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As far as I am aware, the only Force-user in the Rebel Alliance is Luke Skywalker, and when he first fought for the rebels, he had only learned that the Force existed a few days earlier. But when Luke does join the rebel cause, he hears people flinging "May the Force be with you" around left and right.

This suggests that, despite having no soldiers who were Force-users, the Rebel Alliance has been using the phrase for quite some time. This might seem surprising, since most galactic residents appear to know little or nothing about the Jedi and the Force1.

However, the rebels are more devoted to the old Republic than most, so they should probably be expected to remember the Jedi and the Force more than the average person would. And since the archenemy of the rebels, Palpatine, has made a point of trying to erase the memory of the Jedi from the galaxy, it makes sense for the Alliance to adopt a Jedi saying as a rallying cry - just speaking the words is a minor act of defiance against Palpatine's agenda.

But these are just theories, and I'd like a canonical, conclusive answer:

When and why did the Rebel Alliance adopt the phrase "May the Force be with you"?


1Depite having personally known and fought alongside many Jedi during the Clone Wars, Moff Tarkin muses that

In the five short years since the Order had been eradicated... the Jedi already seemed a distant memory.
- Star Wars: Tarkin

If this is true of someone who had been intimately familiar with the Jedi, imagine what it means for the vast majority of people, who had never even seen a Jedi themselves.

  • 2
    Non-canon (and hence not an answer), but the Jedi weren't exactly so common as to be seen on every street corner. I'd assume there would have been a sizable amount of scepticism as to their abilities from many. Is it any wonder when they've been defeated that it reinforces their preconception of them being charlatans? – Jane S Jan 18 '16 at 6:42
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    I have no source to back it up, but I would imagine it has to do with the fact that the Jedi are associated with peace and order. Also Bail Organa teamed up with the remaining Jedi in RotS. And let's not forget that the Empire's ruler is a Sith, which the Rebel Alliance knows. All in all I believe that it is a symbolically powerful phrase. – webejaxx Jan 18 '16 at 8:36
  • non canon as well: with teachings of the jedi the force is kinda like a god beeing evrywhere guiding everything and such. In germany thers a greeting that goes "greet god". Originting from christianity, but devoided of the original meaning, even if all priest would be gone this would still go on for a long time. – Eumel Jan 18 '16 at 9:48
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    I dunno, could just be people blindly using a "saying". Like "god bless you" when someone sneezes or "thank god!" when something good happen. I say these things (raised religious) even though I'm a nonbeliever, and I honestly rarely consider the religious flavor of them. My kids (raised nonbelievers) also say the same things. – zipquincy Jan 29 '16 at 0:16
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    The Force isn’t just something that Jedis use. It surrounds every living thing. Sure, Jedis are the Force enthusiasts. But they’re not the Force. (See further Maz Kanata: “I’m no Jedi, but I know the Force.”) – Paul D. Waite Jan 29 '16 at 9:38
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+400

Preamble

The non-canon answer to the OP's question is appended at the bottom just for information's sake, but the main body will deal with what the current Disney canon says.

Introduction

The question is: When and why did the Rebel Alliance adopt the phrase "May the Force be with you"?.

In the new canon I could not find an answer specifically to the "When" part, but the canon does suggest some explanation for the "Why" part, or at least why it is not unreasonable for the Rebel Alliance to use this phrase and/because of the connection with the Jedi that goes along with it.


When

In Star Wars Rebels, the only two instances of the phrase being used are:

After this, we next hear it in ANH (in 0 BBY) when General Jan Dodonna told the Rebel pilots:

Then man your ships, and may the Force be with you.

which is what the OP is referencing.

I mention SWR, which is ongoing, because the Lothal rebels come into contact with Bail Organa, Ahsoka Tano and Jun Sato, all of whom are leaders of the as-yet-fledgling Rebellion, and none of them have used the phrase by the end of Season Two of the series.


Why

The case for why the Rebel Alliance uses the phrase, apart from when it started doing so (unless that becomes relevant, see N.B. below), is suggested by the history of the Alliance/Rebellion itself, its leaders, and its precursor which is referred to as 'the rebellion'.

History

Before the Alliance to Restore the Republic, there had been a growing opposition to the Galactic Empire that had metastasized into various incidents (such as the rebellion on Ryloth) and eventually into a series of rebel cells, two of which are depicted in SWR (the Phoenix rebel cell and the aforementioned Lothal rebels). This growing rebel movement was coordinated by Senator Bail Organa, Senator Mon Mothma, and former Jedi Padawan Ahsoka Tano.

