Rogue One: A Star Wars Story delivers magnificently on the promise Star Wars fans have known still lurked within the franchise but struggled to manifest over the last seventeen years of films. Yes, I’m hyperventilating a little–but so will you. Rogue One is so excellent it would be easy to drown the internet in superlatives praising it but part of the excitement that accompanies it is the sheer wonder of witnessing a story that celebrates heroism and hope without resorting to the stale devices that characterize so many blockbusters. Gareth Edwards has composed an elegy to broken human beings consecrated to fight for hope. All of the blood-pumping camaraderie that informs a Saving Private Ryan or a Black Hawk Down is here, viscerally reminding us that heroes are those who do not permit their very real flaws to paralyze them from fighting the good fight. Rogue One is more grim than any other installment of the saga, but the darkness makes its light burn all the brighter.
Rogue One picks up some twenty years after Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. The Empire is ascendant. The light of the Jedi has been extinguished. Much of the galaxy is resigning itself to the slow, seemingly inevitable freeze of Imperial consolidation. A resistance has formed but whiles away at the margins, under-supplied, outnumbered, and divided within themselves. It is a time of consummate hopelessness for most, but a time of pompous palace intrigue for those who have ridden the Emperor’s cloak to positions of power.
Rogue One exposes the folly of both. Presumption and despair are the enemies of hope, two aspects of unbelief that parasitically feed upon hope’s possibility. Jurgen Moltmann defined them succinctly:
Presumption is a premature, self-willed anticipation of the fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Both forms of hopelessness, by anticipating the fulfillment or by giving up hope, cancel the wayfaring character of hope.
The twin dangers of presumption and despair are deeply informative as they impel to remembrance the innate drive we humans have within us towards hope. Now, we often shortchange that hope by confusing it with self-centered wishful thinking–no one needs evidence of our abuse of this word. All too regularly we place our hope in things that cannot bear the weight of our need. We come away disappointed but worse, we feel a misplaced confidence in the stupidity of hope of any sort. But we do this to our hurt. Our bitterness, however justified it may feel, doesn’t better attune our senses to reality than hope’s absence. We were created with the capacity for hope and we need it just as much as we need food and water and air.
Have you ever searched the gospels for the word “hope”? You won’t find it. Of all the places in the Bible you would expect to find hope you would think it would figure prominently in the testimonies of those who learned directly from Jesus. But no–there is a complete absence of any positive use of the word with the evangelists. The world Jesus was born into, one not that unlike Rogue One‘s, simply did not give credence to the concept. Even the life of Jesus, while consoling to the untouchables of Jewish society, represented an enormous threat to many. His relativizing of Israel’s place in God’s economy was an affront to those who had banked on nationalist identity securing their ultimate hope for the future. Jesus disappointed just about every notion of hope that held currency in his time. The hope that he himself is was invisible to his contemporaries.
Things are different with Paul, however: “hope” anchors itself throughout Paul’s proclamation, 36 times as a noun and 19 times as a verb. Christ’s mission that has already delivered us out of slavery to sin and death will yet deliver us on the day that he returns to set everything ultimately right. This future is so set-in-stone certain that Paul rarely uses “hope” to describe a personal attitude but rather the objective accomplishment that we anticipate in the present.
“Hope” is one of the elements in Paul’s famous triad of faith, hope, and love. Every element informs and structures the other such that if we are without faith, we are without hope; if we are without love, we are without faith, and so on. But the objectivity of these three guarantees that we will never flounder without them, for the hope that grounds our faith and love is the once-for-all accomplishment of God in Christ that cannot be revoked. That hope, unlike the trillion bogus hopes we clutch at, is resolute, unshakeable.
Many of Rogue One‘s characters have inoculated themselves against hope because they have been punctured by disappointment too many times. Galen Erso, designer of the Death Star, is crippled by his collusion with the Empire. He knows he has sacrificed all public integrity by cooperating with their project, but he does so to keep his daughter safe and to sabotage the weapon.
Saw Gerrera is a guerrilla leader worn out from decades of fighting, his body kept alive by a mobile mountain of machinery (not unlike Darth Vader, let the viewer understand). He’s weary and succumbs to the temptation to employ terror tactics in his campaign against the Empire but unabashedly clings to the dream of the Cause.
Captain Cassian Andor has been part of the Rebellion since he was six years old and compromises his morals to accomplish his mission when need demands. Baze Malgus has seen the Jedi go extinct and their temple plundered by the Empire. He goes on fighting because he doesn’t know what else to do anymore. And Jyn Erso, Galen’s daughter, abandoned time and time again, is disillusioned with the Cause that has achieved little save the loss of her family.
