Anakin Skywalker: Dark Sides & New Hopes
“You have Jesus fist bumping SPACE HITLER?!?!?!?!?!?” is the message I found myself being bombarded by in my Instagram inbox after I showed a new sticker line with artist Lyle Pollard a few years back. I wanted to place a fun visual on the concept of Faith & Fandom, primarily that they can in fact coincide well, so I commissioned a series of stickers that showed Jesus fist bumping iconic characters in the vein of Vegeta and Goku walking away fist bumping. We did Mario, Deku, Batman, and Vader. Covering video games, anime, comics, and sci-fi. Lyle’s art was fantastic, and the response to them at cons was always well received and brought lots of smiles. But some people just really like being angry. The question that was aggressively hurled at me, was met with me explaining how Vader/Anakin’s story is one that echoes so many of our own. That he reminds me a lot of the apostle Paul, or the thief on the cross. Dramatic turnarounds and last-minute conversions. Vader’s story ended with his redemption. It was of course brief, but redemption is powerful no matter how long it's duration.
With the debut of the Obi-Wan's Disney+ series and a resurgence of Clone Wars and Rebels discussions, Anakin has been on my heart and mind recently. Not just his redemption, but the whole of his journey. So, we are going to dig deep into one of the most iconic characters of sci-fi and pop culture history.
One of the frequently cited tenants, and potential downfalls of Anakin’s life was the fact that attachments are forbidden. Which, while understandable, probably hits a lot deeper for Anakin. When you consider that the child was raised as a slave, nothing was ever truly his. Everything that surrounded him was junk, and even that junk didn't even truly belong to him. Even his relationship with his mother was never truly a safe attachment, because even she was not her own. When he finally achieves a victory that he could hold on to in his pod racing, before the applause has truly stopped, he is taken to a life in which he is told that he has to let go of holding on to anything. The life of a Jedi was absolutely a fantastic opportunity, but when you tell a child with nothing and no one, that his future is filled with the concept of never truly having attachments, it’s a hard reality to face. So, when he finally had the chance to be with Padme, the girl he mistook for an angel in his dreary existence, he grasped at it with all that he could. The best thing that Anakin could have done was to embrace his relationship with Padme and walk away from the Jedi order. But rather than doing so, he chose to live a life of duality and divided integrity. One of the things that I state in almost every Faith & Fandom panel at cons is that if there is something forcing us to live divided, or in secret, it’s not going to be healthy for us in the long term.
“The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity.” - Proverbs 11: 3
“May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope, Lord, is in you.” - Psalm 25:21
When our integrity loses structure, all of who we are crumbles. When Anakin realized that he couldn’t have all the things he wanted (the power, the position, the rank, the respect, and the relationship), he moved to live in deception to hold as much of it as he could. That path of self and public deception was the foundation of his downfall. When Obi-Wan was faced with the potential loss of Satine and her seemingly oddly timed confession of love, he told her "Had you said the word, I would have left the Jedi Order.”
Fear is the path to the dark side - Yoda
That path could have been a real avenue of peace for Anakin, but as much as he wanted to cling to the attachment of Padme, he also wanted to cling to the prestige rank of Jedi. Anakin also saw how much damage it did to Obi-Wan to lose Satine, even when they weren’t fully together. While Anakin should have made a better choice, I personally hold Padme at a higher place of accountability in the craziness that followed in their story. She was older and wiser. She had been a queen, and a senator. She of course fought it initially, “You’re studying to become a Jedi, I’m... I’m a senator. If you follow your thoughts through to conclusion, it’ll take us to a place we cannot go, regardless of the way we feel about each other.” As the conversation turned to Anakin telling her that he was incapable of being rational and suggesting they keep it a secret she even came back harder with, “We’d be living a lie. One we couldn’t keep, even if we wanted to. I couldn't do that. Could you Anakin? Could you live like that?” Yet, as their story prolonged, she chose to ignore the potential chaos in encouraging a young Jedi with anger and mommy issues to live a life of secrecy and deception. That’s one of the things I’ve learned over and over in recent years, anything that causes you to live internally divided will end up being destructive.
"No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” - Matthew 6:24
(I know money was never a factor for Anakin, but the two masters thing was always a problem)
Again, I don’t blame him for holding so tightly, even in secret, because when your life has been filled with loss and emptiness, it’s hard to lay things down, or have confidence that things won’t be taken from you. He was shrouded in fear, and that’s no way to live, and it’s also no way to love.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” - 1 John 4:18
When Anakin made moves out of fear, he wasn’t allowing himself a safe place to love, be loved, or grow as a person. He was giving evil a foothold to firmly step in his heart, because as we are all familiar with, Fear is the path to the dark side, but it doesn’t just stop with fear.
