Some brief theological musings on The Last Jedi (spoilers)

(Spoilers throughout, so if you’re planning on seeing The Last Jedi, you might want to wait ’til you have before you read this one…)

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church in Wittenberg. 2017 is therefore a good year for the Jedi to have their own Reformation.

That’s what The Last Jedi is: a moment of crisis in a belief system that, through either corruption or mistakes, has failed the galaxy. Luke in particular has given up, the weight of his own failings convincing him that his religion needs to quietly die with him. Better for the whole thing to die than the mistakes of the Skywalker family to lead to more suffering and oppression.

But there’s a younger generation stepping forward, a generation that has sought the wisdom of its elders but that has subsequently been let down or manipulated. And because this is unsustainable, The Last Jedi sees characters like Rey taking a stand: they can’t perpetuate the mistakes of the past, can’t be led or mentored by men who can’t see under their own noses or, even worse, only seek to maintain their own poisonous brand of power.

So Rey has to become a leader herself, and in doing so teaches Luke what needs to be done for the Jedi Order to survive. And she does this instinctively but falteringly, making mistakes but still offering Luke a measure of grace that gives him and the faith a way forward. The old ways have to die, but they offer a foundation on which to build something more able to serve and save a galaxy torn apart by war. The legalism and rigidity of the past, which arguably led to the chaos, heartbreak and war we’ve seen across nine movies to date need to be burned down so that everyone can move on.

The journey of Luke and Rey contrasts with that of Ben Solo, who, when offered the chance to move beyond a family legacy that’s become toxic, just falls deeper under its spell. He uses the language of a reformer, but really it’s all just the same old ranting: he needs to be in charge because only he can lead, only he can do things right. He’s trying to be his grandfather, but all he’s doing is repeating Vader’s sins rather than following his path of redemption. He actively rejects redemption, because all that matters is power, as much power as possible, never mind how many people get hurt, never mind how many people die. To use Yoda’s metaphor, he’s only interested in looking towards a horizon where everything’s ‘perfect’ while missing what’s right in front of him. He misses the wisdom summed up by new character Rose: “We don’the win by killing what we hate,” she says, “We win by saving what we love.”

Rey, when offered the same choice, does the right thing, going to help those who need her most. She’s not part of this legacy that’s become a millstone; despite plenty of fan speculation, her parents were ‘nobodies’ and therefore she’s free to follow her own path. Throughout the film we’re reminded of what’s at stake for those who aren’t Skywalkers, who aren’t ‘chosen’, the extras along the hero’s journey, and in doing so the story starts to reorientate itself on the margins.

That’s why it’s important that, at the end of the movie, the future lies in the hands of women and people of colour, voices that traditionally haven’t been front and centre throughout the whole Star Wars franchise. The only way forward is to start listening to marginalised voices, to be led from the margins, because otherwise the poison from within can overwhelm the body, the cracks in the foundations can bring the whole edifice to the ground.

The Last Jedi is about change, it’s about power, it’s about toxic legacies and about who gets to lead us into the future. Maybe, in this Reformation year, it has more to teach us than we might at first have thought.


Childermas Again

Dawn breaks on the Feast of Holy Innocents, on memories and statistics: Manchester Arena and Kameron PrescottNorth Park Elementary and Aztec High SchoolYemen and Syria. Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. One in four children in the UK are affected by poverty, 21% in the US, 1 billion worldwide. Children are bought and sold for sex, we hand children guns and force them to be soldiers. Herod’s shadow still stalks the land.

Only that’s not true, is it? Because Herod’s not our shadow, he’s our mirror. We write off the Slaughter of the Innocents as an anomolous event aimed at killing the Son of God, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s yet another example of a normalised assault on children. If Herod was our historical dark side rather than our twin, we wouldn’t see churches covering up child abuse, we wouldn’t see so many bombs falling on civilians, we wouldn’t pat ourselves on the back as politicians enact policies that push more children into poverty.

The Slaughter of the Innocents was all about who gets to be king, and the children of Bethlehem were that most obscene of euphemisms, “collateral damage”. Given the situation facing many children throughout the last twelve months, we’re more open to Herod being king than Jesus.

Maybe that’s why it’s so important to celebrate Holy Innocents: not simply because it reminds us of the crimes of Herod, but because of its present reality. It’s a time to remember the realities of the season now we’ve stopped greeting each other with “Merry Christmas” and started to return to our ordinary lives. It’s a time to remember that Christmas has consequences, and that’s not just about distant atrocities but about the societies and cultures in which we live, the societies and cultures we help create with our spending, our attitudes, our blessings, our silence.

We live in worlds in which Herod still occupies a throne and in which it’s still children who suffer the most as a result. On the Feast of Holy Innocents, it’s time to stop empowering that.

Christmas: What happened next?

So the shepherds walk away rejoicing, the heavenly host fades from view and the Magi are still two years away. Dawn breaks on the first day after the first Christmas and what does it bring?

It brings, I guess, the first stumbling lessons in parenthood. Did Mary seek out the innkeeper’s wife, or members of the extended family to give her impromptu lessons in how to change nappies, how to breastfeed, how to re-wrap those swaddling clothes?

Did Joseph look at his family and start having the thoughts that all new fathers have: Can I do this? How do I do this? Did he start asking around if any quick jobs were going? Does he look around for angels, hoping that they’ll have some advice to hand?

