Pharisees, Jedi, and a New Ecclesia

By Ben Espinoza

To be honest, when I first saw The Last Jedi, I wasn’t a huge fan. Rey’s a nobody? Snoke’s dead? Luke’s gone? I thought most other folks would agree with me. Turns out, they didn’t. Over time, I sought to understand how folks could possibly like this affront to the Star Wars Universe. But after months of research, watching videos, and reading reviews, I came to believe that The Last Jedi isn’t just one of the better entries in the Star Wars canon (still no Empire), but also perhaps one of the more theologically forward. In this essay, I discuss how the theme of religious power manifests in the New Testament and in TLJ, and how both Christian theology and TLJ seek to turn religious power on its head and call for a new order of things moving forward.

In the New Testament, we read about socio-political-religious leaders called the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These parties held differing beliefs about the canon of Hebrew Scripture, the resurrection of the dead, Temple worship, and the supernatural. These parties formed the Sanhedrin, a religious council that oversaw religious and some legal matters in the ancient land of Israel. Their purpose was to continue the tradition of Moses, and be spiritual guides for the people, committed to religious purity.

When Jesus of Nazareth arrived on the scene, he had several run-ins with the Pharisees and Sadducees that often went poorly. Jesus often disobeyed their commands—surely a sign that he was not the Messiah. He consorted with tax collectors and sinners, rendering him ceremonially unclean. Not only did he fraternize with them, He also ate and drank with them. The Pharisees would call him a glutton and a drunkard. He healed the sick and gleaned corn from a field on the Sabbath. Most of all, however, Jesus forgave peoples’ sins, which the Pharisees believed was blasphemy.

Jesus’ tense relationship with the Pharisees and Sadducees comes to a head when he proclaims his famous seven “Woes” in Matthew 23. Jesus condemns the religious elite for a number of offenses, but mostly related to their pride and use of their power to manipulate and control their fellow Jews. He even condemned the group for being like a sepulcher, or fancy gravesite—shiny and fancy on the outside but filled with dead men’s bones on the inside. Jesus attacks their pride, arrogance, and ultimately, their need to assert religious control on the people.

Jesus hearkened the religious elite and his followers to form a new community, one devoted to following the way of God through purity of heart rather than purity of hands (though the latter was also important to the community of Jesus). Most of all, however, this new community would form around the belief that Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, was sent to redeem this broken world and restore everything back into right relationship with God. This new community would not be comprised of only the religious elite, those with the highest status and power in society. Rather, this new community would be made up of Jews, Greeks, Romans, males, females, the wealthy, the poor, and all in between. Rather than being a movement emanating from the center of society, the movement would begin on the margins. This new community would be called the ecclesia, or, the church.

 This concept of a religious elite with good intentions who oppress and marginalize others intentionally and unintentionally occurs throughout the Star Wars universe. It is explicitly named in TLJ—and thoroughly subverted.

 In the film, Luke recounts the events in the prequel trilogy to Rey, who is a true believer in the Force and the Jedi. The Jedi were instrumental in allowing Sith Lord Darth Sidious to come to power as Emperor Palpatine and forming the oppressive Galactic Empire, eventually leading to their own downfall. It was the Jedi who essentially were responsible for creating Darth Vader. What Luke doesn’t mention to Rey is that the motivation of the Jedi was relatively pure; they wanted to be instruments of peace and justice throughout the galaxy. Still, Luke sees little good in the Jedi Order. “Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if your strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.” In other words, Fancy grave sites but filled with the bones of rotting men.

Luke isn’t far from the truth. Arguably, it was Jedi devotion to emotional suppression that led to Anakin’s eventual turn to the Dark Side. It was Jedi Knights who led the Clone army during the Clone Wars. It was Jedi knights who performed the will of Darth Sidious. Jedi collusion with the powerful had made them blind to the greater threat—self-destruction at their very own hands. Siths weren’t any better—they still craved power but were perhaps more explicit about their intentions.