Fear leads to anger - Yoda
When a stubborn child is forced to let go, a tantrum ensues. They lash out in manipulation. If you’ve ever worked with children for any period of time, you’ve seen this. As Yoda told Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side,” “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” He was trying to guide Anakin away from that path, but Anakin was just more insistent on holding tighter to what he had. When our attachments are anchored in fear, and we begin to lose them, we can respond in destructive and self-destructive behavior. After Shmi dies in Attack of the Clones, Anakin lets his anger and vengeance go into full destruction, but that only hurts himself even further. This is the case I've seen in my own life anytime I've fully operated out of aggression or anger alone. I’m angry plenty, but when I've let that control me, regret and shame usually aren’t far behind.
This is one of the reasons Paul tells the Ephesian church, “In your anger do not sin” : Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” - Ephesians 4:26-27.
Solomon also warns in Ecclesiastes 7:9, “Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools.”
When anger is what overflows, destruction is sure to be close by.
When Padme attempts to comfort Anakin after his mother’s death, his anger still hasn’t subsided as he is proclaiming that he will become a powerful enough Jedi to stop death, he then proceeds to blame Obi-Wan for his shortcomings. “It’s all Obi-Wan's fault! He’s Jealous! He’s holding me back!” It is quite normal for us to respond in anger to loss. It’s even normal for us to assign blame. But as we already know, Anakin’s anger led him to do much more than just blame Obi, “I killed them. I killed them all. They're dead, every single one of them. And not just the men, but the women and the children, too. They're like animals, and I slaughtered them like animals. I HATE THEM.”
Anger Leads to hate - Yoda
As Anakin knelt and Shmi’s grave he apologized to his mother for not being strong enough to save her. His hatred wasn’t just pointed externally, but was also pointed at himself, and I don’t think that self-hatred ever truly left him. If anything, it only grew. Even before it took place in full force, Anakin truly hated the idea of what his future would be. In the Clone Wars episode “Ghosts of Mortis,” Anakin is shown his future actions and it is crushing to him. He is overwhelmed by the “terrible things” he will do and how much “suffering” he will cause. At that point in his timeline Anakin had already done horrible things, but that didn’t make the future horrible things any easier to carry.
Jesus makes it clear to us in scripture that the heart of things carries just as much weight as the actual action of it.
“You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.” - Matthew 5:21-22
“Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” - 1 John 3:15
He isn’t allowed to keep this foresight, but we get the full understanding that his future existence is enough to cause him to continually live in agony. I truly do think Ahsoka in his life was a balance that kept him from turning sooner, but once she was gone (see Faith & Fandom 7 for a devotional on that), Anakin quickly was able to crumble. Anakin carried the weight of his actions, his fears, his anger, and his hate with him in all that he did. None of his evil actions are justified, from the Tuskens to the younglings. From Dooku to Obi-Wan. From Alderaan to all of it. Just because he had provocation doesn’t take the responsibility away. Were there plenty of chances for Anakin to make better choices? Absolutely. Were there people fighting for him to make better choices? Absolutely. Was all of his suffering and pain simply circumstantial? Absolutely not.
Hate leads to suffering - Yoda
Sitting on this side of the Skywalker Saga we know that Palpatine was manipulating the events of Anakin’s life for many years. Anakin being robbed of Qui-Gon as a loving mentor and master? Intentional. Anakin being pushed to doubt and rebel against the people that led him? Intentional. Anakin’s pupil and friend being pushed away and isolated so that he had less support and encouragement? Intentional. Anakin being given opportunities and assignments that isolated and compromised him? Intentional. Anakin had his own share of circumstances and bad choices that brought him down lower, but we also know that he had an enemy that was ferociously planning and pursuing him. There will be plenty of times where we aren’t our best and we make foolish choices. When we are already wounded, we are much easier targets.
“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” - 1 Peter 5:8.
Anyone remotely familiar with these stories clearly sees how Palpatine was always lurking waiting for a weak moment in Anakin to strike, but we also need to realize our real enemy is doing the same thing in our lives. If we aren’t cautious, we end up with the same status of suffering that Anakin found himself in.
When it feels like all hope is lost, people will often fully embrace destruction.
We know how the story plays out from this point. Anakin goes rogue. He sides with Palpatine, slaughters younglings, battles and loses to his best friend, loses his wife and children (not the kids, but he doesn’t know that), gets a new shiny robotic body and full embraces a life of murder, genocide, and hopelessness. He was 100 percent the bad guy, the villain.
We saw it when Ahsoka and Vader faced each other in Rebels season 2;
“I was beginning to believe I knew who you were behind that mask, but it’s impossible. My master could never be so vile as you.” - Ahsoka
“Anakin Skywalker was weak. I destroyed him.” - Vader.
Similarly, as we see in the climactic battle of the Obi-Wan series,
“Anakin is gone. I am what remains... I am not your failure Obi-Wan. You didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker. I did. The same way I will destroy you.”
Obi responds; “Then my friend is truly dead.”
Realizing you are the villain doesn’t mean the story is over. The apostle Paul knew full well he was the villain and still went on to write half the New Testament and help guide the church for the rest of mankind. “This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all.” - 1 Timothy 1:15. Redemption from your villain arc is possible, but it helps when you still have people fighting for you.
