Here are two irreconcilable truths about Western society: 1. It has a violent history, and 2. it’s heavily influenced by a man who would never commit an act of violence.
Whether we are Christians or not (and most of us aren’t), in the Western world Christianity informs everything from our languages to our art to our calendar. Christianity is based on Jesus, who pretty famously said things like, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” and “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
And yet countless wars have been waged by Christians — even more bizarrely, countless wars have been waged in the name of Christ.
Which makes me wonder what happened to the people of Messaline.
In Season 4 of Doctor Who, the Doctor, Martha, and Donna find themselves on the war torn planet of Messaline. Two species are stuck in an intractable conflict, and each side sees the elimination of the other species as the only way out. Naturally, the Doctor has a problem with this.
Doctor: A second ago it was peace and harmony in our time; now you’re talking about genocide!
Commander: For us, that means the same thing.
Doctor: Then you need to get yourself a better dictionary. When you do, look up genocide. You’ll see a little picture of me there, and the caption will read, “over my dead body.”
After a series of run-ins between the two sides, the Doctor and his companions discover that the two species initially came to Messaline as allies to colonize the planet together. The two peoples realize that they must cooperate in order to make the planet habitable, but in the midst of this revelation, Jenny, a newly-cloned human soldier, is killed by the human commander. The Doctor, who has formed a bond with Jenny, is furious, and points a gun to the commander’s head.
Just when we think he is going to avenge Jenny’s death, the Doctor casts the weapon aside and says:
I never would. Have you got that? I never would! When you start this new world, remember that! Make the foundation of this society a man who never would.
It is a powerful moment; a moving example of radical nonviolence. The audience gets the idea that the peoples of Messaline are going to do just that: build a society around a man who never would.
But back in the real world, we know how that experiment went: Crusades, witch-burnings, pogroms, bombings, lynchings. All in the name of a man who never would.
It’s clear that the name of Christ has meant different things at different times. The Prince of Peace evolved to become a man of war.
It happened to the Doctor, too.
Turn to Season 6 of Doctor Who, an episode called “A Good Man Goes to War.” Here the Doctor has in many ways become the commander that he berated in Season 4. As River Song says, The Doctor has become
…the man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. Doctor. The word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forest, the word “Doctor” means mighty warrior.
Similarly, the meaning of the name Jesus Christ has been utterly transformed over the past couple millennia. Take this recent quote from celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll:
Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist; he’s patient. He has a long wick, but the anger of his wrath is burning. Once the wick is burned up, he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow.
This is certainly not the Jesus we find in the gospels. There he is the ultimate pacifist, the ultimate “man who never would.” He goes to his death without a word of resistance, much less an action movie display of macho violence. What has the word Jesus come to mean?
In the world of Doctor Who, the Doctor is responsible for the damage he causes to his own name by straying from the path of pacifism. But Jesus hasn’t been around for a while. Any damage that has been done to his name has been done by his followers. And we’ve failed massively in making the foundation of this society “a man who never would.”
So are the people of Messaline set up for the same kind of failure?
Perhaps the fact that the people of that planet were born into war means that they learned a lesson we too often miss. To quote another great man who never would, Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of the world.
Dr. King observed the terrifying existence of nuclear weapons and realized that ending global war was the only way to ensure the survival of humanity. In a nuclear society, pacifism is practical.
There’s hope in this idea for the planet Messaline, and hopefully for us, too. We’ve made countless, terrible mistakes in the course of human history. But in the face of our own destruction — whether by nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, or violence against the environment — maybe we will turn back to the rare men and women throughout our history who “never would”, and will finally, belatedly, take a turn in the right direction.