Meet the real-life Jedi Knights bringing their religion to the mainstream
Huw Fullerton tracks down the mysterious Jedi living among us - and finds a surprising Dark Side to their Star Wars-inspired teachings
Daniel was totally unprepared for the Sith Lord’s attack. He could only look on as the villain drew his weapon and struck down Daniel’s fellow Jedi, every swing of his lightsaber connecting with an almighty clunk.
Then he ran away and fell over, pissed out of his mind.
“He’d drunk a box of wine, and he decided that it was time to make an appearance,” 28-year-old student Daniel Jones tells me now of Arwel Hughes, who interrupted a filmed lightsaber duel in 2008. “He’d put a binbag on and had a crutch and was pretending to be Darth Vader.”
But of course he wasn’t a real Jedi – unlike Daniel and his friends.
“It’s people not understanding what we’re doing and trying to be funny about it,” Daniel bitterly complains.
The attack on the Church of Jediism
Jediism is a very new religion, little known to most. Today thousands of people worldwide meet online and in real life to discuss the role of “The Force” in everyday life, dress in robes for knighting ceremonies and even officiate weddings, while a quick trawl of the internet finds dozens of official clubs for learning the art of lightsaber combat in old community centres.
Of course, fans had been dressing up as Luke Skywalker since the first Star Wars in 1977, but it wasn’t until later that love of George Lucas’ order became more theological, partially influenced by a role-playing game from 1987 that first revealed the Jedi Code.
There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no death, there is the Force.
A page from the rulebook of the official role-playing game that first revealed the Jedi Code
And the idea truly hit the mainstream in 2001, when 390,127 people in England and Wales identified their faith as Jedi and made it the 12th most popular religion in the UK, ahead of Scientology.
It started as a joke, in other words – but many of the census responders began to take it very seriously.
“There wasn’t really anyone doing it at the time,” says Church of Jediism co-founder Daniel, “and we thought it would be really cool to get something started.”
Thus a new religion was born. Branches sprung up around the world with texts and catchechisms swapped online, sermons conducted over Skype and a full-blown theology quickly taking shape.
But if you thought the Anglican/Catholic disagreements over church practice were intense, wait until you find out the schisms between the Jedi. For some, being a Jedi is a way of reinterpreting their existing religious beliefs, while others see it as a brand-new faith or philosophy that gives moral guidance to more secular lives. Some see “the Force” as a real energy that connects all living things, while most think of it as more metaphorical. They also all seem to disagree on whether to wear robes or not, but that might be down to personal taste.
More like this
In a few cases, the religion has even evolved beyond its source material, with US-based group Temple of the Jedi Order playing down the importance of Star Wars altogether.
“Star Wars is not necessary for Jediism,” 23-year-old UK member Michael Kitchen says. “You don’t have to have seen the films, or read the books, or even like it! I know some Jedi who don’t really care about Star Wars.”
Meanwhile other Jedi treat the films with more reverence, striking out out into the real world to preach the good news. Perhaps predictably, some of the more enthusiastic evangelists are in America.
“We do everything that we feel a Jedi would be doing in today’s society,” Chicago Jedi founder Gabriel Calderon tells me. “Be that community work, service, improvement of our mind, body and spirit, and then we will also do the fun stuff as well, such as dressing up and using lightsabers.”
The Chicago Jedi with leader Gabriel Calderon (in grey cape)
Over the years these and other Jedi groups have taken part in food drives and charity walks, using the basic charitable tenets of other religions to the same positive effect. Talking to Gabriel, it’s hard to argue with the idea that the Jedi can be a force for good, or see the harm in letting them carry on.
But then again, not everyone inspired to create a religion around Star Wars has such selfless motives. After all, every angel needs a demon, every God a Satan – and every beacon of light a dark side.
Take Khaos. Khaos is a Sith, in the style of the dark side-wielding, cape-sporting baddies of Star Wars like Darth Vader and the Emperor. Like those characters, he believes the ultimate goal of life is to use passion to gain strength and seize power – but just as the religious Jedi differ to their movie counterparts, so too do these versions of their greatest foes.
“If I said I wanted to be a Sith for real I would be in jail tomorrow.”
“What it really represented was being successful,” Khaos (real name Kurt MacCarath) explains. “Apart from all the genocidal stuff.
“Obviously we don’t build a Death Star or anything.”
He adds: “If I said I wanted to be a Sith for real I would be in jail probably tomorrow.”
Rather, the group Kurt leads use a Sith creed – peace is a lie, there’s only passion; through passion I gain strength; through strength I gain power; through power I gain victory – as a motivational “toolbox” to get promotions or become dentists (to use an example he offers). In other words, the teachings of the most evil group in the galaxy have become a self-help guide.
“Real-life Sith might be a little like the 'Red Pill' movement, which encourages alpha-masculine behaviour and self-improvement,” Kingston University Professor of Film and Cultural studies Will Brooker tells me.
