The Common Good

Star Trek: Into Darkness: A Call to Change Course

Star Trek: Into Darkness is a fascinating and complicated story that is well worth watching. Instead of providing a summary, I want to explore three related aspects of the movie: sacrifice, blood, and hope for a more peaceful future.

Star Trek: Into Darkness movie still. StarTrekMovie.com
Star Trek: Into Darkness movie still. StarTrekMovie.com

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Live Long and Prosper – The Sacrificial Formula

In a reference to my favorite Star Trek movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the current movie’s Spock (Zachary Quinto) restates the sacrificial formula: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” This formula has generally been used throughout human history to justify sacrificing someone else. As René Girard points out, from ancient human groups to modern societies, whenever conflicts arise the natural way to find reconciliation is to unite against a common enemy.

Of course, there’s a lot of this going on throughout the Star Trek franchise. One conversation in Into Darkness explicitly points this out when Kirk (Chris Pine) unites with his enemy Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), and explains it to Spock:

Kirk: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Spock: An Arabic proverb attributed to a prince who was betrayed and decapitated by his own subjects.

Kirk: Well, it’s still a hell of a quote.

Indeed, it’s a hell of a quote because we see this reality throughout human history. It’s the darkness of violence referred to in the title of the movie. The human tendency to unite against a common enemy was explained in the first century by a man named Caiaphas. We find Caiaphas’s statement in the Gospel of John, as he explains his reason to have Jesus killed: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” The sacrificial formula that Caiaphas refers to is based on a desire to live long and prosper, but it comes by sacrificing another person. Caiaphas has been maligned throughout much of Christian history, but, tragically, that hasn’t stopped many Christians from imitating his formula and uniting against our own common enemies!

Spock refers to a different form of sacrifice when he says, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.” He isn’t referring to sacrificing someone else; rather, he’s referring to self-sacrifice. As opposed to Caiaphas’s reasoning, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This invitation to a life of self-sacrifice is based on a selfless motivation that others might live long and prosper. Spock does this in The Wrath of Khan, and Kirk does this in Into Darkness.

The Blood of My Enemy

Ancient sacrificial systems washed people in the blood of their sacrificial victim. Uniting against a common enemy and the blood of the victim had a powerful effect of washing away the hostilities within the community. If the sacrifice was successful, the community was pacified, reconciled, and given new life.

After Kirk sacrifices himself for his friends, Bones (Karl Urban) resurrects him with the super-blood of his enemy, Khan. They discuss the transfusion process with Star Trek’s usual humor:

Bones: You were barely dead, it was the transfusion that really took its toll. You were in a coma for two weeks.

Kirk: Transfusion?

Bones: Your cells were heavily irradiated. We had no choice.

Kirk: Khan?

Bones: We synthesized a serum from his … super-blood. Tell me, are you feeling homicidal, power-mad, despotic?

Kirk: No more than usual.

What’s the difference between Kirk and Khan? The same blood flows through their veins – they are both loose cannons wreaking havoc on others by following their own agenda. A difference emerges between Kirk and Khan as Kirk discovers that he is run by the same “homicidal, power-mad, despotic” tendency. In realizing that, Kirk made the first step in changing his course from darkness to light.

Changing Course

The movie ends with Kirk making a speech to the Starfleet community. He says, “There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.” This movie is about the darkness of terrorism and the dangers of violence. If we stop those who mean to do us harm with violent methods, we don’t just risk awaking the same evil within ourselves; we become the same evil. As with Kirk and Khan, the same violent blood will run through our veins. We fall into a trap with our enemies where each side accuses the other of meaning to do harm.

The hope of Into Darkness is that we can change our course. Kirk ends his speech by saying, “Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that’s not who we are … When Christopher Pike first gave me his ship, he had me recite the Captain’s oath … Words I didn’t appreciate at the time. But now I see them as a call for us to remember who we once were and who we must be again.”

The Captain’s oath was the familiar pledge to “explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Star Trek: Into Darkness warns us about violence. It pleads with us to live long and prosper, not by violently sacrificing our enemies, but by encouraging the United States to change course. When we use violent methods to combat the violence of our enemies, we become just like our enemies, sacrificing one another in the name of peace. The same blood flows through our veins. The War on Terror, including our drone attacks, has only caused more terror in the world. Star Trek is calling us to change course. Who are we? Who do we want to become?

Historian Tracy McKenzie reminds us that from very early on, the United States wanted to be a light to the nations, a city on a hill. This, according to McKenzie, was not originally about conquering others in the name of manifest destiny. The phrase was first used by George Winthrop to stress that the future of this country depended on people “purpose[ing] to ‘love one another with a pure heart,’ ‘bear one another’s burdens,’ and be willing to sacrifice their ‘superfluities’ [material surpluses] ‘for the supply of other’s necessities.’” 

Winthrop warned that the eyes of the world were upon the young nation, and that if it failed in its endeavor to “love one another,” “bear one another’s burdens,” and “sacrifice our material surplus for the sake of other’s necessities,” that this country would fail and, as McKenzie says, “become a laughing stock, objects of scorn and derision.”

Across time and space, Winthrop and Into Darkness plead for us to remember who we are. The message is clear: If we continue to sacrifice others with drone attacks and military violence, we may lead the world into a darker, more violent place. Captain Kirk’s example invites us to change course. Will we follow?
 

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.

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