Hope: Rogue One and the Vocation for Politics

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

I will confess that I had more than a little trepidation going into Rogue One. When the first trailer dropped, I complained to a Facebook group that it looked like an action flick that just happened to be set in the Star Wars universe, and didn’t seem especially Star Wars-y at all. I mean, I was sure that the production design people at Lucasfilm would do their usual commendable job building the “lived-in universe” and as such the film would look like it belonged in the world that the previous films had explored, and the folks in charge of overall continuity would ensure that the story would fit into the timeline. But what bothered me in the trailer was the absence of any obvious references to the Force, the Jedi, and the other parts of the central mythological backbone of the Star Wars saga. The soul of Star Wars, the thing that makes it different from basically any other outer-space adventure series, has always been the Force, and the eternal struggle between its dark and light aspects has always provided the engine that drives the overall plot.

Successive trailers and leaks about the film gave me a little more confidence that we’d still be in the space-fantasy realm in the final version of the movie, but I was still bothered by the apparent absence of anyone definitively Force-sensitive in the main cast of characters. When opening day finally arrived, I sat in the theatre with my family and watched an opening sequence that was about as un-Star Wars-y as I’d feared, despite the armored stormtroopers and the blue milk: no opening text crawl, no soaring theme music, and most jarring of all, after the quick flash of the movie’s title on screen, the name of a planet displayed as a way of explaining to the viewer where the action was taking place. Why was this last one so jarring? Because until this point the only on-screen text we’d ever seen in a Star Wars film was to translate some alien language. Identifying locations with on-screen text overlays is a typical science fiction convention, and Star Wars has never been science fiction; instead of having things explained, we were always dropped into the middle of the action and basically left to figure things out en route. Mystery, not explication — a trick that George Lucas learned from Akira Kurosawa.

Rogue One walks a very fine line between space fantasy and science fiction, and this presses the Star Wars franchise someplace it hasn’t gone on screen before. And as it does, Rogue One is able to do something no previous Star Wars film has been able to do: show us characters wrestling with the dilemmas of practical political action. Where previous Star Wars films were like sacred scripture, Rogue One is a story about the lives of the faithful. Which makes it a perfectly appropriate film for our times.

[From here on in this is not a spoiler-free zone. You have been warned.]

Since what I am writing here is a piece of analysis rather than a piece of fantasy, clear definitions are a virtue rather than a distraction. When I characterize Star Wars as space fantasy rather than science fiction, I mean that even though it features space ships, non-human aliens, and sentient robots, Star Wars is more akin to The Lord of the Rings than it is to Star Trek in that the universe that we see projected on screen is far from “disenchanted.” In a disenchanted universe, events and outcomes have causal explanations that are, broadly speaking, “scientific” — devoid of ghosts and deities, accessible to anyone with the proper technical training, and internally consistent in ways that make them rationally explicable. In such a universe the material world is ethically neutral, subject to technical manipulation within naturally-given constraints; ethical judgments apply to the agendas and purposes of actors in the world, but not to the mute matter of the world itself. As Max Weber routinely pointed out a century ago—developing several insights of Nietzsche’s in doing so—in important ways the story of European society since about the eighteenth century and arguably before is a story about the “disenchantment of the world,” in which older religious frameworks for making sense of both the social and the natural worlds came under assault from an entire package of notions involving technical reason, humanist individualism, and electoral liberalism. The resulting universe is one in which it always seems in order to demand a scientific explanation for everything, in which mysteries are problems to be solved rather than conditions to be simply lived with, and in which the mutual satisfaction of interests is about the best anyone can hope for from any interpersonal relationship.

