Let’s just come out and say it: the Jedi Order was bad, and they should die with Luke. Rey should not revive them in Episode IX.
“Okay, Sith,” you’re probably saying. But that’s a misread of my argument. You can say that the Hindenburg-era Weimar Republic was bad without endorsing Nazi Germany. Similarly, we can say that the Jedi-dominated Old Republic was a mess without endorsing the Sith-led Galactic Empire that followed.
First, I’m taking as my text the films. So while maybe some of this is explained in Star Wars: Clone Wars, I’m not sure I have the roughly 44 hours necessary to watch those.
Second, I think Pop Culture Detective has done an excellent job explaining why the teachings of the Jedi were bad. I’m going to look directly at how their actions discredit them as a force for good in the galaxy.
What was the Jedi Order?
Much smarter people than me have tried to reason out what the political structure of the Galactic Republic was and how the Jedi slotted in. Almost a decade ago Daniel Drezner argued the Jedi were “cartelistic,” Jonathan Bernstein compared the Republic to the United States under the Articles of Confederation, and Seth Masket affirmed Drezner and Bernstein while also tossing in the Knights Templar as a comparison. More recently, Jonathan Ladd reasoned that the outsourcing of the Republic’s monopoly on violence to the Jedi led to a Senate that were vulnerable to fears of a Jedi coup.
Sadly, Ladd never mentions the obvious, which is that those fears were well-founded, because the Jedi really did attempt to execute a coup. But I’ll get to that later.
We know the Jedi had varied roles in the Galactic Republic. We see them act as diplomats on behalf of the Chancellor, bodyguards to Senators and local royalty, conduct police investigations and act as military commanders.
Masket isn’t that far off in his comparison of the Military Orders of the Crusades Era. The Templars and Hospitallers (and later the Teutonic Order) really did fulfill many roles in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and like the Jedi they usually formed the elite backbone of military forces.
On the flip side, we also see Jedi participate in slave-trading, rig games of chance (though I admit the latter is implied to have been rigged already), as well as alter people’s minds as in the case of the death sticks dealer Obi-Wan. The last is particularly insidious, because the way Obi-Wan just casually does this to a death sticks dealer means that the Jedi aren’t using this power in a way that values agency, or in any kind of accountable process.
A more sinister resemblance is to the Schutzstaffel in Nazi Germany. At times, the Jedi behave like secret police: as they apprehend and grievously injure a would-be assassin in a crowded nightclub, Anakin tells onlookers, “Jedi business, go back to your drinks.” There’s no mention that they’re arresting the assassin. And the onlookers don’t raise any protest! It’s not even particularly obvious that Obi-Wan needs to chop off the assassin’s arm; he could just yank it from her hand. The Jedi are needlessly secretive and violent. And, similarly to the SS, they also operate in military capacity.
Unlike the Schutzstaffel though, there doesn’t appear to be any particular mechanism that the Republic has to hold the Jedi Order to account. The sole check (though it’s not much of one) seems to be that the Chancellor has the power to appoint a representative on the Jedi High Council, but the norm is that this person is usually a Jedi Master (thus indoctrinated in their teachings), and that the High Council also can refuse. Otherwise, the Jedi are virtually an unchecked force in the Republic.
So what was the Jedi Order? It was a secretive, monastic paramilitary with only a single, minimal constitutional check that operated a shadow government within the Republic while amassing quite a lot of institutional power. As Ladd points out, “[s]uch a scenario made the republic very vulnerable to a Jedi coup…”
The Jedi Coup & Assassination Attempts
In Revenge of the Sith, the Jedi attempt a coup d’etat (led by Mace Windu) that ends when Anakin Skywalker thwarts the assassination of Chancellor Palpatine, and later Yoda mounts his own assassination attempt on Palpatine.
Let’s walk through the events of Windu’s coup attempt:
- Windu says he’s there to arrest Palpatine “in the name of the Senate of the Galactic Republic.” He tells Palpatine that the Senate will decide what happens to Palpatine. Palpatine accuses the Jedi Masters of treason.
- They fight. Windu’s fellow Masters are killed (fairly quickly), but Windu subdues Palpatine and reiterates that he is under arrest. Anakin arrives.
- Palpatine claims that Jedi are taking over (kinda true), Windu tells him to give up, Palpatine Force lightnings Windu which backfires and disfigures Palpatine. Palpatine pleads for his life and tries to bargain with Anakin.
- Windu declares that he is “going to end this, once and for all.” Anakin says Palpatine must stand trial. Windu declares that Palpatine has control of the Senate and the courts, and that he must die. Palpatine pleads for his life again. Anakin tells Windu that Palpatine needs to live, since it’s “the Jedi way.”
- Windu moves to kill Palpatine. Anakin chops off Windu’s arm. Palpatine Force lightnings Windu out of the window.
Somewhere between points 2 and 4, Windu moves from an intent to arrest to an intent to summarily execute Palpatine. It’s even possible, given Windu’s declaration that Palpatine “has control of the Senate and the courts,” that Windu never intended to walk out of the room with Palpatine alive.
Anakin (while his intervention may not entirely be about proper procedure) makes a demand that Windu not only follow constitutional order but also Jedi teachings. At this key moment, Windu fails to uphold the Republic’s norms but he also fails to uphold his own order’s values. With this failure, he seals his fate and his entire order’s.
This should not have ended the coup attempt and the Jedi as an institutional force (Palpatine broadcasts Order 66 soon after). As scholars of coups know, a key part of any coup is seizing the major broadcaster to both justify the use of force and to give the appearance of control.
