How texts from peace scholars could help heal a conflicted Star Wars fandom

"Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose."
Star Wars: A New Hope. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Image Credit:
Star Wars: A New Hope. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Image Credit: /

Star Wars is not a religion.

And yet, many of us defend and debate every new entry into Star Wars canon with the devoted ferocity of religious zealotry. Books, comics, TV shows and films—these are the stories of our would-be Star Wars scripture.

Holy texts are important for religious communities because they comprise the collective story and living memory of a particular tradition. These tales offer inspiration, instruction, and material for further reflection. Though a particular piece of scripture may have been written thousands of years ago, it is the responsibility of the religious community in the present to interpret and apply the text’s insights to meet the moment’s needs.

We might call this reading and responding to the signs of the times.  

The comparison to us Star Wars fans is an apt one. We look to that galaxy far, far away for inspiration in our own daily lives. These stories shape us. They leave a mark on who we are and on what kinds of stories we, in turn, share. Importantly, these stories are mirrors in which we see our own stories—or don’t.

Time did not end in 1977. With new insights into what it means to be human, in what it means to meet this moment and respond to the signs of these times, comes a renewed responsibility to interpret old stories in a fresh way. Holy texts necessarily explore what it means to be alive now.

This is the moment in which debate and—sadly—conflict enter into any sort of scriptural exegesis. Rather than seeing these stories as sources of abundance, we cling to a mentality of scarcity. We refuse to expand the story or tell a bigger story. We bristle at new voices entering the conversation and carrying with them fresh insight. Why?

Every new Star Wars installment seems to bring with it this clash of identities. And while debate and discussion can enliven and enlarge our sense of shared story, too often conflict gets ugly—and unhelpful. Too often, our debates over Star Wars canon resemble the worst of religious debates over sacred scripture.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the work of the late peace scholar Johan Galtung. Born in Oslo, Norway and considered the “Father of Peace Studies,” Galtung wrote a lot about structural and cultural violence. Cultural violence is the flesh and blood that gives structural violence life; it is the perverse passing on of harmful assumptions and norms that insist on a particular way of being.

Cultural violence might insist one group is inferior to another. Structural violence then ensures that society is organized in such a way that the latter group is preferred over the former in subtle and nefarious ways.

In the book Globalizing God: Religion, Spirituality and Peace (2008, Kolofon Press), which Galtung coauthored with Graeme MacQueen, the authors write: “Peace, like conflict and violence, is a relation between one or more parties.” Whereas we are accustomed to thinking of peace as an absence of violence, in fact peace is so much more. Galtung and MacQueen point to structural peace, which is the reorganization of society so as to ensure that the relationships between and among all people are built on equity, reciprocity, inclusion, and a sense of caring for the whole person. Structural peace requires shared responsibility for the common good.

What does this have to do with Star Wars canon? At the very least, it reminds us that we are in relationship with other people; we’re not simply avatars floating around the ether of the internet. A community—however tenuous—is comprised of actual people with their own beliefs and values, experiences and expertise, hopes and dreams trying to muddle onward through life while grounded in a shared story. We each owe one another something, I think: A bit of kindness, a bit empathy. And we expect the same in return—that’s the reciprocity necessary to structural peace.

Galtung and MacQueen’s book is written in response to the dangerous images of war and violence often found (and justified) in religious texts. But I think we can use the framework they offer to respond to such unhelpful imagery in our engagement with the ever-expanding Star Wars canon. They provide four ways to deal with “problematic” texts (34-38):

1. Reject the text

2. Keep the text "in the attic"

3. Emphasize function rather than meaning

4. Re-frame the text

The first method is self-explanatory. If you don’t like a particular Star Wars story, don’t read it. Don’t watch it. Don’t play that game. Erase it from your headcanon. But here’s the part where this method gets tricky—these are shared stories, and I might dislike a story that you love. Can we exist in the same community? Can we muddle onward while respecting these diverging views? Can we collaborate on a shared future?

The second method simply means we ignore a given text, much in the way The Star Wars Holiday Special was “left in the attic” to collect dust—and to be forgotten. The problem here, as the Holiday Special reveals, is that it’s always possible that these “forgotten” texts get remembered. And, if we’re being quite honest, it’s never a good idea to push skeletons to the back of the closet.

The third method makes more sense in a religious context than in our Star Wars one—here, the authors suggest the recitation of mantras in dead languages as ritual (function) while ignoring the meaning (and baggage) those mantras might carry. This is tricky for religion but perhaps a good idea for Star Wars. Within the Star Wars franchise, we have plenty of in-universe legends and beyond-canon Legends. Why not use these bits of backstory and lore to build up the mythos around a particular character or place? After all, Rey’s in-world understanding of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi was likely not so different than our real world usage of Star Wars Legends content. After all, there’s always a bit of truth in legends…

And finally, the fourth—and definitely best—approach: re-framing the texts. The authors write that “the kind of reframing that is needed is the re-contextualizing of the entire body of scripture so that it is available to the community in a new way.” (37) There again, we come up against a necessary truth: community. These stories are meant for all of us. We owe one another the space and grace to enjoy the stories that impact us. And, on the flip side, we owe one another the space to dislike or disagree with a story.

No one is owed the space to practice hate, violence, bigotry, or malice. These evils have no place in structural peace. And quite frankly, there is nothing to be gained by tearing down parts of a necessarily shared community.  

We can’t remain trapped in the past. The story has to continue. Even if 1977 gave us our only Star War, fans today would still be interpreting it in new and relevant ways. Why are we afraid of such innovative work?

I’m struck by the questions that Galtung and MacQueen pose for religious communities—and I wonder if we might not do well to reflect on them as a Star Wars community: “Can an entire community be stuck? Can a community institutionalize its grief by freezing itself at the moment of loss? Can scripture be a primary component in this structural frozenness?”

Or, as Yoda says, “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” Embrace all that is to come. Why? “We’re not defined by what we lose,” Jecki Lon says. “We’re defined by what we survive.”

Survival means we carry on. That means we continue to engage with the stories now, in this moment—and with the people those stories connect us to.