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May The Force Be With You (And With Your Spirit) – When Religion Fails the People it’s Meant to Help

For those of us who grew up in the church and those of us who are a part of it now, it’s incredible how much Christianese can bypass our filters as being normal, everyday terms. I like to think I’m fairly good at not dropping lines like “let’s fellowship with each other”, or “called to [insert ministry here]”, but just the other day, I had a friend stop me with a “wait, what’s a spiritual gift?” Whoops.

There is a very distinct subculture of American Christianity (with its own sub-sub-subcultures) where this Christianese language lives, and much of it is intended to be something good. “Fellowship” is meant to be about deep community. Being “called to” a ministry is about seeing God’s heart for a particular need. But when you live in an echo chamber of this language without grasping its heart, it can devolve into empty platitudes.

It can become Luminara Unduli’s words to Rafa Martez.

She looked at me, and you know what she said? She said I had to make a choice, but not to worry, “the Force will be with you.” That’s it. Then she was off. And Trace and I were left without parents, without a home, just left there to find our way in their system.

Rafa Martez, “Dangerous Debt”

“The Force will be with you” is a phrase in Star Wars that was first given to us – the audience – as a promise. It’s Obi-Wan giving Luke the confidence he needs to save the day. It’s Ezra granting hope to Lothal as he removes Thrawn from the war. It’s the Jedi of the past coming to stand with Rey.

For Rafa, the line isn’t a promise. It’s a command, followed by abandonment. Words meant to instill hope instead inflict a wound, putting all the responsibility on the person in need. Luminara isn’t going to be there alongside Rafa when this girl has to make these difficult choices, and yet she still conveys an expectation that Rafa should follow a hard path.

But it’s not just Luminara. Obi-Wan tries to leave the farmers on Felucia. Humanitarian missions that we see in early seasons of The Clone Wars slowly fade away as military victories take precedence over people. By the time we reach Season Seven itself, the Poletecs – whose plight would have taken center stage in episodes like “Supply Lines”, “Bounty Hunters”, “Defenders of the Peace”, or “Trespass” – are reduced to threats and assets even in Anakin’s eyes.

A Jedi arriving on a planet is no longer about helping the people, it’s about fixing a part of the Republic that has fallen out of line.

It became increasingly clear that my fellow Christians didn’t want to listen to me, or grieve with me, or walk down this frightening road with me. They wanted to fix me. They wanted to wind me up like an old-fashioned toy and send me back to the fold with a painted smile on my face and tiny cymbals in my hands.

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

In the real world, the American church is also easily distracted by declarations of manufactured “wars”. Never mind that we1 aren’t the target of hate rallies like Charlottesville. Never mind that we don’t have travel bans discriminating against us. The (white) American church is nevertheless under attack; there’s an annual war on Christmas, don’t you know?

We get so wrapped up in defending ourselves from these perceived threats that we have no energy, no time, and no interest in actually helping the people that our God commanded us to help. We will be single-issue voters to protect “the most vulnerable” in our nation – Christianese for pro-life – and elect someone to office who will target actual vulnerable communities to increase their own power.

This division between our words and our actions is painted most clearly in Mace Windu’s Age of Republic story, which takes place before The Phantom Menace. Within this comic, Mace makes several moral declarations:

A child should be in a school, not waging war from a cave.

Looks more like a safe place for you to hide while you send children to die in battle. And if your motives are so pure, why is your operation funded by the Hutts?

Your cause was already lost as soon as you resorted to kidnapping and working for the Hutts!

Mace Windu, “The Weapon,” Age of Republic Special

More than any other story, this comic shows exactly how far the Jedi have strayed from the heart of their code by the Clone Wars. While the Jedi aren’t kidnappers – episodes from The Clone Wars makes it clear that they give parents a choice whether or not to send their child to the Temple – once the war hits, they are using child soldiers. Teenage Padawans are commanders, clone growth is accelerated, and even clones that are still literal children are being trained for combat.

Mace’s future actions – and the future actions of the Jedi Order – are played for dramatic irony in the comic, but Age of Republic also reveals that this disconnect between the Jedi and the people they were supposed to be helping was there long before Palpatine ever began his manipulations.

Yoda informs Mace that they cannot interfere with local laws to help a child soldier.

The recent political climate in America may have highlighted the church’s disconnect with its heart – especially to white Christians like myself who grew up in privileged ignorance – but it’s been there for centuries, and we try to pretend that it’s not. We try to pretend that it ended with the crusades, with slavery, with the Civil Rights Movement. We try to pretend because pretending is easier than walking the long, hard road with the people who are hurting and grieving. It’s a quick fix of saying “The Lord be with you (and with your spirit)” and washing our hands of any further commitment.

Because – like Luminara – we have a war to get back to. How could we possibly have time for the little things?

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

James 2:15-17 (English Standard Version)

Now that I have thrown my entire religion under the bus, I do have to say that the core still exists. The teachings and commands of Jesus are still there, even if we no longer use them to back our platitudes, and a return to the core is required to affect true change. The church I personally attend isn’t perfect, but when it comes to helping people out of addiction, when it comes to staying beside them through the rough journey of victories and relapses, my church is there for the long haul. That’s what a Christian acts like. Then there are countless organizations like the Poor People’s Campaign, which is dedicated to continuing the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., faith leaders using their authority to fight for the marginalized. That’s what a Christian acts like.

Or at least, how I want us to be.

You might not think of yourself as a Jedi, but you act like one. Or at least, how I want them to be.

Rafa Martez, “Together Again”

In Star Wars, the galaxy didn’t need the Jedi as generals. They didn’t need them in an ivory tower. The galaxy needed them in positions like Ahsoka was for Rafa and Trace. When you look back at the arc of Ahsoka in the underworld,2 you can see that Ahsoka is actually giving Rafa the exact same message as Luminara was.

Rafa had choices. To get rid of the dangerous droids or to sell them. To sell spice to the Pykes or to a medical facility. To help the beggar on the street or not. To run free or to rescue Ahsoka.

The Force was with Rafa. Ahsoka was there to stop the droid. To protect Rafa and Trace. To sacrifice herself for them. All of it, regardless of the choices Rafa made.

Luminara’s platitude was meant to be a quick fix to bring Rafa back into alignment with the Jedi’s system. But what really transformed Rafa was a Jedi that walked the hard road with her, a Jedi that stuck with Rafa no matter how messy it got. These are the sort of actions that give actual power and meaning to the promise, “the Force will be with you.”

  1. Specifically the white American church. Black churches are frequent targets of domestic terrorism. []
  2. Please folks, stop using “walkabout”. I know Lucasfilm and Filoni used it, but a walkabout is a very real and important part of a very real and very marginalized culture. We shouldn’t be appropriating it. []

9 thoughts to “May The Force Be With You (And With Your Spirit) – When Religion Fails the People it’s Meant to Help”

  1. As a Pastor – I love and resonate with this article. As a Lutheran Pastor, I want to delve into the fantastic distinction between command (threats) and promise – the old Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel. And in the midst of a time of pandemic where I am separated from my own members, the lack of being with people is acutely clear.

    But I’m going to push back slightly – because I think it’s a key point. Note that you quote RHE saying, “It became increasingly clear that my fellow Christians didn’t want to listen to me, or grieve with me, or walk down this frightening road with me. They wanted to fix me.” Then, by the end of the article you say, “That’s what a Christian acts like. Or at least, how I want us to be.”

    Or how you want to fix me, or us, or the Church.

    This is the danger of all activism – whether you want to be critical of the opposition wing of politics or critical of your own wing. We want to fix others – and in so doing we want to control them. Fix instead of serve. And if they don’t like our fix, well, they are just terrible. It’s the danger of criticism… we forget that the only reason we see that flaw in that person over there is because it dwells right here, in me. (Ask me how I know about the follow of trying to fix people.)

    I re-read James Luceno’s “Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader” over the weekend, and part of that is a conflict between two Jedi who survive Order 66, Roan and Olee. And they disagree on how to handle things – what to do. Roan’s fears turn out to be justified – one could say that he was right and Olee was wrong. Yet… he lets her be wrong. He doesn’t force or coerce her. He does come back to aid her when she needs help, but he doesn’t fix her — and that is actually put forth as a positive model in the book.

    Sometimes people are going to go on quests we think are foolish. Sometimes, we will judge folks harshly for not doing enough. We think we can determine what is good and bad – not recognizing that we don’t have the perspective or information to make those decisions accurately, nor discerning our own flaws and repenting of them. And the patience that is required for this is astonishing.

    That’s the importance of promise. Promise isn’t about what *I* do… or should have done… or could have done… or failed. A promise is outside of me – a promise is given to me, something received. That’s what works this. Someone else… someone else for us. Always (dare I add, even unto the end of the age).

    Lest this turn into a sermon, I’ll let folks connect the dots spiritual as they are given to.

      1. I think there are two different types of “fixes” that you’re discussing here, the individual and the institutional.

        If we were talking just individual, yes I would agree with you. Let’s pull out one of RHE’s sticking points that she’s talked about: evolution. Belief in evolution/creationism/young earth creationism is, in my opinion, is a “meat sacrificed to idols” type of disagreement. The book of Romans discusses how for some people, that meat is okay to eat. For others, it’s idolatry. That sort of situation (evolution or meat sacrificed to idols) is moreso of what I see in how you describe Roan and Olee. It’s okay to let someone be wrong in this sort of situation.

        However, the church has a power as an institution which can deliver devastating harm if we don’t fix things. We see this very early on in the church in which some widows were being discriminated against in the church. Peter and the rest of the apostles – whose job was to teach and not necessarily handle distribution of food – still had to address this issue before going back to preaching. The church needed to be fixed.

        We see an even worse situation in how the church in America pushed for slavery, using tactics to justify it and demonize abolitionists. I highly recommend Reconstructing the Gospel by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove for an in-depth look into how tactics of slaveholders still persist in the church today. That needed to be fixed then, and it still needs to be fixed now. Because it’s not just about letting someone be wrong about their personal reaction to things, it’s about the damage we are doing in the name of Jesus.

        I will concede that there is a danger to activism in the church. Disillusionment can lead to bitterness and arrogance; the notion that no one else has any right answers except me. I will also concede that there is power in serving to enact change – that’s a lot of what Jesus did. But he also straight-up called out injustices for what they were.

        I am not entirely following what you’re saying about the promise bit though…

      2. I really like the distinction between fixing the institution and the individual. However, I find that calls to fix an institution can be problematic.

        We can make an institution so monolithic that we use that to justify our own wicked response. One could make that argument all the time in Star Wars along Separatist lines – the Republic is so corrupt it must be overthrown (as oppose to these specific policies are bad and are enabling bad faith actors). Instead of dealing with concrete issues, the abstract nature of the institution and it’s overwhelming “evil” justifies any actions I take against any particular person I take. My declaring them guilty by association is justified.

        We forget that institutions aren’t as monolithic as we like to describe them. Even with your example of the American Church and slavery… well, there is no institutional American Church. And actually, I’m sure the New England abolitionists would be not included in the perpetuation of slavery. And historically speaking, church bodies split in the 19th Century precisely over the history of slavery. The Lutheran General Synod split precisely over that issue.

        And at the risk of going far too inside baseball, this abstractification of the institution goes on today. Lutherans in America are divided into different groupings (synods),and often they will bad mouth each other on the basis of outlier actions. Or in politics, where all conservatives get labelled as alt-right or all liberals are antifa neo-fascists (apply insulting labels as you see fit).

        Now, I’ll contrast that with the example you provided from Acts Six. There’s a problem. Instead of trying to fix individuals (you mean people who ignored the widows must pay) or the institution (I’m never coming here again) – there’s a solution given to fix the immediate problem. And that’s it. A tangible solution to a tangible problem – but not a quest to fix individual or sweep through an institution. Rather than fixing people and their attitudes, or even fixing an institution, the focus was on serving specific individuals in a specific way.

        When Jesus tore down the temple, it was the temple of His own Body, not the institution. He even wept over the days 40 years down the road when the institution would finally be brought down. And in so doing He told the thief on the cross today you will be with me. Individual, brought in to the larger Body.

        + + + + + + +

        And now to get further into the weeds, since you asked – but briefly. There’s a distinction made between threats and promises, or law and Gospel. The promise is always from an external source – it’s something made by another (in the theological case, God) to you for your benefit. Someone says that they will do something for you – that is good for you.

        A promise isn’t about my action. There are conditionals that are (if you do X, then I will do Y for you – that’s a conditional) – but the promise is simply that the other will act unconditionally for your good. It’s simply a statement of fact.

        Consider Obi-wan at the end of a New Hope. It’s a simple statement of fact, and assertion – the Force will be with you, always. Promise, flat out simple. But not originating from Luke, but coming to Luke from Obi-wan. Luke’s not responsible for the promise – it’s a gift that has been given to him. Hopefully he’ll use it well and delight in it – but it’s been given to him.

        Likewise – Lo, I will be with you, even unto the end of the age. Promise. Given to you. Not conditional.

        In fact, we tend to muck up the entire Great Commission – we turn it into a command. It’s not. It is best translated, “Going, you will make disciples of all nations….” It’s not a command (seriously, it’s not an imperative) it’s a description of reality, a promise that is made. This good is is what will happen because I will be with you always.

        So, do we hear the end of Matthew as a giant stick that whacks us over the head as people guilt us into doing more and more to fix whatever they want fixed, or do we hear it as a gracious and awesome promise from God?

        I think that sort of thing dovetails really well with your initial post on how “The Force will be with you” gets used. It is a promise – or an excuse to ignore and write off an individual in need? Is it an opportunity to exercise dominance over another by adding an “if you serve me” to it.

        But that’s what that promise stuff was =o)

        (P.S. If you actually want to hear my thoughts on Acts 6, you can search for the “Gospeled Boldlly” podcast – around three years ago we went through Acts on the show.

    1. Hey Eric, I am not able to reply directly on the thread we have above, but I think we’re ultimately going to remain in disagreement about fixing the “institution” (should it be fixed and if yes, how?) and to try to dive any deeper is going to turn into semantic definitions to get our points across. Still, I appreciate your thoughts and thanks for sharing!

      I also like the distinction as the Great Commission as a promise, not a command. Thank you for that insight.

      1. Only Sith deal in absolutes!!!

        Or something – thank you for an excellent article and discussion.

  2. I don’t know if you meant to do it, but this made me notice something I previously didn’t about that issue. Mace Windu criticizes them for dealing with the Hutts, but during the Clone Wars (and the movie The Clone Wars, LOL) the Jedi and Republic do exactly that!

    1. Yes! I thought that was brilliant of the writers of Mace’s comic. I confess that I cannot recall the name of the top of my head, but I feel like a lot of excellent dramatic irony decisions were made.

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