Kylo Ren vs Cancel Culture

Ben Solo is going to get redeemed. You can count on it, at least if JJ Abrams understands even the smallest thing about the moral universe that George Lucas created in the first six Star Wars films. Redemption is as baked into the DNA of Star Wars as lightsabers and space battles, and to swerve away from that in the supposed final chapter of the Skywalker saga would be far more shocking than killing off all the characters at the end of Rogue One. Whether that redemption involves a love scene with Rey remains to be seen (don’t count on it), but by the end of the film Kylo Ren will have returned to being Ben Solo, and he will have found redemption. 

Redemption is the core theme that runs through the entire nine film Star Wars Saga – from Obi Wan Kenobi in the first film to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, our characters have fallen and had to redeem themselves. Some, like Han Solo, began in a fallen place – he was a scoundrel, a drug smuggler, a killer – while others, like Anakin Skywalker, began in pure innocence.

(Side note: the only leading, speaking character in the Saga who doesn’t need redemption is Leia. It’s interesting to consider what might have happened should Carrie Fisher have survived to act in Rise of Skywalker; surely her relationship with her son would have been front and center in the film, and perhaps we would have found her needing to seek personal redemption for however she feels she failed him.)

Redemption goes deeper in Star Wars than just character arcs – the first film in the series is itself redemptive of a lost cinematic form. Coming in 1977, at the tail end of the semi-nihilistic New Hollywood era, and coming a few years after the end of the Vietnam War and the resignation of President Nixon, Star Wars presented a less nuanced view of the world, one where there were good guys and bad guys, a Light Side and a Dark Side of the Force. This aspect can’t be underestimated when we look back at the success of that film – there’s a freshness to its almost childlike belief in good and evil, a freshness that served as a balm for a culture that had been deconstructed for the past decade and change, that had lost all faith in the idea of good guys. 

Over time that would change – when Lucas returned to the franchise at the end of the 90s he was less interested in clean-cut good and evil (and we would come to understand that the Empire was a stand-in for the United States) – but in 1977 that didn’t matter. Heroism was redeemed, and the power of goodness could turn even a space pirate like Han Solo into a selfless hero, literally coming from the light to save Luke Skywalker in the final run on the Death Star. 

Star Wars has always been more than just a toy generator, and the fact that redemption is baked into the universe comes from the spiritual underpinnings that Lucas installed from the start. George Lucas calls himself a Buddhist-Methodist, and you can see both spiritual traditions at play in Star Wars’ redemptive aspects. Buddhists believe that we are all born with Buddha nature, but that the events of our lives create confusion and delusion that hide our own innate perfection from ourselves. The goal is to remove the defilements and return to our natural state. It’s quite the opposite of Catholicism’s Original Sin doctrine. 

As for the Methodists, they stand in direct contrast to the Calvinist belief that all of our lives are pre-ordained by God. To the Methodist there is a choice, but more than that, there is the opportunity to change the path you’ve taken and to become sanctified. Good works are important to Methodists, and ‘new birth’ (think being Born Again, but maybe not quite so intense) is the first step in a redemptive path that is available to literally everyone. More than that, redemption is possible even to those who have been holy and fucked up – John Wesley, a founding thinker of the Methodist Church, talked about this in his sermon A Call to Backsliders

At the heart of both of these faiths is the idea that we are good, inherently. Buddha nature is within us all, and for the Methodists the doctrine of penal substitution (that Christ died to take on the punishment for our sins) offers everybody a conceptual clean slate. You can see Darth Vader partaking in some penal substitution in Return of the Jedi, destroying the Emperor to save Luke from the Dark Side, and in the process losing his mask and returning to his initial state of grace.

These ideas are pretty commonplace, but in the current cultural climate they also feel sort of out of touch. This, I think, is what has been feeding a sense of unease in some quarters about Kylo Ren’s inevitable redemption, especially since the First Order seems (accidentally, I believe) hard-coded to represent the rise of Neo-Nazi far right movements and the totalitarian turn of the GOP. Kylo isn’t just a bad guy, he’s a bad guy who is hanging out with the Proud Boys and spewing alt-right nonsense. He collects the Star Wars universe’s version of Nazi memorabilia. He should be canceled. 

Cancel culture is a thing. Or it’s not a thing. It all depends on who you talk to, and what their position is on issues of accountability and social justice. I, as a Canceled-American, have some opinions on the whole situation, but maybe they’re not quite what you’d expect.

