This reflection on Rogue One contains minor spoilers, but truly nothing you wouldn’t expect based on the trailer.
Last Friday, some students from Houston Canterbury got together to see Rogue One and to do a little theological reflection on it over dinner. Our discussion following the film largely revolved around common themes from the reviews that are already out there: the look and feel of the film (close enough to Episodes 4-6 to feel right), whether we liked the CGI faces or not (totally weird!), and the classical role of the droid as comic relief (much appreciated in this dark film). In the end, we all agreed that this was a pretty good action movie. While we talked a little bit about Galen Erso’s inglorious act of rebellion and the blind warrior monk, we generally agreed that Rogue One really didn’t offer us much to work with theologically.
Ultimately, the thing that does make Rogue One stand out in the Star Wars world is not that it’s darker than other episodes (see The Empire Strikes Back); it’s a heightened moral ambiguity that is introduced into an imaginary world built on a dualistic conflict between good and evil. As in the other films in the franchise, it’s still quite clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are in this movie. However, Rogue One is different because there are brief moments when the good guys seem less good. Episode VII drew us in with a Stormtrooper who has a crisis of conscience. Rogue One weaves a moral ambiguity into its albeit superficial portrayal of rebel soldiers with damaged consciences.
In the trailer, the rebel Saw Gerrera’s voice asks, “If you continue to fight, what will you become?” The movie responds to this question as we encounter rebel soldiers who believe in the cause and follow the orders of their superiors, but who are troubled by the violence they have inflicted upon others. To be more precise (or perhaps to read as much into a sparse script devoid of character development as I can), they suffer from moral injury, that is, the emotional and spiritual impact of participating in or witnessing actions which violate one’s core moral values. Until just recently, our own culture has unquestioningly dealt with these invisible wounds by trying to reassure the sufferer of the justice of the cause or that they were carrying out a sacred duty. For a brief moment, we see a hunger for this kind of reassurance among the soldiers who volunteer to help our protagonist Jyn Erso steal the plans for the Death Star. It then comes as little surprise that they sign up for what is essentially a suicide mission in hopes of wiping away their shame through the self-sacrifice of martyrdom for a righteous cause.
Rogue One raises the specter of moral injury only to “resolve” it with martyrdom, but the survivors of armed conflict outside of the all too-tidy Star Wars universe often experience internal wounds of conscience that defy all societal appeals to a righteous cause or sacred duty. In the movie, the answer to Saw Gerrara’s intriguing question, “If you continue to fight, what will you become?” is simply “a hero.” But of course those who work with veterans in real life are discovering that their answer to this question is far more complicated.
If you are interested in exploring this question more deeply, here are a couple of go-to short texts: Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War by Robert Meagher examines the legacy of just war theory and argues that it keeps us from dealing properly with the inner woundedness of our soldiers. David Peters’ new book, Post-traumatic God: How the Church Cares for People Who Have Been to Hell and Back, presents some ways for church communities to accompany veterans through the inner work of healing and reconciliation.