Mob Rule

This is another short musing.

It may seem odd, but I usually reflect on mob rule during this time of year. It’s something that has struck me as a curiously consistent aspect of all cultures over time, but especially poignant as we all track the trajectory of our common humanity.

It predates the rise of social media, too. There’s no need to worry that I’m going to go off on a rant about that. Besides, a lot of people rant about that all the time and everyone just accepts that it’s never going to change.

Mob rule comes into focus for me during this time of year because the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ comes into heavy focus for Christians. To assuage casual or accidental viewers, you don’t need to worry that I’m here to proselytize or convert with this entry. I’m focusing on an aspect of the account that stands out apart from the religious aspect.

If you’re not familiar, Jesus was welcomed into the city and hailed as a hero. About a week later He was given a show trial, beaten, and then killed. People had cheered and adored him.

Then they pivoted and called death within days. Someone who’d been hailed and cheered, killed in part thanks to a manipulated opinion designed to steer the crowd toward that end.

The play Les Miserables is full of romanticized lies about the revolutionaries, overlooking the fact that they turned into bloodthirsty animals.
Even if you don’t like the allusion to the inherently religious tale of Christ, the French Revolution is chock full of good examples of when the crowd turned from righteous to terrible.

Don’t Be a Tool

I’m reminded of the old saying, “A person is smart; People are dumb.” Mob rule is a fearsome thing because fervor turns too quickly to blood lust.

Even if you remove the religious significance of the story of Jesus, it’s a powerful reminder of this lesson. Sadly, it’s a lesson that people seem to keep forgetting. As they rush to jump on a hashtag wave, fall all over themselves for hot takes during world events, or call for a person’s ouster for the temerity to disagree on an issue, people allow themselves to pursue only their own exercise authority through the power of the crowd. They rarely stop to question the motivations of those who move it.

The crowd has always been fickle. The crowd will always be fickle. When the crowd wants blood, it will get it.

We’ve all been swept up in the powerful wave of popular sentiment. It’s easy, it feels good in the moment, and only in the aftermath do you realize that a little rational, individual thought would go a long way. Mercy would often go even farther.

May we all remember the dangers of being a part of the crowd.

Anakin’s Divine Origin

Strap yourselves in, we’re about to make the jump back into deep Star Wars territory. But it’s really, really, really interesting stuff to consider.

If you’re a geek.

Not so long ago, I tossed out a random thought that prequel haters who reject Anakin’s divine birth while at the same time accepting the concept of the Force are somewhat hypocritical. Jar Jar Hater in specific jumped into the fray, stating

JJH: “Having faith is not tied to one religion.”

kj: Nor is the concept of divine birth/lineage.

Let me further clarify my own response: I do understand that the Virgin Birth is very much related to Jesus Christ/Christianity. As someone who subscribes to that faith, it was also the first thought that popped in my head. I remember the collective gasp at the midnight showing when Qui–Gon received that explanation from Shmi.

Naturally, like ripples in a pond, the impact of this plot point was felt on every shore of fandom. Lucas had brought in religious notes to the Most Revered Original Trilogy, and we all spent the majority of our lives pretending we were intellectually versed on the Heroic Monomyth because he kept referencing Campbell’s seminal work in interviews about the conception points for Star Wars concepts.

Specificity

But a Virgin Birth wasn’t some fuzzy concept drawn from Eastern beliefs for which we had no proper context as children of Western culture. So I want to examine this question: Why would Lucas tie it, in the eyes of people like Jar Jar Hater, to such an easily–identifiable point of belief for a substantial portion of the planet’s population?

Or Did He?

Lucas has given numerous interviews wherein he copped to being spiritual without being religious. Now, unless he was trying to go against that basic personality trait and proselytize to the entire fanbase, we’re left to puzzle why he used such an “easily–recognizable” plot point.

My own conclusion is that it was an easy shorthand for the audience, using the presumption that they know the connotations of a virgin birth, which is safe. So it’s not so much tying to one religion as it is using a story shortcut. He wanted to communicate the idea that this kid was a child whose birth was foretold by a prophecy, and divine birth is a really, really easy way to do that.