Science fiction as a literary genre also depends, centrally, on disenchantment. In a science fiction story, we are taken into a projected universe without magic, where our heroes use science and technical rationality to overcome obstacles, where things that might initially look like miracles or the intervention of supernatural beings and forces into everyday life have to be revealed to be, instead, consequences of natural phenomena and natural properties which might start off unknown to us the readers/viewers, but which have an explanation in terms of scientific knowledge that we just haven’t acquired yet. A typical science fiction trope involves the revelation that what some group of people took to be a god is actually some kind of alien or artificial intelligence, and that the powers of the supposed divinity are just advanced science and technology applied to the world in ways that we aren’t currently capable of. This kind of thing happens on Star Trek a lot; Iain M. Banks bases a fair number of his Culture novels on this theme; Frank Herbert’s Dune revolves around a long effort by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood to breed the messiah; Emma Newman’s Planetfall involves religious colonists looking for God and finding, well, I don’t want to spoil that for you but let’s just say that it isn’t a supernatural divine being that called them to the planet they colonized.

The specifically disenchanted element here is the core assumption that valid explanations have to eschew ghosts and spirits and angels and devils and the like, and instead constrain themselves to a material realm understood as lawlike and, in a very specific sense, amoral. Conscious beings—persons—inhabiting such a world can have moral commitments and ethical codes, but their lives and activities take place in an environment where success and failure are not a function of the good or evil character of the person. Virtue in a disenchanted world might be its own reward, in that virtuous action might be regarded as a good thing regardless of consequences. But in a disenchanted world, “good” and “evil” are ultimately moral distinctions drawn by persons, and have nothing but a contingent and potentially fraught relationship with the ethically neutral causal order of nature. Science fiction worlds are like this; so are tragic worlds that are more “realistic” in their depiction of everyday life, but which linger on the divergence between moral virtue and causal efficacy, showing the “good” person’s failure or corruption or defeat by the implacable realities of the situation.

Matters are quite different in an enchanted world, such as that found in fantasy novels and films, as well as in the sacred scriptures of many of the world’s religious traditions. Good and evil in such worlds are ontological principles, part of the fabric of a universe which is far from ethically neutral—it is instead morally charged, and this is a matter of fact for the reader/viewer even if not all of the inhabitants of the world know it or admit it. In an enchanted world, virtue makes its own reward, such that aligning oneself with the morally correct side of the universe produces morally desirable consequences. All of the action in such narratives takes place in a universe that has an inherent, intrinsic moral character, which can be discovered but not produced. The moral order of an enchanted world is in important ways non-arbitrary from the perspective of persons inhabiting that world, even if those persons are sometimes mistaken about precisely what the morally virtuous course of action is or if they are uncertain about their exact ethical obligations. Magic in an enchanted world is far from merely a technology used to manipulate things, but comes with a pronounced moral character—it’s not just a way of getting things done, but a way of getting in touch with the fundamental reality of the universe and aligning oneself with some portion of that reality, whether the good, the evil, or something in between. In Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, probably the clearest expression of the whole fantasy genre, the One Ring is evil and has to be destroyed, and anyone who doubts that the One Ring is evil and tries to think of it (or the One Ring’s master, Sauron) as a strategic asset to be exploited like any other is shown over the course of the narrative to be tragically incorrect.

What all of this has to do with Star Wars is that the universe we see projected in all of the canonical Star Wars films and novels is decidedly enchanted, not disenchanted. The fundamental fact of that universe is that the Force, “an energy field created by all living things” that “surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together” (as Obi-Wan Kenobi describes it to Luke Skywalker in the original film), is divided into a dark side and a light side, and gives people sensitive to it a series of supernatural powers: the capacity to directly affect the minds of others in order to make them do things, telekinesis, impossibly fast reflexes and impossibly enhanced physicality overall, clairvoyance, telepathy, and perhaps most importantly the ability to discern good and evil. Force-sensitive individuals are perpetually faced with the choice between the dark and the light, and while the dark side is a pathway to a variety of ways of exercising and enhancing one’s own power over others, the light side emphasizes (as Yoda tells Luke at one point) “knowledge and defense” rather than “attack.” The Force also has a will of its own, and tends towards balance between its aspects rather than the final defeat of either of them; the first six films of the Star Wars saga are largely a story of that balance being restored after a thousand-year period in which the light (represented by the Jedi) appeared to have defeated the dark (the Sith) and produced a galaxy-spanning Republic that only needed the occasional Force-wielding intervention while most Jedi devoted themselves to the pure contemplation of the Force. Of course, the restoration of that balance involves the slaughter of almost all of the Jedi and the destruction of the Republic at the hands of a Sith lord who becomes Emperor and institutes a reign of terror on countless planets—which further illustrates that the Force has its own agenda, and that agenda might not be especially good for anyone in particular, especially our heroes who strive to follow the light.

