Star Wars and the Philosophy of Non-Violence

return of the jedi
© Lucasfilm / 20th Century Fox

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

The existence of violence and the suffering it causes is undeniable. We need but read a newspaper or turn on the television and violence inundates us. And yet, we are drawn to it, as it repulses us in the world we simultaneously seek it out in movies and entertainment. It is in this form that we see the greatest deception, that violence solves problems.

The hero of many a film, particularly big-budget productions, achieves victory by violent means, bringing about a happy and satisfying ending. While this has proven to be good storytelling it does not translate so neatly to real life. Such films speak to the reality that violence does exist in the world and sometimes the only immediate solution to those with violence in their hearts is, in fact, violence. From this standpoint, perhaps non-violence is an ideal steeped in delusion rather than hope.

Of course, non-violence may seem like a lofty ideal that is inconsistent with society or popular thinking. I would submit to you, however, that one of America’s most iconic films illuminates the concept of non-violence and offers it as a viable solution to the self-perpetuating cycle of violence. I am speaking of the original Star Wars trilogy, specifically the climatic events in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker achieves his final victory over the Emperor and simultaneously reawakens the goodness within his father, the evil Sith lord, Darth Vader.

return of the jedi-duel
© Lucasfilm / 20th Century Fox

The crucial scene unfolds as Luke is engaged in the climactic, brutal lightsaber dual with Darth Vader. Luke cleaves off Vader’s hand and stands over his foe, lightsaber pointed at his throat. The evil emperor cheers, imploring Luke to strike Vader and become the new Sith Lord. Luke stands on the threshold of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dire prediction, for with a final blow he will be “plunged into the dark abyss.” It is here that Luke makes a fateful decision.

Throughout the film he has been attempting to bring forth his father’s goodness, now his violence has him on the brink of doing the complete opposite, killing his father and replacing him as an agent of evil. He remembers his dual mission, defeat the emperor and convert, not slay, his father. Therefore he tosses aside his lightsaber, declaring he is a Jedi, not a pawn of the emperor. In doing so he is simultaneously taking a great risk and showing incredible faith.

Luke’s act demonstrates two principles:

1. The causes of most wars and violence – greed, the desire to increase or maintain power, or revenge – don’t disappear under a barrage of bullets and bombs (or, in this case, lasers and lightsabers). In fact, violent solutions seem to fuel, not dampen, the causes of violence. The victor rejoices in triumph while the loser still feels all the animosity that was present before the fight. These feelings are, in all likelihood, intensified and will come forth again.

2. The philosophy of non-violence is not, nor has it ever been, a call to inaction, non-resistance, or passivity. It is a different form of action and resistance, one that requires courage, conscience, compassion, and genius. Great men throughout history – thinkers, artists and leaders – such as King, Gandhi and Bob Dylan all knew this.

return of the jedi-luke
© Lucasfilm / 20th Century Fox

Luke’s decision to throw aside his lightsaber can be seen as a cinematic example of adhering to the words of the Prophet Muhammad who, according to the Koran, taught people to “turn away evil with that which is better” (42:37). The violent road Luke is on will achieve neither of his goals, so he dramatically alters his course, leaving himself open to a possible assault from the Emperor. The Emperor unleashes lightning from his fingertips leaving Luke writhing in agony. The young Jedi does not defend himself but calls to Darth Vader, his father, for aid.

Here we find another example of the power of non-violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. asserts that the non-violent approach eventually, “reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.” While this may be true, and in fact was in many instances during the civil rights movement, the choice of whose conscience one is attempting to stir is relevant. Luke could not stir the conscience of the Emperor any more than the Jews could have stirred the Hitler’s conscience. Thankfully, other consciences, like Darth Vader’s, can be touched.

Vader, moved by the sight of his son being killed by the Emperor, decided to take action. He lifts the Emperor above his head and tosses him down a shaft into the Death Star’s power core. The Emperor loses control of the bolts of energy flowing from his hand. His power, rage, and violence turn on him and Darth Vader. When the Emperor is tossed to his death we see an energy wave erupt from the shaft and quickly recede to its source, the Emperor’s own corrupt energies seeming to cause his death rather than the fall itself.

return of the jedi-emperor
© Lucasfilm / 20th Century Fox

Now what of the fact that Vader’s final act is essentially a violent one? While always professing non-violence as “infinitely superior to violence” Gandhi did concede that “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” Here we must pause to realize the difference between realizing there are no other options available to merely choosing to ignore other options and strike back with violence.

Vader had no other options available than to assault the Emperor. The Emperor was not a man who could be talked out of his perspective or moved by silent, peaceful protest to stop the slaying of Luke Skywalker. Nor would he ever abandon his goal of dominating the universe. That much was clear. The only option left was violence. And so Vader, a man who, for the better part of his life, has committed violence for selfish and power-hungry ends, performs one final, self-sacrificing act of violence to save his son.

After saving Luke, Vader, near death, thanks his son, in turn, for saving him. If Luke did redeem his father, it was not by using his skills in combat, but the strength of his character. In the song “Chimes of Freedom,” Bob Dylan sings that a warrior needs “the strength not to fight.” This is the strength Luke found, a strength that liberated the universe from the Empire’s rule and liberated himself from the fear of becoming a Sith lord like his father.

© Lucasfilm / 20th Century Fox

Now I am sure one could say that Star Wars is just a movie and has no connection to “real life.” I would disagree. While Star Wars is a movie it also contains the elements of an epic myth much like those told thousands of years ago. As such, we must remember that myths, to paraphrase the great Roman philosopher Sallust, are stories that never happened but always were. There are truths in myths for those who seek them out.

About James Rourke

James Rourke
James Rourke is a high school history teacher who uses pop culture and comics to illuminate historic themes. These efforts led him to write the book "The Comic Book Curriculum." His love for mythology and history also inspired him to write his own mythic saga entitled "The Eternal Struggle: Two Worlds, One War." More information about his books can be found at


  1. Moralistic movies without action carefully skirts all the action prior to the showdown voilence from a distance is still voilence just like unmanned drone bombers

    • Hi, Brian. That's an interesting comment. But I'm not sure what you mean. So do you agree with the author that 'Return of the Jedi' makes a non-violent statement or are you saying that it just adds to the glorification of violence like other action movies?

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