Tuesday, January 30, 2018

By what authority

Mark 1: 21-28
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 28, 2018


           If it’s one thing most people know about Star Trek, even if you’ve never watched any of the 741 episodes or any of the thirteen movies, it’s the Prime Directive. The term prime directive has made its way into our culture to the point that it is in the Oxford dictionary. If you do an internet search for prime directive, one of the top five responses will take you to an article on the Forbes magazine website, asking whether the prime directive is truly ethical.

         In the episode entitled “Bread and Circuses” the prime directive is defined as: “no identification of self or mission; no interference with the social development of said planet; no references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.” Every Starfleet officer takes an oath to uphold the prime directive, even if it costs them their lives, their ship, their crew. The philosophy behind the prime directive is that every culture’s values, beliefs, and practices should be respected and that every civilization should determine their own path without interference; certainly the opposite of the colonial explorers from our history. Remember that Star Trek aired during the Vietnam War; the prime directive stood in direct opposition to the U.S. role in that war. Yet there have been allowable circumstances in which it would be unethical not to intervene.


         Of course, there would be no strange new worlds, new life, or new civilizations to seek out and explore if the prime directive wasn’t defied or at least stretched every now and then. This next episode is an illustration of the ethical conundrum that is often the prime directive.

         The Enterprise is transporting Ambassador Robert Fox to star cluster NGC321 to establish diplomatic relations. One of the planets in that cluster, Eminiar VII, sends a signal to the starship that it should not approach the planet, to stay away at all costs. The ambassador insists that a landing party be sent down to investigate. When they do, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and three other crew members are told that they have landed in the middle of an interplanetary war between Eminiar VI and Vendikar that has been raging for the last 500 years. The catch? It is fought entirely with computers, very much like our video games today. Targets are assessed, virtual weapons are launched, and casualties are counted. Citizens whose area has been identified as a target zone have 24 hours to report to a disintegration chamber so that their deaths may be recorded as valid. In this way, culture and civilization are preserved and life proceeds apace. But if either side refuses, even one citizen, the other planet may launch an attack with real weapons.

         The Enterprise became a target when it came into orbit, thus it becomes a casualty. The crew must beam down to the planet for disintegration. Of course, Captain Kirk has another idea.

         This episode strikes a chord in me with the problem of gun violence in our nation. We are 28 days into 2018 and already we have had 11 school shootings, the most recent in Benton, KY. Like any other war, we have all the horrors of gun violence—death, injury, trauma, grief—yet at the same time we preserve our gun culture and our civilization despite the violence—that is, if we are privileged enough to do so. I was reminded that there are both state and federal laws in place that should’ve prevented what happened in Kentucky. What more can be done, we ask, even as we’ve made little progress after the deaths of 20 first graders. As Bob Dylan wrote: How deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?

Paul Sika

         What if we employed the opposite tactic of that interplanetary war? What if, based on statistical analysis, we calculated the probability of the next school shooting, the next mass shooting in a mall or cinema or church or temple or mosque or gurdwara or nightclub or concert? What if we then enacted a law that said every person identified as a victim must report to be euthanized; every person identified as wounded would report for surgical alteration. But that would be insane, barbaric, wouldn’t it? It would be inhuman.

Paul Sika

         We don’t use words like ‘unclean spirit’ or ‘demon’ these days, except perhaps when undocumented immigrants or women who exercise their right to reproductive justice or those we disagree with are demonized. As for what is unclean, certainly that which prematurely, violently, intentionally separates us from life could be considered as such. The irony in the gospel story is that the unclean spirit is the only smart one in the room, the only one who knows who Jesus is and what he is about. And yet it does seem as though we are demon-possessed, that there is a kind of madness in our nation when it comes to gun violence, as if we were under a directive of non-interference.

Paul Sika

         Jesus wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if he’d followed non-interference. As it is, Jesus acted with authority, with the belief that he had power to speak and teach what he believed to be true, power to change lives. It wasn’t that Jesus knew he was right that changed lives; Jesus’ power, his authority was love—love that included wholeness and justice for the vulnerable and powerless; love that was also powerless against the cross; love that did not end with death; love that turns pain into power.

Paul Sika

         By what authority do we act when it comes to gun violence? At times we contradict ourselves in this nation: we appear to value life above all else, and yet we also treat human lives as replaceable commodities and allow some to benefit at the expense of great suffering of others. What is life without love, without justice, without compassion? Alice Walker wrote that the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. And we don’t typically think of love as power to do, power to change. Love too often feels powerless, makes us feel vulnerable. Love is not efficient. It can be messy and painful.

         Let me put it this way: empire thinks of itself as being the only authority, as efficient, invulnerable, powerful, orderly when it comes to details. It enslaves the weak and powerless, and it is numb to the pain it causes, including gun violence.

Paul Sika

         Jesus didn’t free people from bondage, he didn’t forgive them their sins, he didn’t challenge empire, the powers that be just because it was the right thing to do. The cross certainly didn’t look like the next right thing. He did it out of love. Not a love deserved, but a love that chooses freely. And Church is our spiritual workshop where we learn how to love like that, with people who sustain us in love, so we can love where and when it’s really tough to love, even to forgive those who really have no idea what they are doing.


         That’s our prime directive, that’s our authority, that’s our power. Amen.

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