Yes, I believe cancel culture is a thing, but I don’t think it’s a new thing. I think it’s part of the human need for black and white security, a need that has existed for centuries. A need, frankly, that was fed by the original Star Wars. I do think that the word ‘canceled’ captures this ancient human urge pretty well, though – it speaks to the way that bad people are cut out. There’s a finality to it – people aren’t put on hiatus or given a time out, they’re canceled. You can draw a line from our ancient nomadic ancestors exiling transgressors to modern cancelation – you simply gotta get bounced out of the group.

It’s inherent in American carceral society and the way we approach crime. There are states where felons can never again vote, which is insane. Talk to a person who is getting out of prison – who has served their time! – about what it’s like trying to get a job. Look at the ways sex offender registries are engineered to deny offenders the ability to have a home and to corral them back into prison (most people on the registries who go back to jail do not go back for re-offending, they go back because they didn’t check in or register properly. The bureaucracy is designed to do this. It is, as they say, a feature, not a bug). We believe in punishment for criminals, but not rehabilitation. And we kind of believe the punishment should be ongoing.

Cancel culture and the carceral system is deeply Calvinist – the concept is that you are bad, you are always going to be bad, and the badness is an inherent and defining part of who you are, so we simply must be rid of you. That means the converse is true, and in Calvinism that comes through as some people being the ‘elect,’ who are chosen by God to be saved. You see this in cancel culture as well. In theological terms this has been called antinomianism, which basically says that since you’re already saved you don’t need to follow the Ten Commandments, but the Calvinists took it in a less lawless direction and said that the elect would just want to follow the Ten Commandments naturally, they didn’t need to be forced to do so. You see this today – when stories about the New Zealand mass shooter’s history talked about how he was bullied the common social media response was “I was also bullied but you don’t see me killing anyone.” The basic idea here is that while the shooter and I had similar experiences I am not evil, and thus I did not do evil things. The shooter was evil, and thus did evil things. This ignores the vast complexity of circumstances that form a human being and rather brings the whole matter to “I am elect and he is not.”

Nobody is elect in the Star Wars universe, and nobody is destined to be bad. Destiny exists, of course, but it’s not the kind of predestination that would drive Calvinists (or to which JJ Abrams subscribes in his Star Trek reboot, which posits that no matter what the circumstance, that particular crew of the USS Enterprise was fated to be together, and they would come together even if the timeline was changed). Rather it’s closer to the active destiny that has to exist with an omniscient God – just because God knows what you’re going to do, since He knows everything, doesn’t mean He made you do it. He just knows what you’re going to do. So destiny in Star Wars requires active participation from the characters; they can’t just putz around and assume the Force will get balanced. But at the same time if they pay too much attention to destiny, as the Jedi Council did with Anakin, they can really fuck things up… although it turns out the fucking things up was part of how it was all supposed to work out. Wild.  

It’s sort of like how we experience Anakin in The Phantom Menace. We know where he’s going to end up, but we’re not making him get there. He’s introduced in a state of purity – quite literally, being of a virgin birth – and then the character makes decisions (comparing God to a fiction writer is complicated, of course, since Lucas is forcing Anakin to make those decisions. But you hopefully see what I’m getting at) that lead him to a fall from grace.

One of the big failings of the Prequel Trilogy is that it didn’t really give us Anakin’s fall from grace in a way that worked. There are too many shortcuts, and while Lucas is trying to show us that Anakin’s turn to evil was not based on an innate badness but rather a desire for control and to protect others, he skipped too many steps. Kylo Ren, on the other hand, has a much more compelling fall from grace, one that gets outlined in The Last Jedi, and that speaks to the larger questions of whether someone is good or bad, and plays with concepts of predestination.

We don’t know what Ben Solo was like as a kid, we don’t know the exact elements that shaped him, but we do know the inciting incident that moved him to the Dark Side – it’s the night that Luke came to visit him as he slept. Star Wars has always been a riff on Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, but here director Rian Johnson adds Rashomon to the mix, showing us the night through multiple perspectives. This is important because it brings us back to the Buddhist idea that defilements caused by confusion and delusion are what take us away from our Buddha nature; Johnson shows us the confusion and delusion. 

What Johnson does is show us how Luke’s confusion – he believes he sees immense evil in Ben’s future, and briefly considers the “Killing Baby Hitler” thought experiment – and Ben’s delusion – he thinks Luke has shown up to kill him in his sleep – come together to create a trauma that breaks both men. Luke’s vision is self-fulfilling, and his actions are informed by his own trauma (imagine this guy’s PTSD, even with all his Jedi training) and create new trauma for Ben. 