So yes, he used an easy shortcut and relied on that shortcut to reinforce to the audience why this child was special. Is it possible that he placed it in there to shore up the idea of prophesied birth since midichlorians would be such a foreign concept to all but Scientologists?

Heck, it’s even possible he came up with the idea of midichlorians after the virgin birth part in order to try to divorce the plot point from the Christian connotations. Arguably, if this is the case, and I have no idea if it is, he did not succeed.

It’s Not a Virgin Birth Per Se

Lucas himself has said that it’s more a matter of a god/gods interacting at a base level with a human, the way Zeus used to run around knocking up Vestals all over the place. Considering the fact that there is a very strong allusion to the culture of Ancient Greece in how Anakin is raised, this would be consistent with the other elements.

In other words, some midichlorians got drunk one night and took advantage of Shmi when she was feeling a little lonesome.

Alternate Interpretations

Lucas himself opens up the interpretation of the truth of Shmi’s story in Revenge of the Sith when Palpatine makes reference to Darth Plagueis’s ability to create life by influencing the midichlorians. So even thought Shmi did not know explicitly that she had been manipulated into carrying a vessel of the Dark Side, there’s a sort of “Rosemary’s Baby” situation happening.

Of course, this relies on whether Palpatine is telling the truth. But even if he is, you’re left to wonder if Anakin was specifically conceived with the help of Darth Plagueis or if Palpatine is using a little bit of truth to get inside Anakin’s head. He would full well know Anakin’s supposed origins, and so he could tell the truth about Darth Plagueis’ abilities, even if Plagueis didn’t create Anakin on purpose.

In the book Star Wars: Darth Plagueis, James Luceno does a really terrific job of exploring the possibility while still leaving it open for people to read it how they want to read it. It’s that rare type of gem in the Star Wars Expanded Universe: worth reading, well written and leaves things open for your own interpretation without violating the text of the films.

Another interpretation is that Shmi was fibbing. This had popular support among the fanboys until Revenge of the Sith came around.

Conclusion

So really, this all goes toward saying that “I get it” about Jar Jar Hater’s complaint, I just don’t give it much weight. Lucas’ intent certainly wasn’t to make a clearly Christian reference. The worst you could accuse him of is using a lazy way to communicate Anakin’s importance.

I know full well who’ll jump all over that comment, but don’t care. Lucas has been many things, but intellectually lazy has never been one of them.

Troubling Immortality

The Force, as explained in certain moments in the prequels, does not afford everyone the luxury of retaining their identity after death. Yoda has the exchange with Anakin in Episode III, in fact, wherein he admonishes him for wanting to protect someone from death. He tells them that they are one with the Force and to let them go; in the psuedo-Buddhist path of the Jedi, it should be enough to know that we are returned to the ether. The desire to hold onto who we are is, by implication, greed of a corrupting sort since it leads, as we see with Anakin, to the desire to retain life at all costs.

The first inclination we have that this barrier has been broken is when we hear Qui-Gon’s voice in Episode II as Anakin kills the Tuskens. Yoda, deeply attuned to what is happening half a galaxy away, hears two voices in his meditations. The first is Qui-Gon, the second Anakin screaming “No!” (An interesting point of debate would be whether he’s screaming “No” in horrified anger at his mother’s passing, or horrified self-reproach at what he’s done.)

For those that might like to argue the idea that it’s a surprise to hear Qui-Gon, I point to Yoda’s bookend exchange with Obi-Wan at the end of Episode III. Note Obi-Wan’s surprise at the fact that Qui-Gon has managed to return from “the nether world of the Force” as Yoda explains that he’s going to train Obi-Wan in the ways that will show him that path.

I have a long-standing policy of pretty much ignoring “expanded universe” writing that might conflict with the story and symbolism of the films. This has been, in fact, long-standing policy by Lucas as well; his story, his rules. Look to the (mercifully rescued) origins of Boba Fett if you don’t believe me. I will, however, moderately suspend that rule to include the novelization of the film which supports my point here.