And our heroes do follow the light, because the fundamental reality of the Force in the Star Wars universe—its practical, enacted theology—is not something that we the viewers are given the option to doubt. Nor are we given the option to root for the dark side. This is not an ethically neutral world, and the dark side of the Force is as evil as the One Ring. Everything, from the music to the costumes to the on-screen depiction of what the dark side of the Force leads people to do as opposed to what the light side points people toward, works quite seamlessly to make sure that the viewer—if she or he is not being deliberately obtuse—knows who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. (I will not do the deliberately obtuse the courtesy of linking to them; if you want to see what such arguments look like, look at things that I and Dan Nexon have previously written on this topic.) Despite the fact that the first film introduces us to Han Solo, famously skeptical about the Force—”there’s no mystical energy field controls my destiny”—we the viewers know that he is wrong, because we’ve seen Obi-Wan use the Force twice already by the time Han Solo says this. We also know that the light side of the Force is the good one: Vader was “seduced by the dark side of the Force” and “helped the Emperor hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights,” the dark side is a temptation that one has to avoid lest it dominate one’s destiny, and the Rebellion against the Empire is fighting the good fight while the Empire is engaged in horrifying acts of destruction and domination. The moral ordering of the Star Wars universe is as clear as the moral ordering of the sacred scriptures from which it borrows its dichotomous, Manichaean cosmology, and our heroes are all adherents of the light and opponents of the dark, which is the position that we viewers are also supposed to adopt: we feel bad for the poor slaughtered Jedi even as we acknowledge that their fall was in part their own fault for thinking that they had defeated the dark and no longer needed to remain vigilant against it, but we don’t feel bad for Emperor Palpatine when he gets tossed down a reactor shaft even though his machinations were ultimately, unintentionally critical to bringing about a balance in the Force.

All of which brings us to Rogue One, a film which—as I said at the outset—opens more like a piece of science fiction, with textual overlays identifying planets (a gesture that interpolates the viewers into a less mysterious vantage point than simply dropping them into the midst of things does) and without the usual soaring fanfare of theme music that sets an epic/heroic mood (instead we get a jarring one-note blast followed by new music reminiscent of but not identical to the music heard in any previous Star Wars film) and a soundtrack that proceeds without any of the new characters having distinctive leitmotifs of the sort that we are used to hearing in previous Star Wars scores. We do hear a reference to the Force in the opening scenes of the movie, but it is unlike anything we’ve heard in Star Wars before: Lyra, whom we have no reason to suspect is any kind of Jedi, slips a necklace around her daughter Jyn’s neck and tells her to “trust the Force.” But this doesn’t seem to mean that Jyn has any special connection to the moral order of the universe, and while we see her in subsequent scenes from later in her life as a scrappy survivor, we have no reason to suspect that this has anything to do with any mystical status (unlike, say, Rey in The Force Awakens, whom we first meet as a scrappy survivor but have to re-interpret once her Force powers are clearly revealed later in the film). We still have the Empire in charge and it’s still bent on consolidating total domination of the galaxy through fear and terror, but these authoritarian bad guys wouldn’t seem out of place in any science fiction film or political documentary—Jyn’s father Galen is a scientist, and the Empire needs his knowledge and skill (and not that of any Force-wielding wizard) to perfect their super-weapon, the Death Star. So far, so disenchanted; the Jedi are gone, and the Force itself seems to have withdrawn from everyday life.