This scene is really important because it gives us the ability to understand that Ben isn’t bad, he does bad things. And he doesn’t do bad things because he’s bad, but rather because he’s frightened and confused and feels betrayed. Does Luke’s moment in the bedchamber excuse Kylo Ren? No, of course not. But it does help explain Kylo Ren, the same way that past experiences in a mass shooter’s life helps explain their eventual horrifying actions. And all actions are explainable, given enough information. That does not make them excusable.

That’s the sort of nuance that gets lost a lot. It could have been lost in Star Wars – originally Darth Vader wasn’t intended to be Luke’s dad. The decision to make him Luke’s dad works on a soapy, pulpy level but it also unlocks the true thematic core of the series – Vader is no longer someone to be destroyed in an act of vengeance, he’s someone Luke would like to save.

Now we get to the tricky part. What does that saving look like? Cancel culture/American punishment culture has no vision for this. Star Wars has a fairly cut and dried idea – death. Obi Wan Kenobi atones for failing Anakin by choosing death in his battle with Vader (it’s a retcon, but it works). Yoda goes off to exile and then dies. Anakin Skywalker chooses death in order to end the Emperor and save his son. All of the Jedi pay for their sins with Order 66, with Mace Windu in particular atoning in battle with the Emperor. Luke Skywalker expends all his energy and dies on Ach-To (this is the best of all these, by the way. It echoes Obi Wan’s choice in Star Wars while also – in a truly rare moment in American action cinema history – allows Luke to triumph with non-violence) in an effort to make up for his double sin of harming Ben and abandoning his friends. So I assume Ben Solo will meet his doom in Rise of Skywalker

But it’s Han Solo whose redemption I like the best. Han’s a bad dude; because Star Wars is a children’s movie he gets presented in a sunny fashion, but it’s quite likely that he’s been engaged in some real bad shit in his time. There have been a lot of attempts to soften him – Greedo shooting first, expanded universe stuff, Solo: A Star Wars Story – but I think the best version of Han Solo is the one that exists in the margins of Star Wars, a guy who doesn’t give a shit about anybody else, who is full of himself and who sees profit angles in everything. 

His redemption is beautiful, and long. He begins it at the end of Star Wars – coming out of the sun as he does could be a Methodist new birth – and he continues it in Empire Strikes Back, where he’s tempted to return to his old ways (become a backslider) but instead chooses the righteous path – and accepts all the suffering that comes with it. He gets frozen, a punitive action, and experiences a more physical rebirth in Return of the Jedi. He is blind, and then he can see, just as in Amazing Grace. The other characters have their redemption come in big, monumental moments of sacrifice, but Han Solo’s redemption comes in living a life that is good and centered on others. He gives himself to a life of service. It’s really Methodist – his faith is backed up with works, and plenty of them.

It is important to note that not everyone is redeemed, although redemption is conceptually open to all. Jabba the Hutt, for instance, does not come out of Jedi redeemed, but Luke gives him the opportunity. It’s one of my favorite bits of the movie, in fact, the way Luke shows up and gives Jabba the out. This is part of the idea of active destiny and the choices that are available to us – the same choices that give us an opportunity for redemption also offer us the path of unsaved destruction.

In the end I’m certain that Ben Solo’s redemption will be more like his grandfather’s than like his father’s (although it could be argued that Han Solo dies for the sin of being a bad dad in The Force Awakens. That movie has thematic confusion, though, so I tend to actually think that Han’s story gets subsumed into Kylo’s in that film – Han doesn’t die as the conclusion of his own story, he dies in service of Rey and Kylo Ren’s stories), but I’d kind of love to see Ben Solo pick up the mantle of whatever new Jedi Order forms out of this movie and dedicate his life to fixing what he broke. My big problem with the huge sacrificial redemptions in Star Wars is that they kind of let the characters off the hook – they no longer have to live with their choices. 

That’s where we get to the opposite of cancel culture – accountability culture, or restorative justice. Accountability culture would include a way for transgressors to grow and heal their harms. Han Solo becomes accountable for his pirate past, and he makes the universe a better place in the process. There’s a restorative nature to Han’s story – someone who once fed off society now contributes to it. Meanwhile Yoda fucks off to Dagobah and hides out, disappearing in exactly the way cancel culture would prefer he did, eternally exiled. I really like the way that The Last Jedi explicitly makes this kind of hermitage a failure of courage and part of what Luke must atone for at the end. Yeah, Luke fucked up with Ben and the Knights of Ren, but the answer wasn’t to go hide out forever. It was to fix what he had broken. It was to clean up the wreckage.

I know that Ben Solo is going to get a chance to try and fix what he has broken. And I know that this option is available to every one of us, not just to people living a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.