The shepherds return to the fields, the sheep, the distrust, the ostracism. They’ve seen something amazing, a cosmic act of revelation,  but no-one would believe them because they’re shepherds. They return to the fields, rejoicing in a Kingdom that won’t come until the child is fully grown, and even then it wouldn’t be the revolution everyone expected. Where would their lives take them from here?

In the courts of Jerusalem’s Temple, an elderly man and woman continually to wait patiently for something that’s already arrived. They don’t know that yet, of course; they continue to pray and watch and hope as corrupt men turn their house of worship into a den of thieves. How did they keep the faith as their world turned toxic?

Then there are the bureaucrats, packing away their pens and doing their filing and counting up how many citizens their bosses could tax. Didn’t they have second thoughts as the census revealed the poverty around them? Did they just follow orders? Did they have an inkling that somewhere in their spreadsheets was a secret that would outlive the edifice of Empire?

Then there’s us. We say Merry Christmas but what happens next? Was it just something to say to prove a point? Or did we mean it? Do we go back to our regular lives unchanged, or do we carry something greater into the world? Did our Christmases mean anything?

And if so, what happens next?

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

But while the days are getting longer and light breaks through in the dark, the nights still feel long. Last week a young man froze to death on the streets of Birmingham. People with disabilities are unable to fully participate in society because of, among other things, a lack of adequate toilet facilities. Around 20% of people in the UK live in poverty. The light in the darkness often looks more like a flickering candle than a healing sunrise.

Advent is the anticipation of two sacred narratives: the coming of Christ in the manger, and the realisation of the Kingdom of God to come. Which can leave us in a chronological limbo – we celebrate the past, we look forward to the future, but what does that all mean for the here and now? It’s hard to celebrate when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from; it’s hard to look forward to a better tomorrow when your family is being torn apart.

And so Advent is nearly at an end for another year, but where does that leave us? Are we changed as a result? That’s the question, isn’t it?

Because if we’re looking back to one Incarnation, and looking forward to another, then there’s got to be another kind of incarnation in the middle, an attempt to help the Kingdom of God break through. And that’s down to us. Sometimes it’s about leveraging our privilege, sometimes it’s insurrectionary, sometimes it’s just about being decent to each other, but it’s down to us to cry out for justice and to fill the food banks and to protest and listen and welcome and love.

(And the fact that the ‘Homeless Jesus‘ statues that top and tail this post remain so controversial shows us how far we have to go.)

That’s not just for Advent, although in the depths of winter it takes on a new urgency. Maybe Advent isn’t just a countdown, it’s a way of starting the new year right. Things don’t change overnight, after all, it takes time for green shoots to emerge from cracks in the pavement.

But in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light. I need to remember that as we emerge from the anticipation of Advent to the hope of Christmas. That the presence of God is still here, and that it can work through us to make a difference in a world that aches and wars.

(More posts for Advent 2017 can be found here.)

Halfway Out of the Dark

halfway out16:28, and the sun has set on the shortest day. The night ahead is long, the longest for another year. The shadows close in, winter nipping at our toes. We know the science behind all this, the way the Earth turns, climate and orbits and axial tilting. We know all this, but sometimes metaphor is mightier than mechanics.

That’s why, down through the ages, so many communities have celebrated on the solstice; Korochun and Dongzhi, Yalda and Yule. As the longest night draws in, people come together and eat and light candles and fires and look forward to the lengthening of the day. We talk and in the candlelight we look forward to being halfway out of the dark, as an episode of Doctor Who once put it.

 Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25th, or the 21st (the scholar Michael Heiser speculates that Christ’s actual birthday could be September 11th, which in retrospect is disconcerting). But the early Church decided to celebrate at this time of year anyway, until the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar divorced December 25th from the Solstice. Some quarters of the Church celebrate Blue Christmas today, a time to remember those we’ve lost over the previous twelve months. There’s a wisdom in holding this during the longest night

We picture Jesus being born at night in the midst of tribulation – poverty and scandal, occupation and oppression. The Empire forces a heavily pregnant women to make a rough journey, and when they arrive there’s no room at the inn. It’s still Advent, so we can’t get into the slaughter and the exile that come next, but they’re out there, lurking in the dark. The contemporary echoes of this dance around us, their shadows wrapping us in cold hopelessness. I wake up at night and find myself worrying – if government bureaucracy doesn’t get me then North Korea will.

But the darkness doesn’t win. It feels trite saying this amid the anxiety of waiting for another shoe to drop, but I have to hold on to that hope, even if that’s with bloody fingernails. Maybe that’s why I’ve accidentally been writing about Advent from the margins, why I’ve been focusing on the women and the workers and the ones left behind. Maybe that’s where hope is found, not because they have an intrinsic uniqueness, but because these are the groups who’ve had to cultivate hope.

Candle-And as I think about this, I remember the forgotten Nativity, the cosmic Christmas portrayed in John’s Gospel. “The light shines in the darkness,” wrote John, “And the darkness has not overcome it.” While I’m thinking of the stable this year, I also need to remember how the Light of the World intersects with the straw and dirt and crap of a world where too many Empires and Supremacies are screaming to hold on to their power. But as they scream let this year be an apocalyptic nativity, an unveiling not only of the evil that surrounds us and the toxins that infect us, but of a Light, a Hope, a Baby, a Messiah, a reminder that, if you’re halfway out of the dark you keep walking towards the Light.