But we the viewers know something that many of the characters do not appear to know, which is that the universe projected on screen is actually an enchanted one, and the Force is a real part of that world. Bereft of that assurance, the characters we meet—particularly Cassian, the Rebel officer who kills one of his informants by shooting him in the back rather than risking capture—are left to figure things out on their own, making decisions in a far more ethically ambiguous environment. “The Empire is bad and we’re working against it…even though we have to do terrible things in order to achieve our goal” is the practical lodestar that animates their actions, which leads to Cassian being ordered to kill Jyn’s father Galen rather than capture him because the Rebels know that Galen is important to the weapons program but can’t take the chance that he’s not willingly participating in the effort. (Cassian doesn’t kill Galen when he has the chance, but his motivation is unclear: is this a crisis of conscience, or is it a decision to bet on Jyn’s confidence that her father was an unwilling participant in the Imperial weapons program and that the message he sent—a message that Jyn is the only surviving person to have seen—accurately describes a flaw in the Death Star placed there by Galen that makes it possible to destroy the weapon?) The only thing that makes such actions bearable, as Cassian later says in one of the most important speeches in the film, is the notion that the Rebellion is indeed on the good side of things, that the cause, the dream, is noble and valuable enough to make those questionable activities like sabotage and assassination ultimately meaningful. These are not morally praiseworthy actions, but they have been judged to be practically necessary in particular circumstances; absent the cause and the dream, they are just terrible things and their perpetrators are terrible people.

Our point of view as spectators is not quite the same as that of the participants, because of what we know—the Force is real and they really are the good guys—but they can only assert. So instead of certainty, what the participants on screen have is faith: a leap into the unknown, a constitutive commitment rather than a calculated bet, a world-disclosing wager in a situation that isn’t a game of chance with determinate probabilities so much as an opportunity for game-defining performances. Their confidence comes not from certainty that they have aligned themselves with the inherent character of the universe, and that therefore virtue and efficacy are ultimately the same thing; it comes instead from a more existential staking of their very lives on the reality of an order they cannot grasp directly. Cassian’s speech is a profession of faith, and an appeal to Jyn to, by allowing him and the Rebels gathered with him to participate in her impossible raid on the Imperial data facility at Scarif in order to obtain the Death Star plans, help to sustain that faith by reminding everyone of what they are fighting for. The leadership of the Rebel Alliance has refused to back such a raid, preferring grim realism to hope, but Jyn adopts Cassian’s line from earlier in the film “rebellions are built on hope” and decides to go anyway. Jyn hopes that her father was telling the truth, but she also hopes that the Rebellion is indeed fighting the good fight; both of those are leaps of faith too.

If any of the characters knew what we know, they wouldn’t have to make any such leaps of faith, because they would have certainty in the grounds for their action. In the Star Wars universe such certainty comes from Force-sensitivity and proper training and development of that sensitivity, which is most clearly displayed in the old Jedi Order and in those Jedi who grew up in that system. (Force-sensitive people like Luke and Rey, who did not get that kind of training, are shown having more room for doubt and thus needing something more like faith to get them through various challenges; their certainty in the Force and in the ultimate goodness of their cause seems less pronounced than, say, that of Qui-Gon Jinn or Yoda. But I digress.) The closest we see to such Force-sensitivity in Rogue One is Chirrut Îmwe, a former Guardian of the Whills who protected the Jedi temple on Jedha, and who, although blind, has impressive fighting skills, but isn’t capable of even the most simple of Jedi tricks (using the Force to open the locked door of a cell) despite his frenzied intoning of the mantra “I am one with the Force and the Force is with me.” Chirrut lacks the clear and direct connection to the Force that, with training, would provide certainty, so like all of the others in Jin’s party he operates with faith—a faith that takes all of their hopes out of the category of probabilistic calculation and into the category of world-disclosing witness.