The two people closest to Anakin in life faced Vader and realized the person they knew before was gone. That’s not where the story ends though, and hopefully that won’t be where some other villain’s stories end either. Like Vader we’ve all seen people in our lives spiral out. We’ve seen leaders, pastors, preachers, parents, and everyone in between hit some patch in life where things went beyond their ability to control, and they spiraled out instead of fighting up. Some people don’t fight because they don’t think they can be forgiven. Some people don’t fight because when they try to climb, they get kicked back down. Some people know they can never regain the status they had. It’s a hard place to be. Obi-Wan gave up hope. Ahsoka gave up hope. Anakin gave up hope.
But then we have Luke.
A New Hope
When you look at Vader’s story as a whole, Luke’s introduction isn’t just a new hope for the rebellion or independence. Luke is a new hope for Anakin. As we navigate through their interactions in episodes 4 and ultimately 5 before Luke yeets himself into a pit, they are just laying the foundation for the fact that Luke isn’t going to let his father be abandoned to his own sin and failure. Luke isn’t naïve. Luke saw Vader cut down Obi-Wan. Luke knew his father roamed the galaxy in a giant genocide ball. Luke knew his father had his best friend made into a tv dinner. Luke knew his father was a cold-hearted murderer, but Luke still had hope for his father’s redemption. As Luke prepared to turn himself in during the last quarter of Return of the Jedi;
“But why must you confront him?” - Leia
“Because... there is good in him. I’ve felt it. He won’t turn me over to the emperor. I can save him. I can turn him back to the good side. I have to try.” - Luke
And after Luke turns himself in, he wastes no time in letting Vader know where things are going.
“I’ve accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father.” - Luke
“That name no longer has any meaning for me.” - Vader
“It is the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten. I know there is good in you. The emperor hasn’t driven it from you fully...... I feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate.” - Luke
“It is too late for me, son.” - Vader
Luke believed that he could truly bring back the good in his father. Obviously, things didn’t exactly go as planned, several monologues, some Ewoks, some lightsaber battles later things began to shift, but he started out genuinely. Sometimes that’s all any of us truly need, someone to approach us genuinely tell us who we truly are, tell us that we are more than our sin and failures, tell us there’s still some good in us, and offer to walk with us in what comes next. Sometimes those moments, as simple or as dramatic as they can be, can make all the difference.
“My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” - James 5:19-20
Luke stuck it out. He laid down his arguments. He laid down his weapons (occasionally he did pick them back up and chop off his dad’s hand, but you get the point). He left his comfort zone. He compromised. He showed his mass murdering father more grace than we usually show our own family, friends, or fellowship when they are failing in life. Throughout their back-and-forth battles and dialogue, Luke kept returning to the idea that he believed Anakin was still in there. That there was still good in him. That he wasn’t alone in this. May we be that kind of love and support for those struggling. Not just those that are falsely accused or misunderstood, but the truly guilty as well. Because in the end, we are all guilty ourselves, everyone just doesn’t see the details as clearly.
When Luke made his final stand to the emperor, tossing his lightsaber out of the way, stating that He was a Jedi, “Like my father before me.” I believe he firmly knew he was putting his life solely in the hand(s) of his father. And as Palpatine used thunderbolt, and it was super effective, Vader made the choice Luke knew he would. He turned from his emperor, turned from the dark side, rejected that path, and embraced saving his son. Anakin knew at that point he wouldn’t survive this encounter; the emperor had kept him under his thumb for decades. He still picked him up as the technology that kept him breathing was being decimated and threw his old master to the side. As things were exploding and Anakin was at the verge of death, he told Luke to go.
“I'll not leave you here, I’ve got to save you.” - Luke
“You already have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister....you were right.” - Anakin
How much of a redemption is it if it’s literally in the last moments? How can you call that a redemption if nothing was done to make up for all the evil he had committed? Redemption is receiving undeserved grace. Redemption is turning from who you were to who you truly are. None of us are good enough on our own. If Anakin’s buzzer beater redemption isn’t valid, then what do we say to the thief on the cross next to Jesus?
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” - Luke 23:39-43.
God doesn’t need us to compensate or make up for all our mistakes. He also doesn’t necessarily want us to throw elderly people with lightning abilities over ledges. What he does want is for us to repent. To love Him. To turn from our sin, and follow Him. It doesn’t matter if we’re the apostle Paul, Vader, or anyone else. Redemption is powerful.
“Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He is eager to relent and not punish.” - Joes 2:13
“Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” - Matthew 9:13
Anakin appearing as a force ghost at the end of Jedi is a beautiful moment. I’m grateful to say I saw both versions of that occurrence too. But it’s that moment that tells us concretely that he found his redemption and that it’s something we should celebrate.
“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” - Luke 15:7
Fear, anger, hate, insecurity, deception, and suffering are all real. But so is redemption. Redemption is rare. Even when it’s missing from the majority of our lives and stories, it’s worth celebrating when it shows up.