The little red-haired girl crept to the back of the hallway and sat with her back against the door of the linen closet. The soaring music of the movie had started, and the story scrolled up the screen of the 19-inch Zenith television. A tiny silver spacecraft races through space while being pursued by a giant destroyer. The little red-haired girl knows what is coming next, and felt safer sitting at the back of the hallway than she did in the living room.
On the screen, an explosion rocks the tiny spaceship, and two robots struggle to make their way down the corridor. Soldiers race past the robots and take their positions. Suddenly a blast blows a huge hole in the passageway, and dozens of stormtroopers in imposing white spacesuits pour into the tiny ship with a blaze of laser fire. Even if you aren’t a Star Wars fan, you probably are familiar with the image of the stormtroopers.
While the little red-haired girl was attending college in Michigan, the fourth Star Wars movie was released. At that time, the little red-haired girl from Arkansas was rooming with Courtney, a New York girl from The Bronx. That girl from The Bronx became a clinical psychologist, writer, and ordained minister. While reading Spectrum Magazine, I came across her latest article, “Empathy for Stormtroopers” by Courtney Ray, published January 2, 2020, on www.Spectrummagazine.org. The article made an impact on me, and I contacted Spectrum Magazine to see if they would allow the article to be used in another publication. They graciously permitted me to quote extensively from the article.
Courtney Ray wrote, “for those not well versed in Star Wars lore, the heroes are the Jedi who follow the Light Side of the Force, while the antagonists use the Dark Side. The bad guys also employ the use of a Nazi like regime staffed by soldiers called Stormtroopers. Stormtroopers are clad in identical white and black armor. They are the faceless disposable army that attacks our protagonists. That’s not an unusual narrative element in this genre of film. Often a battle must ensue. And although the good guys get faces, names, and back stories, the enemy side will often have interchangeable minions who can be dispatched and summarily killed without much emotional impact on the audience. This is how it’s always been. However, within the last three Star Wars films, it comes to light that Stormtrooper ranks are filled with people taken as children and forced to be in their army. Many fans have expressed that this was a distressing element of the story’s development – no one wants the enemy humanized. When that happens, one may have remorse, or at least pause, when they are destroyed.
It’s fascinating to see human moviegoers in real life recoil from the thought that fake characters on a screen may be getting a bum deal by being identically labeled and fired upon when, in fact, each of them is supposedly an individual person. I was amazed to observe the feedback. There has been a nontrivial amount of empathy extended to admittedly ‘bad guy’ characters in a movie. This was achieved by simply reminding the viewers of their humanity.
Oddly enough, people are reticent to extend that same empathy to other humans in real life. We are quick to dismiss that which is ‘other’ as ‘the enemy,’ and we don’t have compassion for those with whom we feel no connection. This is human nature though. Like a featureless identical Stormtrooper uniform, our preconceived notions about those unlike us can strip them of their humanity, in our minds. We prejudge them. Many times we regard these groups as our enemies. At best, we are merely indifferent to their suffering.
Dehumanizing the ‘other’ allows us to justify our lack of compassion toward their plight. This has implications in government policy, principles of our justice systems, rules of engagement for war, and even Christian behavior. If we think about ‘foreign migrants’ as a monolithic block, it colors our thinking differently than if we knew the story of a single child seeking asylum as a refugee.”
Jesus challenged us love others, even our enemies. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ But I say to you, love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt you. If you do this, you will be true children of your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:43-45 (NCV) In Luke 10:25-27 (NLT) we read, “One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: ‘Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus replied, ‘What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?’ The man answered, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus told the lawyer that he must love his neighbor. “‘Ah,’ said the lawyer, wanting to win the point, ‘but who is my neighbor?’” Luke 10:29 (NTE) Jesus answered by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, pointing out that this man, even though he was considered an enemy, was a neighbor. The Good Samaritan, finding his perceived enemy hurt beside the road, tended to the man’s wounds and paid for his recovery care. After telling the story, Jesus said to the lawyer, “Then go and do what he did.”Luke 10:37 (NCV)
Gentle Reader, Courtney Ray concluded her article by writing, “It may feel as uncomfortable as admitting the humanity of Stormtroopers, but I admonish us to begin to view one another as more than a label. When we find ourselves tempted to dismiss someone as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘sinner’ or ‘unfaithful,’ let’s slow down enough to recall that they are more than the ideas they hold. We are all more than our labels. We are brothers and sisters. If filmmakers were able to make moviegoers empathize with the definitive ‘bad guys’ of a 4 decade drama, most assuredly there is hope that we can develop empathy for the real life people who are our brothers and sisters.”
Thank you to Courtney Ray and Spectrum Magazine for allowing the use of “Empathy for Stormtroopers” published January 2, 2020, on www.Spectrummagazine.org.