About a week ago, I joined the cool kids club and got to see The Force Awakens in theaters. It was a fantastic movie, and because I just finished reading a dissertation on John Paul II, there were a lot of really intense philosophical and theological ideas bouncing around my brain as I tried to soak in the movie. But there was also one much more basic theme, and that’s what I’d like to focus on here. First: SPOILER ALERT. DO NOT DO NOT DO NOT READ unless you’ve seen the film and/or just don’t care.
Throughout The Force Awakens (hereafter: TFA), one character’s journey really captured my mind. I couldn’t figure out why at first, but after the film was over, I figured it out. The key was mercy, and the character was Finn. So, I decided with the Year of Mercy upon us, it would be good to meditate on mercy in the spiritual life and how Finn displays the power of mercy. Again: SPOILER ALERT!
Finn: The Power of the Will
In John Paul II’s view, people become more and more human as they become in possession of their selves. This comes about as a result of recognizing truth and freedom and seeking them with the will. In TFA, Finn starts as a Storm Trooper, but he faces a conflict of will with the orders he is given. After he sees one of his fellow Storm Troopers die, and gets his blood on his mask, he has a sudden realization of the truth of his situation and begins to realize the brutality of the First Order. He then refuses to follow an order to murder innocent resistance fighters.
In short order, Finn has decided to not only resist participation in the evil of the First Order, but to fight back directly. The entire film shows Finn adjusting to this new life. It’s awkward for him; he’s been so consumed by the identity he was given as a Storm Trooper that he hasn’t learned to be a human. He was, literally, a number (FN 2187). There’s an obvious parallel here to how prisoners were treated in the Nazi concentration camps in WWII. No names, just numbers. Yet even in those places where hope seemed lost, there were human beings who would resist (like Maximilian Kolbe). Finn shows that kind of fortitude.
What’s really fantastic about Finn, though, is he shows the power of a single decision which is then followed through. He makes a firm amendment of will not to participate in the atrocities of the First Order and never backs down. He’s not sure how to make an identity for himself apart from his Storm Trooper background, but he eventually utilizes his knowledge of the workings of the evil organization to help bring about its downfall.
Saints as Real Human Beings
There is, in Finn’s story, the core of many stories of saints. People tend to have a very whitewashed image of what the life of a typical saint looks like. We imagine them being brought up as perfect little children who knew their prayers, then magically went through adolescence without ever disobeying their parents, and joined a monastery at the age of 15, never to sin again.
Yet, the plain fact is many saints were once mired in sin; some knew nothing other than a life of vice and sin, but were struck powerfully by an encounter with truth and goodness and found themselves drawn out of the darkness and into the light. Still others, like St. Augustine, show that even when there is a model of spirituality close to home, it’s easy to ignore it to pursue worldly pleasures and accolades. That’s what the young Augustine did until he realized that, even with all the world could give him, his heart was still restless, and wouldn’t find rest until he found God.
What’s so neat about Finn’s character is that he follows this kind of transformation. It’s a great visual of the process of spiritual conversion. While any conversion is likely to begin with a decision, it only becomes real when it’s lived out. Finn tries, early in the film, to just merely hide from the First Order. But he realizes that isn’t a viable option. This is what happens when we attempt to flee from sin. In order to truly overcome sin, it has to be confronted and, most importantly, whatever the source of that sin is must become integrated into a fully human life. If one is overly proud, the way to overcome that is not merely by trying hard to stop being proud, but by being humble. Virtue is what leads to victory over vice.
This is the kind of image we need to help us in the year of mercy. Pope Francis has convened on Dec. 8th a year of mercy in which we will celebrate, in a special way, the power of mercy, which is at the heart of any conversion story. Even if someone succeeds in making the decision to amend their life after a failed struggle with sin and temptation, they still need mercy. But we need it even more when we’re in the struggle and when we fail. Through God’s mercy, all can be forgiven and all can be overcome. That doesn’t make sin insignificant, and it doesn’t make going forward in virtue easy. But it does mean it’s possible. It makes it worth doing, and it makes life worth living.
What we can read about in the pages of a great spiritual work like The Confessions by St. Augustine is brought to life on screen, albeit in an analogical way, by the actions and choices of Finn. Even though he’d been a part of the First Order for as long as he’d known, and had directly participated in their evil, he knew it was wrong. When he made his initial, perhaps hasty decision to leave it all behind, he was in over his head. He tried to run away, then had to confront the problem. If only, during this year of mercy, we might muster the same courage and do as St. John Paul II so often reminded us to: be not afraid!