As the party boards the captured Imperial shuttle to begin their raid on Scarif, everyone turns to Jyn looking for an inspirational word from the woman who has obviously become their leader. What does she say? “May the Force be with us.” There is much smiling and noise of approval, and only after this do they turn to a consideration of an implementable plan, which Cassian the experienced tactician delineates. The point is that everything is different now; the tactics of the assault are now about creating space and opportunity for good to triumph, and they stay that way as long as faith endures. We viewers get a few signs of that faith in action during the battle of Scarif, perhaps most strikingly Chirrut’s impossible walk through a free-fire zone to flip a key switch that enables a transmission to be sent. Even though we the viewers know from out outside-of-the-projected-universe vantage-point that in the Star Wars universe “there is no such thing as luck” (as Obi-Wan tells Han Solo in the first film) so that such miraculous occurrences have to be connected to the Force somehow, Chirrut is acting in faith rather than acting on certainty precisely because he can’t know what we know. And all of the party’s sacrifices serve a greater purpose in terms of the plotline and morally-charged character of the Star Wars universe which we know but in which they have faith rather than certainty; we don’t need their faith because of what we know to be true about the universe, but they need faith that transmutes their actions into responsible actions in precisely the sense that Weber argued was the foundation of a vocation for politics: bringing together ethical imperatives and empirical exigencies in a way that prevents the resulting practical action from being either pure efficiency or pure idealism. “May the Force be with us” and the leap of faith it instantiates puts the Scarif raid into the zone of responsibility, albeit a responsibility that responds less to the actual chances of a successful mission and more to the broader consequences of allowing the Empire’s super-weapon to stand unchallenged.

There was never a situation like this in any Star Wars film before. There was never a possibility of any such situation before, because there were always Jedi around who could provide certainty rather than faith. In a very important sense there cannot be responsible politics in an enchanted universe, because there is no gap between virtue and efficacy that has to be negotiated or even confronted: if virtue makes its own reward, all one has to do is to act virtuously, which is the same thing as acting effectively. No one needs faith if they have certainty. In every previous Star Wars film, some character on screen shared our outsider’s perspective on the projected universe, and knew what we know; the real genius of Rogue One lies in not giving anyone on screen that certainty, and that allows the telling of a story about faith and about faithful action. Which also makes Rogue One a different kind of lesson for the viewers, who will leave the movie theater and return to a world in which they don’t have the outsider’s perspective on a morally charged universe—after all, none of us are fully-trained Jedi. The previous Star Wars films were like sacred scripture, so they give the viewers a constitutive myth of larger-than-life heroes and villains, in which the viewers might have faith but which they could also just treat as a story. Rogue One is instead a tale about the faithful living in a world where they have no certainty, so it’s a tale more directly paralleling our situations living in our world regardless of our specific ethical codes and moral commitments, regardless of whether we are religious persons or persons following a more secular path. In that sense Rogue One is something like “Star Wars for the rest of us.”

Yes, the rest of us. Because “faith” in the sense I have developed it here applies to any commitment of ultimate values, not just to religious commitments. Without this kind of faith, political action—indeed, all worldly action—turns into a strict calculation of efficiently matching means to ends, instead of remaining a more dynamic realm of contestation and negotiation and the crafting of the kinds of persons we are by how we choose to mediate the competing demands of virtue and efficacy. Enchanted universes don’t need faith and they can’t have this kind of politics, because there are objectively determinate answers to questions about ultimate values. Our universe isn’t an enchanted one, but it’s not completely disenchanted either, as evidenced by the fact that we still claim to have ultimate values. We just don’t have certainty about them, which is why we require faith to give us an assurance that our hopes are more than mere idle desires. Maybe we aren’t and can’t be Jedi, but we can—like Jyn, like Cassian, like Chirrut—act in faith, faith that we are fighting the good fight, faith that the evils we see are actually evil, faith that we are participating in some larger story and not just efficiently pursuing our own arbitrary ends. There is a time to tell the constitutive myth, and a time to tell the stories of the lives of the faithful, and we need both kinds of stories as part of sustaining our own faith—and we need to have faith lest our actions devolve into pursuing untrammeled domination and mercilessly pure security, or evaporate into evanescent, dreamlike, feckless hopes.