Luke also participated in the Jedi need for power and spiritual fatherhood. He trained a group of younglings in the ways of the old Jedi, only to have that plan backfire. His desire for purity in his new Jedi Order led him to ponder killing his own nephew, Ben Solo. While he did not follow through, Ben sensed Luke’s betrayal, killed many of Luke’s students, and eventually became Kylo Ren. Ben/Kylo became obsessed with his grandfather, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, and sought to finish what the legendary Sith Lord had started. He became Supreme Leader Snoke’s apprentice, executing his master’s plan for the universe through the power of the First Order.

Luke realized that the order he had built was faulty, based on destructive assumptions. He was arrogant, full of hubris and pride. His own desire to be a Jedi of old bringing order and justice to the galaxy would crumble, just as it did so many years before.

In TLJ, Kylo kills his Master, and invites Rey to join him by forgetting about the past and establishing a new order. “The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi… let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” Problem is, however, Kylo wanted to maintain the same order as always—he would become the Supreme Leader, impose his ways on the universe, and arguably be a better Sith than his grandfather. The power may have a new face and a new name, but the same forms are maintained.

Rey resists this. She knows that what Kylo wants is a return to the traditional, oppressive order of the galaxy. While Luke proclaims that he won’t be the last Jedi to Kylo, Luke knows that what Rey and other force-sensitive folks will create is something new, beyond the forms of Light and Dark, Jedi and Sith. The new order will be different, built from the ground-up, rather than the top down. Just like the ecclesia envisioned by the New Testament, the new order will be comprised of folks like Anakin Skywalker, who was born into slavery, Rey, who is an orphan condemned to a life of loneliness, and the children we see at the end of TLJ, clinging to the hope that the First Order will fall, and they will be set free. These folks who come from the margins would form a new ecclesia of their own.

The New Testament and TLJ envision a new order completely different than before, an order built not from political power, prestige, or lineage, but from faith. The new order championed in the New Testament and TLJ calls all of us to imagine how the combination of faith and power can result in religious elitism and corruption. The antidote seems to be radical inclusion of those on the margins of society. For Jesus in the New Testament, the prostitutes, tax collectors, “sinners,” and Gentiles would comprise this new order that would subvert worldly conceptions of faith and power. A Kingdom of love, peace, justice, and compassion would be the fuel for the new ecclesia.For Rey in TLJ, the new order goes beyond the traditional forms of Jedi, Sith, Light, Dark, Empire, and Resistance, to create something entirely new with those who have been forgotten in the battles that have plagued the universe from the beginning of time. The new order, in both visions, is ultimately a grassroots movement comprised of a loose coalition of folks with a common commitment to religious ideas and truths. The new order is made up of the people that previous orders and forms have rejected or marginalized.

There are rumors of Episode IX being named as “A New Order.” While this is most likely not the final name, the name makes sense narratively and theologically. Ultimately, the concept of new orders raises important questions in our day and age. Can faith and power collaborate peacefully without succumbing to corruption? Can religious institutionalism survive without becoming its own enemy? How do certain institutions, founded on peace, mercy, and justice, transform to look nothing like their original intentions? These are questions we must face in our modern age, as religious division continues to fuel battles for power that often lead to violence.

I’m looking forward to seeing where J.J. Abrams takes Episode IX, and where Rian Johnson takes his new trilogy. Hopefully the Star Wars series will continue to push the boundaries of storytelling and cause us to think about our own world in new light.

Ben Espinoza is a PhD student at Michigan State University. His research explores the intersection of religion, culture, and society, especially in higher education.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Liberationartist says:

    Though I have never been an avid Star Wars fan, I enjoy the series and always appreciate the theological motifs. This is an outstanding articulation.


  2. scblair says:

    For all its failings, TLJ did capture the tension, anger, and grief felt by many Evangelicals, watching their faith become complicit in its own demise


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