“Anyone who actually tried to follow the Sith as depicted in the films would, I assume, attempt to connect with feelings of hatred and anger, and seek political power.”
Sith Lord Darth Maul from 1999's Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Still, there are some who cleave a little closer to the movie Sith, because just like any religious text Star Wars has its radical interpretations. Of course, some are just unhinged – I speak to one man who believes Star Wars is a conspiracy by the Jewish-controlled CIA to hide their psychic warfare programme – but one group of Sith claim to genuinely have plans for world domination.
“Yes, I’ve come across them,” Kurt chuckles when I bring this up. “They’re dead serious about it.
“I guess everyone’s gotta have goals, but I don’t think that’s a goal they’re gonna reach. There are governments in place – who are these people on the internet who are gonna take over the world?”
Of course, people might once have said something similar about the Rebel Alliance.
In any case, generally speaking the relationship between the Dark and Light side of the Jedi religion seems close. Most of the Jedi I speak to consider Sith another side of their own teachings, and they even attend the same social events.
Interestingly, it’s only the Church of Jediism’s Daniel Jones – arguably the face of the most mainstream Jedi group, with a large membership and celebrity supporters like Star Wars actor Warwick Davis – who distances himself from the darker branches of his faith, calling them “a negative impact on our existence.”
“We don’t associate ourselves with those people,” he says forebodingly.
"People think Yoda's a real God, or George Lucas is our L Ron Hubbard"
Still, both groups are definitely united in the knowledge that the public don’t understand them, with everyone I speak to bringing up common misconceptions and stereotypes.
“That it’s a fan club, I guess?” Daniel suggests. “Or that we believe Yoda’s a real God. Or that George Lucas is our L Ron Hubbard.”
“I think people think we’re sort of a cult,” Sith leader Kurt adds. “Like we’re thinking ‘what bad can we do today?’ and dwelling on the darkness of society and life.”
There have even been claimed cases of discrimination, including a 2014 protest after Jedi wasn’t recognised as a real religion in south London prison HMP Isis, and a 2009 incident when Church of Jediism founder Daniel was thrown out of Tesco for wearing his Jedi robes.
“I felt like someone in the past might have felt like if they were persecuted for something that they believed in,” he says now.
In response, Tesco said: "Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Luke Skywalker all appeared hoodless without ever going over to the Dark Side and we are only aware of the Emperor as one who never removed his hood.”
Two Jedi practice their lightsaber technique
In fairness to the Tesco staff they may have found the Jedi religion a little hard to take seriously. Star Wars is perennially associated with nerdy basement-dwellers, and the image of these “Jedi” fooling around in their robes could seem sad or comical.
“The bottom line is, can you even be a Jedi in a world without lightsabers and supernatural Force abilities?” asks Will Brooker.
“Only by changing, diluting and scaling down what 'Jedi' means... and if you're going to do that you end up with nothing more than a bunch of people with good intentions who refuse to take off their hoods because it's part of their 'religion.'”
But others disagree, including cultural historian and anthropologist Matthew Kapell.
“Since there are so many religions, the only way you can look at them as an outsider is to see what they do for the person,” he says. “If they’re taking something out of it, who am I to judge?”
And everyone I speak to does seem to get something out of being a Jedi. Whether it’s Kurt’s now-achieved dream of opening a martial arts school, Michael’s newfound patience for others or Gabriel’s simple joy at helping those less fortunate, they all seem enriched by being a Jedi in some way, big or small.
“It gives you a meaning, a sense of being,” Daniel sums up, “because you’re making history with everything you do.”
And that history is still being written. While they could end up as a jokey footnote in a study of fandom, at the moment things look good for the Jedi’s future. The 2011 census still recorded more then 176,632 Jedi in the UK (some probably still joking, admittedly), and since the release of new Star Wars movie The Force Awakens the Church of Jediism has claimed a huge upsurge in membership.
“There will be Jedi temples – physical ones you can go and visit,” UK Jedi Michael predicts confidently, while Daniel says that his church already has a crowdfunding scheme to get one built.
“We’re just about to be ten years old and ten years isn’t really anything,” Michael concludes of his own branch. “Normally a religion will be around for a much longer time than that.”
Star Wars actor Warwick Davis (bottom left) with his family and the Church of Jediism
Matthew Kapell agrees – and thinks that just like any faith, the legend of the Jedi can only grow as the facts are lost in the mists of time.
“Imagine Jediism continues to grow and it’s 1,000 years from now,” he says. “People could talk about the early 21st century as a time when the Jedi were truly powerful and were guardians for peace and justice on earth.”
And who knows? Maybe that drunken Darth Vader’s attack could become a legendary battle after all, a founding myth in a worldwide religion.
They should probably leave out the bin bag though.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is in cinemas now