On a side note, I’d like to call out Qui-Gon for being a total douchebag in not sharing this with Obi-Wan directly. Thanks a lot, Master. I think “path to immortality” should be among the top lessons for me as you teach me the ways of the Force. Right up there is lightsaber training.

There are slightly bigger “technical” questions raised by this fictional path to Enlightenment.

First, the exclusivity issue. You have to ask yourself, what type of enlightenment makes these few Jedi able to retain their selves while the rest of the universe passes to dust? Further, what does it say about the Jedi that they are not on a mission of evangelization, to assist everyone to share this ability with people as a whole?

I think that the latter question can be tied to its uniqueness and its “discovery” at the time of the prequels. The door to Blue Ghostiness was not open even to the Jedi until that time, at least judging by the evidence in the films. At the very least it’s a “lost art” that the Jedi have either convinced themselves is folklore or they they simply dismissed as unnecessary at some point in their past.

For the former, though, that one’s up for debate. It’s obviously something that requires training. But if that’s the case then how did Qui-Gon achieve it? We know that he was something of a maverick, but what is missing from his back story that would shed light on this? Again, there was mention in early script drafts and the novelization, but nothing committed to film. To be honest, since I prefer it when things are blurry in the margins to give me room to bring in my own thoughts, that’s OK by me.

But there’s that little matter of Anakin becoming an abomination. That’s a tough one to forgive, especially when viewed from the perspective that he gets to “retain his identity” after death and in fact transcend where most in the context of the Star Wars universe are left to be nothing more than victims of a tragic zero-sum outcome, a whole lot of them at his hands.

I know that one of the points of the series is redemption. Reconciliation and Redemption are key cornerstones of Christianity and precepts to which I subscribe. That means that anyone has a chance at redemption no matter what they’ve done.

But.

There are some philosophical issues with a mass murderer being given the keys to heaven. What a terrific leap of faith to extend forgiveness to someone for terrible deeds. It’s one of the reasons I really enjoy these films. Because at the very least, I always feel challenged to ask how much I could forgive. Is there such a thing as too much forgiveness?

Anakin Skywalker. As a character, he goes from wide-eyed little boy to abomination, and in the end fulfills his destiny through the redemptive love of his children. Maybe that’s the enlightenment needed: love. So long as someone loves you with that pure, forgiving love, forgiveness can be extended by grace to be accepted as soon as someone opens their heart to reconciliation.

That’s pretty beautiful, ain’t it?

The Devil and The Dark Knight

It’s no secret that I love the movie The Dark Knight.  I’ve loved it since I first saw it, and I’ve only grown to love it more.  It’s been a couple of years since its release, but it resonates with me on a lot of levels still.  If anything, I enjoy it even more now than I did then.

It goes without saying that Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is electrifying.  Many people have spent a lot of time expounding on that.  Others have spent time unfairly mocking Batman’s vocal inflection, kind of not getting why he speaks with the intonation he does.  That’s fine; it’s one of those choices where if he didn’t make the voice as over the top as it was, people would complain that he didn’t sound different enough.  People find a reason to complain no matter what choice a director makes.

But a train of thought that has started gaining traction, that’s really been the root of my respect for this film, is the allegory of God and the Devil.  On the surface, it’s a very obvious good and evil morality tale with Batman fighting the good fight against the inexorable evil of the Joker.  That’s the universally accessible part.

However, intended or not, there is a decidedly Judeo-Christian aspect to the tale, and even a specifically Christian concept of God expressed in its resolution.  Read no further if somehow, you haven’t yet seen this movie and don’t want it spoiled.

The first movement of the film shows The Joker doing exactly what the Devil does.  He sows discord and mayhem for nothing more than his own pleasure.  Technically, he barely gets his hands dirty.  He lets the sinners around him destroy each other and then the only ones he has left to destroy are those that thought the riches he promised had worth.  In a particularly beautiful and malicious moment, he places a grenade in the mouth of a mafia accountant…that does nothing more than spew out smoke.

