“Now remember, Chewbacca, you have a responsibility for me, so don’t do anything foolish.”
—C-3PO, The Empire Strikes Back
After living in the same town for eight years and the same state my entire life, I decided this spring to move across the country, and my roommate (a bona fide Star Wars aficionado) and I hurried to make good on long-standing plans to watch the Star Wars series together. Having watched the films myself countless times through the years—and with more and more boxes crowding the living room as we devoured the films over a couple of weeks—I was surprised I had never noticed what seemed glaringly apparent to me this time around: the stark reality of displacement that hangs over the heads of the original trilogy’s heroes, Luke, Leia, and Han.
These are certainly not the first characters in adventure or fantasy literature whose exploits begin with the traumatic loss of dwelling or family. Nevertheless, the homelessness in Star Wars feels particularly bleak. Luke gazes in horror at his burning homestead before his eyes slide to the charred corpses of the aunt and uncle who raised him. (Strangely enough, he seems mostly unmoved by the tragedy and will soon tell Obi-Wan, “I’m never coming back to this planet.”) Leia watches helpless from space as the Empire destroys Alderaan, the peaceful planet she calls home, as part of a political negotiation and demonstration of power. Han receives almost no backstory, but there’s something pitiable in the way that, when he is most tempted to abandon the others, it is to go nowhere except to deal with Jabba the Hutt, a gangster with a bounty on Han’s head.
One of the major threads of the original trilogy is the way these three displaced exiles form a nontraditional family, even if developments along the way reveal the language of “family” may be less figurative than we first assumed. The film cleverly plays with this theme by tracing the intersecting and sometimes conflicting loyalties that motivate each character. Leia’s narrative may be the most straightforward: Her steadfast dedication to the Rebellion never wavers, even as she develops a strong brotherly affection for Luke and a strong romantic affection for Han. In Han’s case, an orientation of self-preservation gives way to profound love and devotion to his friends, and this, in turn, gives way to allegiance to the Rebellion for which they are willing to sacrifice everything. The Han who responds to Luke’s plea of, “They’re gonna kill [Leia]” with a terse “Better her than me” in A New Hope is a different man from the Han who risks his life to rescue Luke in the icy tundra of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, and different still is the Han who surprises Leia by volunteering to lead a dangerous Rebel mission on Endor in Return of the Jedi.
Luke’s narrative is altogether more complicated: Eager to join the Rebellion from his youth and drawn to Leia from the moment he lays eyes on her holographic visage, Luke finds himself called in Empire Strikes Back to a different, possibly higher purpose, learning the ways of the Force and training as a Jedi monk-warrior with Yoda. The conflict between his competing allegiances comes to a head when he receives a vision of Han and Leia suffering that tempts him to abandon his training to rescue them. Yoda warns him, “If you leave now, help them you could. But you would destroy all for which they have fought and suffered.” As we come to discover, Vader understands Luke’s compassion for his friends and manipulates it, torturing Han and Leia in order to draw Luke into a trap. In Return of the Jedi, Luke confronts the devil himself—Emperor Palpatine—and he’s never at more risk of succumbing to the hatred in his own heart (and, subsequently, to the Dark Side) than when Vader threatens Leia, provoking Luke to lash out in rage. (Indeed, one popular fan theory suggests we’ve fundamentally misinterpreted the end of the trilogy and that Luke actually did turn completely to the Dark Side.)
By the end of the trilogy, the relationships between the heroes are firmly established: Luke and Leia have discovered the truth about their shared heritage, Leia and Han have each explicitly acknowledged their love for each other, and Han and Luke’s friendship has been solidified by the countless risks each has taken on the other’s behalf. Nevertheless, the commitment between the three doesn’t depend on such formal markers. They’ve been through war and loss and victory together, and they’ve become a family, a family that extends beyond the trio to include other humans, two robots, and a Wookie: a family of playful mutual affection, of sacrifice and submission, of love and trust. They are, as C-3PO insists to Chewbacca, responsible for one another.
