In Hacksaw Ridge, faith a beacon of hope amidst grisly realities of war

(Image courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures. Photo credit: Mark Rogers)

What role does a man’s faith play when he goes off to war? And how closely can he adhere to his beliefs and values before endangering his life or the life of others? These questions and more are explored in the latest film from director Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge.

Hacksaw Ridge recounts the true story of Desmond Doss, an American Army medic who served in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. Heeding the call of duty to serve his country in tumultuous times, Doss enlists in the army. However, one thing separates him from the rest of his fellow brothers in arms: he refuses to kill. A man strongly convicted by his faith in God and obedience to the 10 Commandments, Doss will not so much as pick up a gun.

By sticking to his guns and simply refusing to compromise his beliefs, Doss endures a wealth of trials and tribulations, from the guys in his own unit, from a stubborn commanding officer, and from the United States Army. He perseveres, though, and is granted the right to go into battle without carrying a single weapon.

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest battles in all of the Pacific Theater of WWII, and the film takes no liberties in shying away from depicting this. The battle scenes atop Hacksaw Ridge are intensely jarring and at times, very difficult to watch. However, it is not done in a gratuitous, unnecessary way; war is brutal, war is ugly, and much like Saving Private Ryan before it, Hacksaw Ridge succeeds in showing it as a necessary element to the story it’s trying to tell.

As the character of Doss is revealed more and more, it becomes readily apparent why Gibson sought to tell his story. Though he didn’t carry a weapon, Doss was no less courageous than his brethren in the carnage of battle. Doss was responsible for saving the lives of upwards of 100 wounded soldiers single-handedly by lowering them down off the ridge to safety, and as a result, he became the first and only conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor during WWII.

As Doss’ deeds play out, questions arise of what it means to be Christ-like in a war. Doss heeds closely his faith, asking the Lord to help him “find just one more” man to save, but he still struggles, and questions what the Lord is asking of him. One particularly powerful scene shows Doss caring for a wounded Japanese soldier, echoing Christ’s command to “love your enemies,” brought to a whole new meaning in the context of war.

At its surface, moments like these make Hacksaw Ridge a great war film, but the film has a deeper, more spiritual level as well. In a media culture that often portrays Christianity and faith as some kind of delusion, it’s refreshing to see the story of Desmond Doss, a man who exemplified true child-like faith and leaned on his very real understanding of God to rise to the call of duty and become an inspiring hero.

COMING UP: Star Wars and the eternal struggle between light and darkness

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Unless you’ve been living in a galaxy far, far away, it’s nigh impossible to have not caught onto the newly reawakened Star Wars craze, and even then, it’s likely to have reached your corner of the universe. It’s been nearly 40 years since the first entry in the epic space drama was released, and as J.J. Abrams kicks off this new “sequel trilogy” with The Force Awakens, the Han Solo cosplayers and Ewok sympathizers aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.

I’ll admit it: I’m a huge Star Wars nerd. I became hooked on the series as a kid and haven’t looked back since, so in case you’re wondering, yes: I braved the bitter cold and ravenous crowds and went to see The Force Awakens opening night. As a film, I thought it was brilliant: dazzling effects, great throwbacks to the original films and one of the most complex villains of any Star Wars film. While watching it though, another, deeper thought dawned on me: namely, the close link between the epic tale of Star Wars and that of our salvation through Christ.

Without spoiling too much, The Force Awakens centers around a search. With the evil First Order rising to power in the galaxy, led by the Sith lord Kylo Ren, protagonists new and old are desperate to find Luke Skywalker, the last remaining member of the Jedi order. They feel that Skywalker is their last hope in overcoming the evil spreading through the galaxy and thus restoring the good; in other words, Skywalker is viewed as a savior of sorts.

We also mustn’t forget the Force, the invisible energy which flows through and binds all living things. As Han Solo points out in the film, the Force is thought by many to be nothing more than a fairy tale, but he assures the audience, “It’s real. All of it.” You see, only certain people are able to use the Force, and a sense of morality comes into play. A disposition to do good works with the Force makes one a Jedi; this is referred to as the “light side” of the Force. To use to the Force for evil, however, sends one down a blackened path to the “dark side” of the Force.

This where the conflict lies in Star Wars, and as a follower of Christ, it sounds awfully familiar. Just as the characters in Star Wars are caught in the midst of a battle between the light and dark sides of the Force, Christians often find themselves entrenched in a similar struggle in the day-to-day task of being an authentic disciple of Christ. Those with the Force must choose between the light or dark side, and Christians must make a choice between love and sin.

The code of the Jedi order bears some very distinct similarities to the teachings of Christ; Jedi are rigorously trained to be patient in their approach to situations, to never act out of anger or spite, and of course, to use their powers for the benefit of others. The code of the Sith, however, is the absence of all of these things. The Sith act brashly, harbor grudges toward their enemies and use their powers for personal gain. In the Christian’s world, the Sith stand for all that the evil one stands for.

From a human standpoint, becoming a Jedi is a difficult task. We are not naturally patient, but we are naturally selfish. Just as Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, “How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Mt. 7:14), the path to being a Jedi is a narrow one. As we saw happen with Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy, it is much easier to succumb to the temptations of the dark side. To fall into sin is a much simpler undertaking; it feels good, it feels natural.

But still, we fight. We are called to fight those urges that sin brings about. Temptation, lust, jealousy…these things lead to the dark side. These lead to a path of temporary fulfillment, lack of self-control, and ultimately, a very deep longing for something greater. Christ is that something greater. To choose the light side means to choose life, and to choose life means to choose Christ, who is love. To be a Christian is to be a Jedi.

And so, my fellow Jedi, turn from the ways of the dark side, go forth into battle with your trusty lightsaber, and please, try not to cut off your hand.