On the Jedi and Non-violence

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“A Jedi uses the Force for defense, never to attack.”

I have been reminded of this Jedi imperative after hearing a recent story of a 10-year old boy who refused to fight back against a bully. When asked why he did not, he answered that “it is not the Jedi way”. His story caught the attention of Luke Skywalker, that is, Mark Hamill himself, who commented about it on his twitter:

Despite the fact that the Jedi imperative is fairly clear, many still seem to have problems grasping it – or rather, are intentionally making it more difficult than it is. Some of the confusion is understandable. On the one hand, we have Luke throwing away his lightsaber before the Emperor, on the other hand, we have Jedi charging into the Clone Wars in numbers. What is really the Jedi attitude to violence?

The Old Masters

Obi-Wan Kenobi and especially Yoda are making a point of drilling this into Luke’s head: a Jedi does not use the force for attack. Only for defense. Aggression is of the Dark Side.

An analytical mind might, at this moment, start spinning with possible interpretations of what does “defense” entail. If I am defending myself, does it mean passively parrying with my lightsaber until… what? And defense of whom? Self-defense, or also the defense of others, of innocents who cannot defend themselves otherwise?

It is important to bear in mind that Jedi teachings are not material for lawyers to find loopholes in and judge whether in this or that case, fighting was justified. “I was provoked” is exactly the one thing that is not an excuse for a Jedi. The spirit of the teachings is what matters: the Jedi are supposed to be the guardians of peace. It is not the idea to fulfil the letter of the law, but to aim towards the ideal it represents. There is the belief that there are other ways to stop a conflict than annihilating your opponent.

Began, The Clone War Has

There is a reason why Yoda is pessimistic at the end of Attack of the Clones. While Obi-Wan expresses happiness about the victory on Geonosis, Yoda disagrees: “Victory? No, not victory… The shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.”

Retrospectively, it may have been the biggest mistake of the Jedi to lend themselves to the “just war” as Palpatine had presented it. Yes, they were meant to protect the Republic, which Palpatine interpreted as maintaining its integrity. And yes, there had been a Sith Lord in charge of the Separatist movement, so the Jedi had a reason to get involved, because they saw it wasn’t just a “normal” conflict.

But what they failed to see was that once the war was started, there was no going back. The Jedi had been sucked into the spiral of violence that had cost them their identity and ultimately caused their destruction. That is the chief reasoning of non-violence, reconciliation and forgiveness: if someone strikes me, and I strike back, then he can again strike me in retaliation, and the circle will never end until one of us is destroyed.

Non-violence versus Passivity

What does the Jedi imperative of non-violence actually mean, then? I believe we can look for parallels from our world’s history, philosophical and religious teachings (many of which, after all, have inspired the Jedi Order) and figures who applied them. In modern history, Gandhi or Martin Luther King may come to mind as the most famous examples. Both of them were repeatedly forced to justify their approach of non-violent resistance to their more violent allies.

“How can you accomplish anything if you don’t fight?” This is the most common misunderstanding. Non-violence does not equal passivity. Both the abovementioned historical leaders used non-violent protests and blockades as form of fighting. The idea was that nobody got hurt.

I would imagine that among the Jedi, there were different interpretations of the belief as well. I am sure there were reclusive masters who would do all in their power not to even resort to igniting a lightsaber, as well as the opposite extreme (which was far more common to see for example in the Clone Wars).

But the core teaching would revolve around the fact that Jedi are Knights, after all, and protectors of the innocent. They would be not only allowed, but expected to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Imagine seeing somebody being attacked. A Jedi would definitely step in. That, depending on the severity of the case, would either be just trying to talk to the aggressor, or if necessary, reaching for the lightsaber. If nothing more, a Jedi would be expected to redirect the hostile attention against themselves. Think about the cantina scene in A New Hope: Luke gets attacked, first verbally, then he gets death threats from the two gangsters. Obi-Wan acts like a Jedi in that he steps in and offers to settle the conflict even at his own expense. In that way, he also redirects the hostility against himself. Only when the gangsters are about to actually shoot, he acts (and he does not even kill them).

Granted, all Jedi teachings of non-violence get somehow erased on the film screen whenever the story just requires the heroes to fight the “baddies” and kill them. That is, sadly, the matter of what makes (or is believed to make) a good action film. Our culture still accepts violence as a narrative tool automatically, even if the ideals may be different.

But that is why the ten-year-old boy’s action should give us a pause, and why I am completely with Mark Hamill on this one. It is one thing to praise an ideal and another to actually hold on to it. If you put all pragmatic excuses aside for a second, the decision not to strike back makes all the difference in the world.

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Rostislav Kurka
Rostislav is a Protestant theologian and a self-trained Sith, counting Jan Hus, Dorothee Sölle, Darth Revan and Darth Traya among his main influences. He hails from the hundred-towered city of Prague, where he had spent a large part of his life creating worlds and inspiring young generations to roleplay. His involvement in organising children's camps led him to accidentally writing a Lord of the Rings musical, which made him temporarily famous, and a Three Musketeer-Jedi fanfilm, which didn't. He has recently moved to the frozen waste of Finland, because that's it, the Rebels are there.