“You can stand to see the Imperial flag reign across the galaxy?” Saw incredulously asks Jyn. “It’s not a problem if you don’t look up,” she answers with wounded ultraliteralism. Her gaze is fixed firmly on her feet, bowed down not in subservience to the Empire but to despair.
Empire thrives upon the “realism” that resigns itself to what is presently visible–it cannot take root apart from the suffocation of hope. Not the pummeling of our positive thinking or optimism, mind you, but the stifling of hope. Optimism is not hope. Optimism ignores the very real dangers surrounding it and recklessly chuckles at the forces that will flatten it. Hope on the other hand looks up because it measures its need against the very real probability of defeat. “In this hope we were saved,” Paul asserts before clarifying, “but hope that is seen is not hope- who hopes for what they see?” Hope is the recourse of those who refuse to accept that what is visible is also final.
Chirrut Imwe, Baze’s blind, Force-believing friend, exemplifies this. His reliance on the Force is total: every move he makes is pregnant with listening to the Force’s directions. His confidence that the Force is bringing our heroes together to accomplish its good purpose is total. And it frees him to do what is impossible: Chirrut moves with the precision of a predator as he fights to protect his friends, dodging blaster fire and engaging in hand-to-hand combat almost as if he was a Jedi. Chirrut isn’t fooled by the possibilities afforded by what can be seen; he relies on faith, not on sight, and his conviction helps to awaken Jyn’s former confidence in the Force. Chirrut binds our heroes together and instantiates the hope that the Force is, indeed, with them.
The Force makes straight many tangled lines and brings Jyn back to Saw on behalf of the Rebellion she no longer believes in to gather information about her father. Galen has dispatched a secret message to Saw that reignites Jyn’s faith, hope, and love and sets the film’s climactic events in motion. Galen explodes with love for his daughter and laments how he has had to take on the trappings of the enemy in order to create the possibility of defeating them, a task he entrusts to Jyn. This revelation brings her to her knees and instills a new zeal within her, one that doesn’t overlook the darkness of her past but rather is able to make peace with it. This fresh exuberance to contribute to the Rebellion opens up a possibility none in the Rebel High Command could have foreseen: the chance to eliminate the Emperor’s new terror weapon before it is ever able to be used against the Rebellion. Jyn’s newfound hope bolsters the rank and file nobodies that make up the Rebellion to fight.
In his new commentary on Romans, Richard Longenecker notes that Romans 8:25 is misunderstood if we render Paul’s exhortation as, “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” The word that is often translated as “patience” connotes something more active, an eagerness better captured by the phrase “steadfast endurance.” This means that when the world exerts all of its pressure upon us, threatening to crush us with all of its hope-shriveling fury, we do not simply wait for it to be over. The hope is that ours by faith passively receiving justification produces a resisting force within us, impelling us to endure, yes, but more than that- to persevere, to overcome. The hope in which we are saved is a hope that animates rebellion against our present sin-warped circumstances. It sustains itself as confident expectation and grants foretastes of the future that is expected, foretastes that make sacrifice in the present worthwhile. Expectation and foretaste mutually reinforce one another to keep us in the fight.
“Rebellions are built on hope,” Cassian tells Jyn earlier in the film when Jyn is hopeless; later Jyn tells the assembled Rebel leadership the same thing. The difference this second time the audience hears it is that now she means it: she is now the mouthpiece for the effectual word of hope that took hold of her. The broken vessel that transmits the word alienates the authorities who have something to lose but reinvigorates the grunts who have betrayed their ideals so many times in the name of the Rebellion.
Hope cultivates involvement and commitment after first demanding it, and so we witness it galvanizing the everyday, nondescript heroes that make up the Rebels’ ranks, men and women whose names we’ll never know but plunge into battle to help their friends, friends they never realized were their friends until the moment they were all fired at together. The fight makes this band of rogues family. “Good luck, little sister,” Baze tells Jyn, knowing he will probably never see her again. The hope she has instilled persuades them all to sacrifice everything for the Cause and for each other. This hope drives them all to recognize that death is not defeat: failing to fight is defeat. And the results make possible the new hope that gives Episode IV its subtitle.
Are we any different here and now, on the cusp of another new year, on the cusp of a new presidency? Are we disillusioned? Have we been let down by false hopes? Can we envision a better future? The dictatorship of despair is a very real temptation. But this season we are eyeball-deep within another note resounds through the dissonance:
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices
O night divine, O night when Christ was born.
We have a new hope, the man from heaven whom Paul assures us has not merely destroyed the Death Star but abolished Death altogether and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). He is our hope and supplies us when we can’t quite see it on the horizon. And he nourishes our pitiful faith, hope, and love through many means, and you’d better believe that includes science fiction action adventures!