He hears the command the Emperor, the Sith named Sidious. The Dark Lord tells Luke Skywalker to “fulfill your destiny and take your father’s place at my side.” Young Skywalker, having battled Darth Vader, his father, had finally bested his foe. His “hatred made [him] powerful” and he had unleashed a dark-filled fury against his father, swinging and hacking with his self-crafted green lightsaber until a blow was finally dealt. Vader’s right hand severed, the father of Luke Skywalker lays prostrate, weaponless, and entirely at the mercy of his son.
Luke hears the Emperor’s command, he listens, but his disposition changes. Something within him stirs, a recognition we can see on his face. He is aware that he is on a precipice of falling into a never-ending chasm of darkness (it is little wonder the battle ended with Vader and Luke above an actual chasm, a clear metaphor if ever there was one). In this instance, looking down at the mechanical stump where he severed his father’s hand – and looking at his own mechanical hand, a result of an injury Vader exacted on him a year before – Luke makes his choice.
Turning towards the Emperor, Luke Skywalker will confidently declare to Darth Sidious that “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” But his words are only a part of this pronouncement, the exclamation point actually coming before he speaks when he willingly disarms himself, tossing away his lightsaber, the “elegant” weapon of a Jedi Knight. This is Luke’s active commitment to the Jedi, a practical statement of faith declaring his dedication to “peace and justice,” to “knowledge and defense, never attack.” It is the zenith of Luke’s story in the Original Trilogy, his narrative trajectory taking him from farm-boy on the desolate world of Tatooine in A New Hope to this decisive moment in Return of the Jedi as he stands in the Emperor’s throne room.
Skywalker’s intentional disarmament is, in a sense, his Arthurian moment, or rather his reverse-Arthurian moment. While the legendary King Arthur inherited Britain’s throne by pulling a sword from a stone, Luke inherits the title of Jedi Knight not by grasping and brandishing his weapon but doing the exact opposite, ridding himself of it. With this simple but profound action Luke Skywalker fundamentally changes what it means to be a member of the Jedi Order and elevates heroism to an even greater level, a level which requires traversing a path of nonviolence, compassion, and mercy (even for one’s enemies).
As a child I may not have been able to fully appreciate what Luke does in Return of the Jedi but today I am profoundly moved by Skywalker’s heroic choice. It is a stark reminder to me – and perhaps to you as well – that a farewell to arms is necessary in the pursuit of peace. Even when faced with our enemies and the possibility of death we must set aside our weapons of war with a willingness to sacrifice our lives out of love and not hatred. In this way, I interpret Luke’s act through the lens of Matthew 26:52 where Jesus tells a companion to “Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (NIV). Living by the sword, even a lightsaber, is no longer appropriate for a Jedi Knight; now, the only option is to walk the path of peace and justice fortified and armed with the Light Side of the Force.