by Ryan Gear
Reviews of the latest installment of the Star Wars saga The Last Jedi are as mixed as U.S political opinions, but one thing is certain. As much as the galaxy far, far away needs hope, we need it too. With a culture war raging in the U.S. and a resurgence of fascism in Europe, the Dark Side seems to be winning in our world at the moment.
As a people, we seem to be aware that we are trapped in a tragic time in history, and we need a spark of hope. Like the seven previous episodes, The Last Jedi is a great modern example of Greek tragedy. In his foundational work on drama, Poetics, Aristotle instructs that one of the features of a tragedy is that the main character possesses a tragic flaw.
The tragic flaw is a character deficiency or a mistake that leads to the main character’s downfall, and that downfall creates suffering both in the character’s life and usually in the lives of those around them. The first six episodes of Star Wars follow the life trajectory of Anakain Skywalker who becomes known as Darth Vader. His tragic flaw is obvious— for a combination of reasons he turns to the Dark Side of the Force. Brilliantly, he is also a physically flawed character who is so deformed by his choices that he needs his suit to live, move, and breath. Those first six episodes could be titled “The Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker.”
Similarly, in the latest two episodes, like his grandfather before him, Kylo Ren is a character with a tragic flaw. He wants to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Anakin, and a turn to the Dark Side is a necessary choice. In The Last Jedi, we see Kylo Ren’s tragic flaw contrasted primarily with the pure character and choices of Rey. She is a light to his path, and we can’t tell whether he is in love with her or only wants to use her power to accomplish his plans. The tragedy of Kylo Ren is unfolding in a way that will make Episode 9 interesting, and possibly just as controversial.
Aristotle’s Greek word for this tragic flaw is hamartia (pronounced Ha-MAR-tia). It was originally an archery term for when an arrow misses its mark and falls short of its target (an ancient form of an “airball” in basketball). About 400 years after Aristotle, the word finds its way into the books and letters of the New Testament, also written in Greek. English translations of the Bible translate hamartia as the word “sin.” And like a basketball feels heavy to a child who can’t even make it reach the rim, sin is a heavy word.
Hamartia can be both individual and collective. A woman in a church I pastored shared with me one time that she was the “sinner of her family.” She grew up in a church-going, 1950s, pure-as-the-driven-snow environment, but she was the black sheep who transgressed the boundaries. In other words, she had sex before marriage and a child out of wedlock.
She felt like the worst person in the world because the people she loved the most defined her by a decision she made in her youth. It’s as if she wore a scarlet letter to all family functions, and the word sin became a soul crushing word that made her wince whenever she heard it in a sermon (despite her family’s disappointment, she was a regular church attender all of her life).
Collective hamartia is a description of the human condition. We live in a fallen world of conflict, turmoil, and an uncertain future, and we all play a role in the drama. Yes, our world leaders influence global conditions far more than the common person, but we all share collective responsibility more than we would like to admit— as voters, as citizens, and as “actors” in our everyday lives.
If you feel like the sinner of your family, or if in your most reflective moments you feel heavy guilt and wonder if there is hope for your spiritual life, the biblical meaning of hamartia might be helpful here. In the same way, an understanding of collective hamartia and its role in our society might also be the spark that gives hope to our galaxy.
In Aristotle’s definition of a tragedy, and in the Bible, the tragically flawed character is not the worst person in the story. Think about it— Emperor Palpatine is the evil, Satan-like presence in the first six Star Wars films. Compared to the Emperor, Darth Vader is a sympathetic character. In fact, we feel pity for Darth Vader throughout the series, because he is a man who was deceived and manipulated by Palpatine. Even in his rage and hatred for rebels, Darth Vader loves his children. He protects them from the Emperor, and in that climactic moment in The Return of the Jedi, he turns to the Light and throws Emperor Palpatine into a reactor to save his son. The conflict within Kylo Ren is just as pronounced, and we feel pity for him compared to the absolute evil of Supreme Leader Snoke.
I’m going to guess you’ve never murdered an entire village with a lightsaber, so you’re no Darth Vader or Kylo Ren, let alone the Emperor or Snoke. Maybe you transgressed the moral boundaries of your family or your church. Like every human being alive, you have not always acted in love toward your fellow humans. You’ve made mistakes, just like I have, and just like every other person. Those flaws and choices are damaging. They are serious, and they do have consequences. However, the tragic flaw does not mean that you are irredeemable or a hopeless case.
Similarly, the collective hamartia of our world is an outgrowth of individuals missing the mark, the cumulative brokenness of all of us throwing up moral and spiritual airballs. If individual hamartia does not make one an irredeemable monster, then collective hamartia does not damn our world to repeat the same needless conflicts that create the same absurd misery for so many.
An understanding of hamartia insists our world is not a hopeless case. In The Last Jedi, while Luke Skywalker has resigned himself to Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side, Rey protests his fatalism by saying, “His choice is not made. He can be turned.” Regardless of how Kylo turns out, perhaps we as a people are not doomed to wallow in a cyclical view of history that expects a return to fascism every few generations.
The New Testament author who is most known for his use of the word hamartia is Paul. He observes both the individual and collective definition of hamartia. In Romans 3:23 he argues that “all have sinned (hamartia)” and in Romans 5 that the consequences affect all people collectively because of it.
Paul experienced personal redemption. According to the New Testament accounts, prior to his conversion he presided over the arrest and even murder of Christians he persecuted. Hamartia does not mean you have to wear a scarlet letter to family functions or view yourself as an evil character God cannot stomach. You are not the devil. Sometimes even Lebron James tosses up an airball, and the hamartia in your life means that you’re human in need of God’s grace.
In the same way, the human race is not evil incarnate either. Our future is not decided. Our choice is not made. World history can be turned. From a Christian perspective, Paul insists that Jesus Christ’s “righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people,” and that gives us a continual hope that things can made better[i]
Basketball players can increase their field goal percentage. Darth Vader can turn to the Light. Kylo Ren might too— we’ll see. Like the once-controversial The Empire Strikes Back, eventually most Star Wars fans will probably approve of The Last Jedi (there is even hope for flawed movies). In an atmosphere of forgiveness, grace, and resulting self-acceptance, we as individuals can learn to make better choices over time, and we are redeemed, both personally and collectively.
So, as we enter the New Year, here’s to holding out hope for all of us. Hamartia is a tragic flaw in otherwise decent people, and together we can write our comeback story. Yes, our world condition is serious… and for a Christian that is exactly what makes the Good News such great news, in fact. It is the great news that redemption is possible for even the most flawed of characters. It’s even greater news that redemption is available to all of us together, and consequently, there is hope for our world.