What Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker Both Missed
In 2005’s Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi faces down his protégé Anakin Skywalker, after the latter has been consumed by evil. “Anakin, my allegiance is to the Republic, to democracy!” the master proclaims.
But the younger man isn’t having it: “If you're not with me, then you're my enemy.” To which Obi-Wan doles out some Jedi philosophy: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
Ah, that profound sound.
Except that it’s not quite true.
If pop-culture lore is to be believed—though George Lucas has never confirmed this—Anakin’s line was a clumsy shot at President George W. Bush, who had said, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” That was in a speech to Congress, on Sept. 20, 2001—nine days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But if Anakin’s declaration to Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith really was intended to echo George Bush, then the president was taken out of context. Here's where Bush’s version fits in his speech:
. . . [W]e will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.
That context makes it obvious what Bush meant: he meant that any country harboring or aiding terrorists was America’s enemy.
And this makes perfect sense. I have to think that, in a Star Wars context—even from George Lucas’s perspective—any planet harboring or aiding the Sith would likewise be viewed as an enemy of the Jedi and the Republic!
The larger reality is that every person is an absolutist: we all believe some things are absolutely right and other things absolutely wrong. Even George Lucas believes that—as well as the Jedi. Nobody has ever believed that everything is simply “up for grabs.”
So when Obi-Wan says, “Only the Sith deal in absolutes,” well, he’s just not being honest with himself—or with Anakin—or with the audience.
What Obi-Wan could have said that would have been both logical and compassionate is something like: “Anakin, it’s because I love you as a brother that I cannot support your evil agenda. I know it’s going to end up destroying you, and many others along the way.”
This would refute Anakin’s claim (“you’re my enemy”) without denying the reality of absolutes.
But how might Obi-Wan have gotten around Supreme Chancellor Palpatine’s argument earlier in the film, when he was in the process of seducing Anakin to the dark side?—“Good is a point of view, Anakin.”
In many situations that line of reasoning can be persuasive, even if one admits that moral absolutes exist. In some circumstances it can be genuinely difficult to discern what’s “right” or “wrong.” Often we simply don’t know enough, and must resort to making the best judgment we can, even if we’re not fully confident about it.
But a deeper—and more insidious—problem is that it’s impossible for us to place ourselves entirely on the side of “good,” and our opponents entirely on the side of “bad.” This is because the human heart contains a mixture of both. As Russian philosopher Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? [The Gulag Archipelago (1973)]
This carries far more insight and humility than the exchange between the ex-Jedi and his former master:
Obi-Wan: “Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil!”
Anakin: “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!”
These two may be unmatched Force warriors—but forceful thinkers they aren’t. The profound and unsettling truth that found its way to Solzhenitsyn apparently eluded George Lucas.
Because of the evil lurking in our own hearts, it’s very easy to deceive ourselves—or let ourselves be deceived, as Anakin was—into thinking our attitudes and actions are justified when they may not be. The Bible expresses it this way:
The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? [Jeremiah 17:9]
Anakin’s deceitful heart cost him the ability to discern Palpatine’s lies for what they were. He wanted those lies to be true because they promised him power to gain what he wanted: a way to cheat death. Yet some part of Anakin—like ourselves in the real world—also wanted to justify his actions by some standard of “good” and “evil,” so that he could look at himself in a mirror and view himself as a “good man.” He needed to convince himself his actions were good so that he wouldn’t feel guilty.
And so, naturally, in order to maintain this fiction, he had to believe another lie as well: that Obi-Wan had become his enemy.
Yet Anakin wasn’t entirely wrong: the hearts of the Jedi were likewise infected with evil, because nobody’s perfect. The crucial distinction is that the Jedi were devoted—however faltering their steps may have been at times—to walking the path of goodness. By contrast, the Sith were committed to the path of evil.
Even though our hearts aren’t perfect in this life, intent and direction matter. Here I can’t help but be reminded of something Jesus Christ said that sounds a lot like Anakin Skywalker:
Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me. [Matthew 12:30]
Lots of people have uttered the same sentiment in various contexts—but when Jesus says it, it’s absolutely true and good and righteous—because he is God, and is therefore the Ultimate Standard of what’s true and good and righteous. Jesus calls all of us “to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence.” (2 Peter 1:3; see also Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:3)
Revisiting President Bush’s controversial declaration: he spoke in the context of a battle between a free country and those who wanted to destroy it (and still do). Similarly, because God is the source of “everything good” and “every perfect gift” (James 1:17), we owe Him our allegiance. To turn against Him is to turn against Absolute Goodness and to side with “terrorists”: the Devil and his allies who want nothing other than to ruin the goodness of God.
“But maybe you don’t want to serve the Lord. You must choose for yourselves today. Today you must decide whom you will serve. . . . But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” [Joshua 24:15]
More food for thought: