Inside the Church of Jediism – 'Being a Jedi isn't about being a Star Wars fan'
Published 16/12/2015 | 15:28
With the force awakening once again on Thursday, Star Wars fever is taking a tighter hold on the public than Darth Vader's death grip.
And with people around the globe clamouring for anything Star Wars-related, the Telegraph yesterday reported that the Church of Jediism is seeing more than one thousand new followers sign up every day.
Established in its current form in 2007, the Church of Jediism boasts almost 200,000 advocates; it says it has more practising members in the UK than the followers of Scientology, Paganism, Humanism and Rastafarianism combined.
But what is being a Jedi actually like?
The Church's founder, Daniel M Jones (he goes by the Jedi name Morda Hehol) structured the faith over four levels. He is the Grandmaster, then there are the Masters and members of the High Council, followed by Jedi Knights and then Padawans – the newest recruits.
Master Chi-Pa Amshe (he changed his name by deed poll) sits on the High Council of the Church of Jediism. I speak to him about what it means to follow his faith.
"Being a Jedi is about helping others – that is at the faith’s very core," says Amshe. "Whether that be helping people understand higher concepts, performing simple acts of kindness like offering to carry someone’s bag, or even just smiling, we feel like our outlook and beliefs can improve our existence – and isn’t that the point of all other religions?
"Jediism works well because it is so accepting," continues the Jedi Master, "we follow a code. I feel that Jediism stands out as a faith because it accepts rather than rejects. And whilst many faiths are becoming increasingly more accepting, I feel like we are already there.
"Everything you do is affected by Jediism, if sometimes only in a slight way. A good example of this would be how we teach our members to look at something very nondescript and ordinary like a street. Think about an average street - filled with 1970s grey houses, and with a weathered grey road running through the centre of it. It is not particularly remarkable - and yet, it is beautiful.
"For in every house on that street a family has been raised, there has been birth, life and happiness here. Being a Jedi is seeing things in this particularly optimistic way, perceiving the ordinary in a manner which can make everything, even a lifeless grey street, beautiful."
Amshe explains the logistical problems of organising the faith. Given the geographical spread of followers, conventional weekly congregations are not possible.
"There are no congregations," says Amshe. "We often hold Skype meetings as this is the most convenient way to speak to other Jedi around the world. But, in terms of face-to-face interaction, we tend to only ever meet in person at comic conventions, because that’s one of the places where we’ll all likely to be at one time.
"And that's one of the only times we'll don full Jedi dress. Whilst I do own a Jedi robe, and have several lightsabers, we don’t wear these every day. We tend to keep this ceremonial dress for special occasions - which many may not realise.
"Also," adds the Jedi Master, "The Force – which we capitalise – is very much a metaphorical concept for us, and when we train the new Younglings and Padawans, we encourage them to view The Force in a unique way – exploring it and perceiving the idea in the way most useful to them."
One such of these newcomers is Leah Harking, who has recently joined the Church of Jediism as a Padawan.
"I ascribed to the faith because it is the only community in which I found I could get constant, dependable and direct help from my peers – without judgement - whenever I need it," says Harking, who goes by the moniker Padawan Ahsoka.
"There are many practices that alter your life when you become a member of the Church of Jediism," Ahsoka continues. "One of my favourites and I think most positive of these is that we are all given a timetable at the beginning of a week. By the end of the week, we must have filled out this timetable, documenting when we did good or nice things for people. This encourages kindness, and I think that is important. I now spend a lot of time thinking about what I can do to help people."
Ahsoka has found that many of her friends are also joining the Church, and Master Chi-Pa Amshe ascribes this growing popularity to the upcoming film.
"Given the release of the new film, and the hype surrounding it," says Amshe, "Jediism has obviously grown a lot. But Jediism is a concept that has been readily familiar for almost forty years – most have some understanding of it before they commit to the faith.
"It is interesting, however," he adds, "with this added exposure of late, to see how people question our faith and the way we practise it – and also to hear the reasons that people of other faiths decide to join us instead."
Padawan Ahsoka believes that many parallels can be drawn between the Jedi religion and other faiths. She likens The Force to the ‘chi’ or ‘qi’ of traditional Chinese culture, or ‘prana’ of the Hindu faith. Defined as “the vital life force that flows through the body”, chi indeed shares similarities to The Force - and the followers of the church are looking to these similarities to legitimise their faith.
Jedis, whilst understanding that there may be those who laugh at The Force, are asking the detractors to open their minds. Would they have laughed at those who first suggested ‘chi’ or ‘prana’? What does it matter that their beliefs originally come from a film? And why are many so committed to belittling the Church of Jediism when, as both a faith and individuals, all they are trying to do is good?
“Being a Jedi isn’t about being a Star Wars fan,” summates Padawan Ahsoka. “It’s not about dressing up and playing with lightsabers. Following the Jedi faith is about learning from others, trying to bring about change for the better, and caring about the world."