So I’ve decided to write another “brief” (we’ll see how brief it is by the time I finish anyway) breakdown of the theme of redemption as shown to us through some of the closing scenes of Return of the Jedi. It’s crazy to think that while Empire is my favorite of the films, after rewatching the old 1980 and 1983 versions of TESB and ROTJ this weekend, I’ve been struck again by something revealed through the great body acting of David Prowse as Darth Vader. Essentially, what I want to talk about is how we can be saved by destroying that which enslaves us. We can never be free or fully ourselves when there is something in our lives which keeps us enslaved. This is precisely what is going on with Darth Vader by the time we get to the end of ROTJ.
I will essentially be drawing on just two scenes to make my point this time. Again, I want to return to that great scene where Luke has just surrendered himself on Endor and has been handed over to Vader. Luke is pleading that his father, Anakin, come out of the darkness that is Darth Vader. With great compassion, Luke says to his father “Come with me” yet Anakin is still incapable of coming out of Vader’s shell. The expression of Vader’s body language as he has his back to Luke is quite powerful. You can actually see the inner conflict going inside him; he truly wants to respond to his son’s plea but he turns and says “You don’t know the power of the darkside. I must obey my master.” These simple lines make it clear that what is still holding Anakin back is his enslavement to the Emperor. If you think about it, the Emperor is the only “friend” he’s had for the past twenty odd years and the control he has over Vader is absolute. Luke is offering his father freedom from that enslavement yet Vader is incapable because the Emperor is still around. The only way for him to be free is to get rid of the source of his enslavement.
Once Luke refuses to kill his father in the face of the Emperor, he courageously faces down the Emperor and declares that the power of the darkside is NOT stronger than the power of love. Vader/Anakin have never witnessed this kind of courage before, let alone someone willing to die instead of killing him. Again, Luke’s example ignites the spark that is Anakin buried deep down inside Vader. Rather than watch his son die, Anakin (no longer imprisoned by Darth Vader) springs to action and hurls the Emperor to his death. In the picture below, you can actually see that as the Emperor’s force lightening flows over the shell of Vader, you can actually see a human skeleton inside: indeed Anakin truly is in there!
So, in the end Anakin is only capable of coming out, of being redeemed, after he has destroyed the very source of his enslavement. Not even a half hour before this, you could see how Anakin is struggling to come out to respond to his son’s voice. Vader is only capable of becoming Anakin again once he has destroyed the Emperor. Without the Emperor’s control over him anymore, he ceases to be Darth Vader and lives again as Anakin Skywalker.
In a similar way, we too cannot be “redeemed”, cannot be fully ourselves when there is something in our lives that keeps us enslaved. Perhaps it’s fear, a bad relationship, a bad job, whatever it may be that keeps us locked up inside and prevents us from being fully ourselves. To be a bit theological for a moment, the great early Christian saint Irenaus once said that the “glory of God is the human person fully alive.” When there is something in our lives that enslaves us we can never be fully alive, fully ourselves. Like Anakin, we too must destroy that which enslaves us. Now I certainly do not mean by physically hurting or killing someone, but by eliminating that which keeps us enslaved (perhaps by walking away from the source of our enslavement and cutting that relationship out of our lives). Just like Anakin, once we have removed that element in our lives which prevents us from being fully alive we too will know what redemption is: the freedom to be who we are.