In my forthcoming book, Movies Are Prayers, I spend some time exploring how the Star Wars films function as prayers of obedience. And sure enough, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story fits rather nicely within that scheme. This is the tale of a lone wolf who comes to join a cause—and whose pledge of loyalty involves the sort of sacrifice that true obedience often requires.
In this age of individualism, the notion of obedience is often frowned upon. As long as we’re doing no harm to others, the mantra goes, we should be able to do what we want; anything else is seen as an unnecessary limitation on one’s self-expression. But as I note in my book, a Christian understanding of obedience sees God’s commands not as limits on our freedoms, but as a pathway to the human flourishing he intended for us (both personal and corporate). As the story of Jonah demonstrates, however, it isn’t always easy to trust and obey.
Like Jonah, the heroine of Rogue One would rather be left alone than be drawn into confrontation. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is content to be a free agent, staying out of the conflict between the Galactic Empire and the various rebel forces resisting it. (Chronologically, Rogue One takes place between episodes III and IV, making it a prequel to 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope.) And so, when a rebel group frees her from an Imperial labor camp, she tries to get away from the rebels as well. A droid offers her some ironic advice: “You are being rescued. Please do not resist.” This is the way it often goes, doesn’t it? Faced with God’s offer of grace, we reject it because we assume it will be too constricting to follow his path.
After Jyn eventually joins the rebels, new questions of obedience come into play. Some rebel factions favor war, others retreat. A cohesive resistance to the Empire fails to form. Frustrated by the inaction, Jyn and a ragtag group of misfits, including a rebel spy (Diego Luna) and a blind martial-arts master (Donnie Yen), sneak away for a mission that was previously considered too dangerous to take on: infiltrate an Imperial base and steal the plans for the dreaded Death Star.
Christian obedience is always undertaken at the risk of losing something.
At this point Rogue One becomes an all too-familiar retread of previous Star Wars films, with a climax that mimics the oft-repeated structure of a battle sequence in outer space, cross-cut with boots-on-the-ground efforts of rebel fighters on the planet below. Those who had hoped this “side story” in the franchise would take the opportunity to try something new will be out of luck. Yet within this familiarity comes certain pleasures, including Jyn’s arc from uninvolved bystander to committed (if rogue) agent.
What prompts her decision? Loyalty, it turns out, to something larger than both Imperial dictates and rebel manifestos. In the film’s prologue, where we see Jyn as a little girl, her mother kneels down next to her during a moment of danger and tells her, “You know where to go, don’t you? Trust the Force.” This, of course, is the mysterious power in the Star Wars universe that serves as a handy, if amorphous, spiritual metaphor. The Force seeks balance in the galaxy, and though it can be bent toward evil purposes, the heroes of the Star Wars films follow it for the same reasons Jyn does: in service of peace, or shalom.
Often, they do so at a cost. One of the few things to distinguish Rogue One from the other Star Wars films is its willingness to let so many of its characters die in the course of its narrative. (It’s the rare touch that acknowledges the leeway the movie has as a standalone story.) This, too, speaks to the notion of Christian obedience, which is always undertaken at the risk of losing something: our personal “freedoms;” worldly respect; and on extreme occasions of martyrdom, our very lives. The 1887 John H. Sammis hymn “Trust and Obey,” usually thought of as a sunny pledge of allegiance, also includes this often overlooked couplet: “We never can prove the delights of his love / Until all on the altar we lay.”
Rogue One’s strongest moment comes at its very end, which I wouldn’t dare spoil. I can safely say there is another kneeling gesture, similar to the one between young Jyn and her mother, in which an act of obedience is followed by the ultimate sacrifice (staged by director Gareth Edwards with an apocalyptic grandeur). The movie serves as a reminder that obedience can be costly. But if we trust and obey, we’ll find more freedom than we ever thought possible, whether in this galaxy or ones far, far away.