes about rejoicing for those who “transform into the Force.” This understandably does not comfort Anakin and, if anything, further alienates him from the Jedi Order.
Were that all we saw of the Jedi, fans might be justified in believing that the Prequels undermined the spirituality and wonder of the Jedi Order. However, the films plant the seeds for a Reformation as early as The Phantom Menace with the character of Qui-Gon Jinn. Qui-Gon preaches respect for “pathetic life forms” and takes the time to treat all beings as individuals. Qui-Gon manages to rescue both Jar Jar Binks and Anakin Skywalker, even when doing so appears to distract from his official mission. Although Qui-Gon believes Anakin is the Chosen One, he also takes the time to comfort Anakin and fulfill his emotional need for a parent figure. To Qui-Gon, Anakin is the Chosen One, but also a person.
Despite Qui-Gon’s benevolent attitude—or perhaps because of it—the other Jedi consider Qui-Gon as something of a maverick. Obi-Wan pleads that Qui-Gon could have become a member of the Council if he would “just follow the [Jedi] code,” suggesting that Jedi advance by keeping their heads down and following the rules. Again, institutional restrictions discourage humanity. However, Qui-Gon provides the template for the Jedi of the Original Trilogy. At the end of Revenge of the Sith, Yoda reveals that he had communed with Qui-Gon’s Force ghost, who would provide Obi-Wan with more lessons on the Force. Both Qui-Gon’s transformation into a and his rebelliousness suggest a deep mysticism, in which the individual can communicate with the Force without the institutional trappings of the Jedi Order.
Taken together, the six Star Wars films read as the fall of institutionalized religion and the rise of mysticism/spirituality amongst the Jedi. The Jedi in the Prequel era—with the exceptions of Qui-Gon Jinn, Ahsoka Tano, and possible Obi-Wan Kenobi—had stagnated, becoming excessively bureaucratic and too ready to accept dogma. By contrast, by Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker embraces compassion and spirituality. Like Qui-Gon, he treats Anakin as an individual, even though Darth Vader seems hardly deserving of such. Over the course of three movies, the Jedi Order struggled to wean Anakin from his attachments, but Luke manages to do so simply by showing him filial love. Anakin’s sacrifice and Luke’s humility represent the true “return” of the Jedi.
The story of the Jedi provides an important life lesson about religion and worldly power. The difference between the OT Jedi and Prequel Jedi is similar to the all-too-frequent disconnect between religious teachings and religious practice in the real world. Most major world religions generally preach messages of peace and tolerance, yet throughout history religious leaders have aided and inspired horrible atrocities in the name of god, from the Crusades to ISIS. People of faith—all faiths—must realize that not all who claim membership in a religious community follow its teachings. At the same time, the Prequels warn against placing too much faith in religious institutions or dogma. Amidst all the religious violence in the news and the politicians invoking religion on the campaign trail, we must not forget the core of most religious traditions: compassion for others and faith in something greater than the material world.
About the Author:
Dom Nardi is the Contributing Writer for Star Wars at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.