The Jedi don’t ever appear to take this key step. They make no justification of their actions to the general populace, nor (more importantly) to the army or the Senate (though it’s not clear that their reason for the coup, Palpatine being a Sith, is a crime; just something that’s really bad). Because of this lack of transparency, when he goes before the Senate, Palpatine can use the Senate’s limited knowledge of the situation and natural wariness of the Jedi to convince the Senate to sign off the formation of the Galactic Empire. There is no immediate, popular resistance to this development. And Order 66 can only succeed because there’s no opposing information that might suggest this order is illegitimate.
Afterwards, Yoda makes his attempt to assassinate now-Emperor Palpatine. When that fails, Yoda decides to go into exile. While the Jedi certainly faced a tenacious enemy in Palpatine, ultimately he only exploited the weaknesses of the Jedi-dominated Republic; or as he puts it to Yoda: “your arrogance blinds you”. Sadly, he was right. Jedi arrogance led to their downfall.
The Jedi in Exile
The Jedi spend the next couple of decades in hiding. Surely, this gives them time to reflect on and learn from their mistakes?
Not really. If anything, exile makes the surviving Jedi even less transparent. They routinely deny information to Luke that might be useful. First, both Obi-Wan and Yoda neglect to mention that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. When Luke later calls out ghost Obi-Wan on this, Obi-Wan says, well it was “true, from a certain point of view” — which has to be one of the worst instances of Jedi obfuscation in the whole series.
One of the most confusing bits of needless secrecy is when Luke makes the decision to take a break from his training to go save his friends. When both ghost Obi-Wan and Yoda counsel him to not do this, Luke asks if they want him to let them die, to which Yoda is like “pretty much, yeah.” Luke takes off. Ghost Obi-Wan forlornly says that Luke is their last hope. To which Yoda replies, “no, there is another.” He’s referring to Leia, whom he has just counselled Luke to let die.
Despite seeing their entire order destroyed, to the point where it essentially only exists as a dying Master, a trainee, and a ghost, the Jedi have not learned a thing. Obi-Wan sacrificed his life saving Leia, and still he and Yoda can only focus on vengeance on Vader to the point where they’re willing to sacrifice her even while acknowledging her as their backup plan.
It’s fitting then, that it’s ultimately Luke’s refusal to kill Vader (despite Obi-Wan’s counsel otherwise) that saves the day. Two successive Jedi Masters attempted to hone Luke into a weapon to destroy Vader, and Palpatine goes to his clutch move: exploit the idiocy of the Jedi. He basically orders Luke to do what the Jedi have trained him for and kill Vader; knowing that doing so will leave Luke open to his manipulations.
Luke’s refusal saves not only himself, but allows Vader the space to redeem himself and kill the Emperor. Once again, what the Jedi intend is thwarted, but this time, it works in their favor; Vader and Palpatine die and the Empire falls apart. It’s a victory for the galaxy, but it’s certainly not a victory for the Jedi, because if things had gone the way Yoda and Obi-Wan intended, Luke would likely be a Sith.
The Jedi Reborn
The Last Jedi both critiques and continues the Jedi tradition of being really crappy. Luke is revealed to have unintentionally brought down his nascent Jedi revival by reflexively attempting to kill someone (apparently, he unlearned the lesson that saved him from the Dark Side and redeemed his father and instead defaulted to standard Jedi operating procedure).
Worse is Yoda, who counsels Luke that failure is an important part of teaching, though it’s unclear what Yoda ever learned from his failures. He imparts this bit of knowledge after yanking his one-time apprentice’s chain by destroying the Jedi library, leading Luke to believe that all the sacred Jedi texts were destroyed. Sure, Yoda is teaching Luke a lesson here (and chooses his words carefully, so that he doesn’t outright lie to Luke), but Luke goes to his death thinking this, so it’s once again needlessly deceptive by Yoda.
There’s not too much to say about these later years of the Jedi. Luke’s failed revival and later hermitage means they are so removed from life in the galaxy that they don’t get the chance to screw up. Rey doesn’t get much training, though Luke gives a piece of advice that all Jedi should’ve carried with them: “this is not going to go the way you think.” He then follows it up by counseling Rey not to go to Kylo Ren. It’s unclear what the ramifications of Rey listening to him would be given that she fails to turn Kylo, but it’s at least better than the orders Luke got to let his friends die.
Let the Past Die
In the real world, we often find nostalgic linkages to the past, appropriations of historical names, and the fabrications of continuity where none truly exist (think of the Republican Party choosing to name itself after Jefferson’s Republican Party even as it opposed the actual successor, the Democratic Party). In both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi these sorts of connections are used by both sides; whether it’s the First Order’s attempts to mimic the Empire or the revivals of the Republic and the Jedi Order.
But quite honestly, is it worth reviving the Jedi Order as it appears Rey intends to do? It’s not clear they accomplished much. They sowed the seeds of their own destruction. In exile, they continued to bumble about, hoping to turn a young man into a weapon to use against his father. The Jedi are “good” in our minds because our heroes think they’re “good” but the evidence for this is scant. If such an organization existed in any modern democracy, we’d consider them tyrannical and out of control.
The best case scenario is that the Jedi that Rey establishes are organized along far different principles than those that the original Jedi Order were. A Jedi Order that’s transparent and accountable to democratic processes could be a powerful force for good in the galaxy.
But the Jedi Order as we’ve seen it in the Star Wars films so far has almost always behaved terribly, with results that ultimately speak for the themselves.
So here’s hoping the Jedi stay dead.