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A band of individuals, often socially or geographically displaced from their homes, who form a nontraditional family characterized by bonds of love and trust through their shared allegiance to a higher calling . . . Where have I heard this story before? Near the beginning of the book of Acts, there’s a detail about the early community of Christians that has always elicited from me equal parts grief and hope: After all the drama and promise and glory of Jesus’s life on earth, the miracles and confrontations and suffering and, eventually, the ravishing ascension into heaven, the remaining believers gather, and they number no more than 120 (Acts 1:15). The number looks paltry when you consider they’re all that’s left of, for example, the many thousands who showed up to hear Jesus preach (Luke 9); or the number looks promising if you consider the strange mathematics of Jesus’s ministry—that five loaves and two fishes were all he needed to feed those many thousands—and if you read ahead to discover many more thousands will be added to their number soon (Acts 2:41). Peter stands up to address the small community, and his gentle greeting is telling. “Men, brothers,” he begins in the Greek, almost as if the second term is a correction, or clarification, of the first (Acts 1:16). Through their shared commitment to Jesus, these women and men have become a de facto family, both through the devotion and intimacy they share with each other and by the very invitation of Jesus himself.
Jesus, for his part, constantly played with expectations related to family and loyalty. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” he announces with no hesitation in Matthew 10:37, and then five chapters later he reinforces the commandment to honor one’s parents by providing care for them (Matthew 15:1–9). He infamously responds to an invitation to greet his own mother and brothers with a statement entirely void of sentimentality: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21); but then John describes him obeying that very commandment to honor his mother by arranging a surrogate son for her even as he hangs on the cross (John 19:26). Jesus promises that anyone who leaves “brothers or sisters or father or mother or children” will “receive a hundredfold” (Matthew 19:29). The invitation into the family of Jesus is perhaps nowhere more explicit than John 15, when Jesus tells his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (v. 13) before offering them a new identity: “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends” (v. 15).
The writings of the New Testament offer us glimpses into the way that, as the early church grew and spread in the years following the ministry of Jesus, familial language was both a metaphorical identity as well as a reflection of sheer socioeconomic obligation. They were, we could say, responsible for each other. Those earliest converts in Acts, many of whom were Jewish people on leave from other countries, practiced a generosity that was no less sincere for its urgent necessity: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45). Early church gatherings often occurred in homes and centered on meals, and participating in the mundane rituals of family life together flourished into participating in profoundly intimate, thick life together: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” Paul writes in Romans 12:15, offering perhaps the most concise and most thorough description I can imagine for the absolute best experiences I’ve had in various permutations of church throughout my own life. “Love one another with mutual affection,” he presses a few verses earlier (v. 10).
For those early Christians who faced outright hostility and persecution, the church was not only a family in terms of the sharing of assets and intimacy; the church provided a core identity in terms of a place for those who were displaced. New Testament authors needed to look no further than the Old Testament for language to reframe the experiences of discouraged Christians: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy,” writes Peter (1 Peter 2:10), quoting Hosea to Christians he sympathetically calls “aliens and exiles” (v 11). Hebrews 11 seeks to hearten its audience by describing the heroes of the faith and uses the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob to inform the present experience of exile.
They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13–16)
I am now more persuaded than ever that one of the most significant, distinct gifts Christians have to offer to a culture characterized by hyper-mobility, impermanence, and loneliness is the lived experience of family: of homes and meals shared, of genuine compassion and concern, of rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. We offer this invitation into family because Jesus offered that invitation to us. Sometimes we offer it in spite of ourselves, in spite of our prejudices or fears or insecurities. The family of God takes forms like couples living together with singles or parents taking in children who have nowhere else to stay; like diverse friendships of reconciliation that overcome the wounds of injustice and harm to bring about authentic healing; like Jesus saying to John, “Here is your mother” (John 19:27). The family of God satisfies our deepest longings, often in forms that are anything but traditional.
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Director George Lucas has famously and controversially tinkered with the original Star Wars trilogy since the films first arrived in theaters, resulting in multiple versions of each film. For the 1997 Twentieth Anniversary “Special Edition” theatrical re-release of Return of the Jedi, Lucas added a closing montage of celebrations of the fall of the Empire occurring on various planets to provide a galactic context for our heroes’ smaller-scale celebration with the Ewoks on Endor. As a conclusion for the six-film story, it’s a jubilant, stirring reminder of the scope of the saga, providing us a rare glimpse at just how far the Empire’s control stretched and what a monumental victory this is for the ordinary citizens of the galaxy far, far away. As we return to our heroes on Endor, though, the new montage introduces a note of poignancy: now that the war has apparently come to an end, where is the home to which our heroes will return?
Perhaps the answer lies in the final shot of Return of the Jedi: With Leia’s home on Alderaan destroyed and Tatooine offering Luke nothing but painful memories that irritate like grains of sand, our heroes have found a home standing together in a warm embrace. Surrounded by the teddy bear Ewoks, they are—in the most otherworldly sense of the words—“aliens and exiles” in an unfamiliar land. But they are not without family; would that none of us would find ourselves without family, either.