09 February 2016

Doctor Who and Peace that Must be Dared

Three weeks ago I attended a retreat at Carol Joy Holling Camp and Conference Center led by Andy Root, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Andy and I are both Gen Xers, and we share a particular affinity for the life and works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so when I received a flyer about the retreat from my friends at Carol Joy Holling I signed up right away.

While we were at the retreat, I was also bingeing on Series 9 of the new Doctor Who. This happens a lot in recent years: the series usually debuts during college football season, and as a pastor who loves football, has two kids, and only gets a limited amount of time to enjoy things on any given Saturday, it is unfortunately the Doctor who gets relegated to the vagaries of the DVR (though, of course, the relativity of the time involved makes that relegation more than a little ironic and humorous). This year was no exception. I was finally working my way through the series when we arrived at Carol Joy Holling, and the first night of our retreat was also the night I enjoyed episode 8, "The Zygon Inversion." Having just come from an evening meal where Andy and I enjoyed a robust discussion of recent Bonhoeffer biographies, I already had Herr Dietrich on the brain when I watched the Doctor's epic anti-war speech unfold on my laptop. I'll post a quote here and then the following scene from YouTube, and then tell you what I'm on about.
THE DOCTOR (speaking to 'Bonnie' - who is actually the Zygon leader Zygella disguised as Clara Oswald, the Doctor's companion): These things have happened, Zygella, they are facts. You just want cruelty to beget cruelty. You're not superior to people who were cruel to you, you're just a whole bunch of new cruel people. A whole bunch of new cruel people being cruel to some other people, who'll end up being cruel to you. The only way anyone can live in peace is if they're prepared to forgive. Why don't you break the cycle? (Emphasis mine)
Read more at: http://transcripts.foreverdreaming.org/viewtopic.php?f=53&t=23619

In 1934, at an ecumenical conference in Fanø, Denmark, Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in which he said the following:
How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way to safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself.
I couldn't help but hear the words of Bonhoeffer echoed in the Doctor's impassioned plea for Zygella (and her human counterpart) to "break the cycle!" There has always been something of an anti-war bent to the Doctor, and at times the series has featured moments of great theological and ethical import buried underneath fantastically good television, but this is one of the moments where this watcher felt as if Stephen Moffat and the other writers of the show were channeling a particular theologian, whether consciously or unconsciously. The similarity to Bonhoeffer's argument, and the terrible experiences of the battle-weary Time Lord and the world-weary theologian and pacifist conspirator against the Third Reich, seem to come pouring out of the TV screen into our minds and hearts.

Forgiveness is always a risk. Peace is never certain. But as the Doctor points out, the war that seems to be such a certain guarantee is also uncertain, and in addition guaranteed to be painful, costly, and in the end resolved in only one of two ways: genocide, or diplomacy. Since no one wants to be a genocide, why not engage in the diplomacy before resorting to violence that's going to lead you back to diplomacy in the end anyway?

This is, honestly, one of the things I love about Doctor Who. Leave aside the comical costumes and the iffy (if improving) special effects. The epic storytelling and the dedication to playing out the ethical consequences of one's decisions are an invigorating contrast to the rampant jingoism and chest-thumping machismo of what passes for governance in much of contemporary American life. Hearing what appears to be the Doctor channeling a beloved theologian of mine was music to my ears, and worth noting and sharing with anyone else who cares to hear about it.