By the time of the Battle of Yavin and the events of ANH, this organisation had transformed into the Alliance to Restore the Republic (or Rebel Alliance), which was headed by Bail Organa (before his death on Alderaan), Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar, as well as Leia Organa.

Connection with the Jedi

Even though the general public may not have been generally aware of the Jedi Order, or were not inclined to associate with it during the time of the Galactic Republic (which is discussed somewhat here), the leaders of the Rebel Alliance were certainly aware of the Jedi Order:

  • Mon Mothma had served in the Galactic Senate during the Clone Wars and was a very good friend of Padme Amidala

  • Admiral Ackbar had served alongside the Jedi when they helped to liberate his planet, Mon Cala, from a CIS-manufactured civil war, as depicted in TCW 4x01-02

  • Bail Organa served very closely with the Jedi during the Clone Wars, and was friends with Mon Mothma and Padme Amidala, and had participated in several of the Jedi's adventures as shown in TCW. In SWR, Organa reveals himself as a leader of the rebel movement which includes former Jedi Padawan Ahsoka Tano whom he knew from TCW. Also, at the end of ROTS, when he and Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi are splitting up the Skywalker kids, Yoda plants the seeds of the Rebellion when he says:

Until the time is right, disappear we will

  • Leia Organa worked with her father in the Rebellion and evidenced her knowledge of the Jedi at least in regards to knowing of Obi-wan Kenobi (as a general in the Clone Wars) in ANH as discussed here, here and here

There is no evidence that the Rebel Alliance used the phrase outside of their organisation, so it did not necessarily have to resonate with the public at large, only internally.

What's in a Name?

The Rebel Alliance's full name, the Alliance to Restore the Republic also indicates a possible motivation. At the end of the Clone Wars, the Jedi discovered the identity of Chancellor Palpatine as Darth Sidious and confronted him. After Palpatine survived this, he accused the Jedi of having betrayed him, the Senate, and the people of the Republic, and used this as his justification, publicly, for both eradicating the Jedi Order, and for the necessity of the security measures which led to the creation of the Galactic Empire.

The Alliance was an organisation which was dedicated to restoring the Republic, and its name indicates that it was rejecting not just the Empire, but also its foundations and 'legitimacy', This is particularly so since at least one of its founders, Bail Organa, knew very well that the story Palpatine had told the public was a lie. Organa almost certainly would have known the role that Anakin Skywalker had played (even if the general public did not as discussed here and here), and that he had become Darth Vader since both Kenobi and Yoda discovered this near the end of ROTS (as discussed here) and before their strategy meeting with Organa.

It is a possibility therefore that they wished to actively associate themselves with the Jedi, knowing the antagonism this would have for the Empire, especially as they were aware of the true history of the Clone Wars and the creation of the Empire that they opposed, in that context the phrase would resonate with them and possess true meaning in the light of their struggle.

Other notes

In addition, at least one of the crew members of the Lothal rebels, who apparently go on to become the core of the Rebellion, had a somewhat direct connection with the Jedi. Hera Syndulla was the daughter of Cham Syndulla, who fought alongside the Jedi (including Ahsoka Tano) during the Clone Wars to free Ryloth from the CIS, twice, as shown in TCW 1x21 and TCW 3x03 (which features Bail Organa also helping). Cham Syndulla was the leader of the Free Ryloth Movement referenced above.

Conclusion

The Jedi were directly and indirectly involved in the rebel movement from the beginning to the end. By the time of the Battle of Yavin, when General Jan Dodonna uses the phrase infront of Luke Skywalker;

  • former Jedi had been directly involved in the movement for up to 5 years, having played a key role in organising its early origins (Ahsoka Tano), and running some of its early missions (Kanan Jarrus, who at the time is the only other Jedi to be shown involved in the movement)

  • the Jedi could be considered the nexus for the entire enterprise starting in the events of the Clone Wars and the birth of the Galactic Empire, and therefore could be considered an internally-motivating connection for the resistance

  • the Jedi may have played an as-of-yet unknown role in it leading to up to that point (see N.B.)

As the phrase itself is a symbol of encouragement, a direct challenge to the Galactic Empire (as the OP states), a rejection of the very legitimacy itself of that Empire, a harkening back to the Republic they wished to restore, and a reference to the key role that the Jedi have played in its origins and (early) operations, an argument can be made that the phrase was meaningfully chosen.