If I don’t need to kill you, The Joker lets us know, then I’m just as happy to break you.

The Joker also is a malevolent force for those that invite him into their lives.  After a demonstration of power, the mob (a synod of evil deeds) invites the Joker into their lives.  And through the course of the film, they find that this deal they’ve made with the Devil costs them everything they had as he continues to promise more.  Of course, at the end, the only one left standing is the Joker.

Reinforcing this thought is that when he takes the last vestige of territory from the mob bosses, he does it against a backdrop of flames.  There is no one else in control now except the Joker (the Devil).  He has literally killed (consumed) everyone who bargained with him.

We’re introduced to Batman as and “Old Testament God” figure in the beginning of the film.  He is a symbol of fear and respect.  People refrain from dealing drugs or making mayhem (sin) because they’re afraid of potential repercussions.  You may never see him, but he is there and he will punish the wicked.  The Law is not to be broken, nor are the rules to be enforced by any but those he ordains.

That’s just the obvious surface allegory.

The Book of Job finds an echo through The Dark Knight.  Harvey Dent, a good man, lives a righteous life following the law and building a better world.  He is constantly tested; people around him don’t like him because he is not flawed as they are.  Is he just another politician or does he really believe in doing the right thing?

We know him to be a truly righteous man because we see him judged by Batman — though he doesn’t know it — and pass with flying colors.  Batman, for lack of a better word, blesses him with his grace and promises of success and support.

Batman/Bruce Wayne acts much the way God does in terms of the sanctity of life.  The Joker promises the city death targeted at the most helpless unless people take the life of a single man.  One life, weighed against hundreds.  Does Batman allow the one man to die?  No, he moves to preserve that one life.  The message is plain: one life, any life, is worth saving.

The Joker, meanwhile, sows merry chaos and offers seductive logic to explain it.  If anything, the scene in the middle of the film highlights the Joker’s Devilish nature.  He offers explanations for his actions that make sense.  But for his complete lack of compassion, the Joker is a fully functional soul.  However, he lacks any desire beyond inflicting pain for the sake of bringing people down to his level.

Again, as he says repeatedly, he didn’t do anything.  He merely offered people choices.  They could have said no.  Their acceptance of him and his ways is what leads to the mayhem.  The Joker tells Dent the strict truth after he’s taken love and pride from him: he didn’t do anything.  He just sets the pieces up and then follows where they lead (“a dog chasing cars”).

His overall mission is to prove to Batman (God) that people are destined to be just as ruthless, cruel and fallen as he, which Batman won’t accept. He is willing to stake everything on the idea that people will do the right thing when shown the path.

He’s proven right, of course, to the surprise and amazement of The Joker and even the audience.  When presented with the opportunity to kill others to their own lives, two groups of people – one convicts, one average people – choose instead to save their souls instead of their lives.

What follows is the most poetically Christian allegory of the entire film.  Batman, with the dead and broken Dent before him, realizes that Harvey’s evil actions (sins) will condemn him and destroy people’s faith in the goodness of the world, a goodness proven just that night.

Batman absolves Dent and takes his sins upon himself. He tells Gordon to tell the world to blame him. He even turns his face, burned (!) into a ‘good’ and ‘evil’ side, so that the scars are no longer showing.

In so choosing, Batman is no longer simply a judge but a force for redemption and salvation.  He evolves from the understanding of God as Law Giver into a Jesus-like figure who forgives through love and faith while retaining the established law.

He is willing to take the sins of a man on his shoulders to preserve his living memory – his soul – so that people will remember the good that he’s done.  In transferring the burden of guilt from the man, redemption is always an option even if people never asked for it.  Forgiveness will always be there.

I’m hoping that in finally committing this to writing, I can give my friends a much-needed respite from my endless ramblings on this topic.  It’s doubtful.  Because it strikes such a resonant, harmonious chord that is frankly surprising from a superhero movie.

And this doesn’t even delve into the issues of freedom and security in the modern world about which it challenges the audience to think! Maybe somewhere down the line I’ll write about that one….