Non-Canon Answer

The non-canon answer is found in the Force Unleashed video games. The Rebel Alliance coalesces around the events of Galen Marek and former Jedi Rahm Kota. These two Jedi, along with Bail Organa, Mon Mothma, Leia Organa and others, are involved in the creation of the Rebel Alliance. For the role that Galen Marek played in ultimately giving birth to, and protecting, this movement, the rebels chose the insignia of his house to be the seal for their movement. In this 'timeline' the Jedi are directly responsible for the creation of the Rebellion (the Empire attempting to draw out its enemies, showing them the Death Star when they were imprisoned on it, the inspirational role that Galen Marek played) and so the phrase has significance in this context as well. Although TFU is no longer considered canon, it is unclear if any remnant of this remains in the canon, since the Rebel Alliance still uses this seal, and the Resistance in TFA uses an orange version of the same symbol as well. This may be retconned later since in SWR, Sabine Wren uses a version of the starbird as a personal signature, and that particular theory is discussed off-site here. A general discussion about the starbird logo can be found here


N.B. From ANH, TESB, ROTJ and TFA, we see that there is no mention of either Ahsoka Tano, Kanan Jarrus or Ezra Bridger, all key Jedi figures in the Rebellion, suggesting that they are either dead, or just off-camera. Mirroring the recognition nature of the seal as discussed in the non-canon answer above, it's possible that the resistance may commemorate the role of the Jedi in the Rebellion by using this phrase, but that is entirely speculation since the events that this would refer to have not yet been depicted, we don't yet know the fates of Ahsoka, Kanan or Ezra or what other role the Jedi may have played in the Rebellion. Other ideas are discussed off-site here.

  • Wow, thanks! I love doing the SW questions that you have to research. I haven't read all of the new comics yet, so I don't know if there are any answers in there about the 'When' part (which may play a role in the Why), but I'm glad that the 'Why' part was alright! – Phyneas Jan 29 '16 at 0:22
  • Answer could use an update to include Rogue One - General Raddus says it to the crew on the ground during the battle above Scarif. – vynsane Aug 23 '18 at 17:15
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Out of universe answer

In very early drafts of the script to the original Star Wars, Lucas used the phrase "May the Force of Others be with you". This was intended to be a common greeting, a reference to a shared religion that was common in many inhibitants of the galaxy he was just starting to build ideas about at the time. In the original rough draft of the script, the phrase is used by several characters: both the King and Queen of "Aquilae" (a world which seems to have become merged with Alderaan during later revisions, as they are Leia's parents), "General" Luke Skywalker (an elderly Jedi), Kane Starkiller (his old friend) and Annikin Starkiller (Kane's son), Owen Lars (an anthropologist...) and Quist (a random rebel with only 3 other lines).

It was this phrase that inspired him to develop the ideas about what the "Force of Others" actually was (shortening the name to just "the Force" along the way, probably just because it sounds better like that -- Lucas is very driven by the way things sound in his writing), and what the Jedi (or Jedi-Bendu as they were called in early drafts) actually did.

Along the way, he changed his ideas about the background of the galaxy, and followers of the Force became rare, almost extinct (although it doesn't seem he had yet figured out exactly why: I think he was just trying to highlight Obi Wan's character as being exotic, and explain why Luke had never encountered the ideas behind the Force before), but I suspect he simply didn't have the will to completely remove that line from the script -- I suspect he loved the sound of it, and it had a personal link for him to the history of how he'd developed the story -- so he left it in, even though it wasn't entirely logical for it to be used in that context, at least according to the ideas he was developing at the time.

Of course, later justifications were added, but as of the moment the final Star Wars script was written, it didn't make much sense. But Lucas didn't expect Star Wars to be the commercial success it was, he wasn't expecting to develop it into a full 6 movie series, and he certainly wasn't expecting the huge extended universe or other additions that came later. So he let a slightly illogical line stand, because he wanted it to be there.

(This is, of course, just a theory: Lucas's statements about the actual process by which Star Wars was developed are self contradictory and in places nonsensical, so a lot of this is based on supposition, but it seems reasonable)

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Bail Organa was a close ally of the Jedi Order. He heard "May the Force be with you" many times during the times of the Old Republic. He no doubt taught his daughter Leia a great deal, and she probably used the phrase which may have circulated throughout the ranks of the Rebel Alliance.

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