& What it Can Teach the Church
“I took the role because of one thought, that in 300 years I would be both Black and Human” – Avery Brooks, Captain Benjamin Sisko, Deep Space Nine
I have an unpopular confession, I do not like the new Star Wars. Not because the cast is more diverse than the original or because JJ Abrams has to do everything bigger than his predecessors do. It is not even the storylines that drives me insane, though the hour-long escape from the Imperial Fleet almost made me leave the theatre. I have not liked them because if you pay close attention or have any training in communication or theatre, you realize that the writers are actually struggling to write for such a diverse cast. To the point, in my mind, that it feels as though some of the scenes and lines are stereo and phenotypes which should actually offend the actors and actresses. This may seem like an unfair critique, but it is an understandable one when you consider that the original casts idea of diversity was Lando Calrizian and every single other actor or actress is white.
I guess too, one does not need to have a degree in Theatre to understand this point, one could just watch Star Trek. I did a lot of that growing up, watching The Original Series with dad, Deep Space Nine and Voyager on SPIKE TV, The Next Generation and Enterprise on Netflix and of course, the Animated Series (I have not been able to find the comedic spoof Quark). I was even watching Discovery until I deleted my CBS All Access account to save some money. In 50 years Star Trek has been the most successful and amassed the largest cult following of any other than maybe Marvel. The Original Series spurred three major spinoffs which lasted longer than its three seasons (TNG, DS9 and Voyager all lasted seven) and a total of seven with an eighth slated to debut next year.
Star Trek was the brain child of a man named Gene Rodenberry who was pioneering Sci-Fi long before George Lucas came along. His vision of the future was one where man had learned to live together, Earth was a peace and had a global government and was the seat of power for the United Federation of Planets. The tensions between ethnic groups had been solved, humans had overcome their differences and now lived in peace and unity with one another. There was even a plot device known as The Rodenberry Box that would not allow conflict between the major characters on the ship, something that Discovery has decided to do away with. The point was, that man lived together and that there was no need for tension, we were the human race, one race, one blood. Racism, prejudice and malice had been set aside and we were free from the restraints of their sins.
Because of that the cast of Star Trek was, from the beginning, fairly diverse. Nichelle Nicoles, George Takei, James Doohan, Walter Koenig all played people who represented not just their ethnic backgrounds, but maintained the accents and practices from those ethnic backgrounds. Leonard Nimoy plays an alien, a Vulcan, who is half human. Nicoles and William Shatner actually share the first on-screen kiss between a white man and a black woman. Takei finds and uses a samurai sword, Koenig speaks in his Russian accent, at the height of the Cold-War, Doohan plays a hard drinking Scottsmen. All throughout the ship you saw men and women talking and working together, Black and White working side-by-side. The Original Series had its issues, such as Kirk’s womanizing, but a lack of diversity was not one of them. Even those of Hispanic and Spanish heritage were represented in the actor Ricardo Montibaun who played Khan.
The later series continue this trajectory, adding to the diversity on the crew and in the universe. Some episodes even explore how humanity overcame its racism and prejudice to learn to live together. This was explored in great detail during the spinoff Deep Space Nine which featured the first black actor, Avery Brooks, to hold the highest rank in a Star Trek show (we had seen black captains before, but only as guest stars) through episodes that dealt with the historical problems of Earth in detail. Star Trek also featured Kate Mulgrew as its first major female captain (again, we had seen female captains and admirals before, but only in supporting roles) in Star Trek Voyager. Both TNG and DS9 feature the black actor Michael Dorn as Worf, in one episode of DS9 though Dorn takes off the makeup and we see his actual face, playing a famous black baseball player. VOY featured Robert Beltran and explored the injustices and atrocities committed against Native Americans in world history.
From TNG on, Star Trek also fought against the idea of cultural assimilation, or did you think the Borg were just a plot device. Ira Stevens Barr, who invented the Borg, wanted us to know that the fight against the Borg is not just a fight against the dark side of technology, but the problem of cultural assimilation, whitewashing and supremacy. It was also a fight for human autonomy and against the type of tribalism that runs rampant in our political circles today. The Borg are an indictment against white-supremacy, ethno-nationalism and every other evil we have devised in the name of sameness.
All this had a profound effect on me as a kid growing up near Ohio University, which at the time attracted students in mass from Asia and the Eastern Rim. Though my own high school was almost completely monolithic. I saw people, yes, they had different skin colors and features that were part of them, but they were people, people who looked different and did things different from me, but still people. Star Trek solidified that for me in my mind, so much so that the first time I encountered actual racism in my late teens it was shocking.
Star Trek showed all of us a future that could be, that can be, that I hope will be. It showed me a world full of human beings with different ethnic backgrounds, skin colors, cultural practices and languages and it taught me that this was okay. It was okay that we were different and we should not look down on one another because we have differences, and, that we should celebrate those differences and enjoy one another because they were part of being human and nothing to be ashamed of. Further, we shouldn’t look down on, malign or attack people from other cultures, but should work together in a spirit of understanding to make us all better because no one people group has the corner on completeness.
As a Christian, this made it easier than some to accept a diverse and multi-ethnic body and to see the changes happening in Global Christianity as good and important. I have also learned to see everyone as made in the image of God and that those in the Church, that is, living in communion with Christ, are having that image brought out and refined and that image is reflected in culture, skin color and ethnicity. So Star Trek didn’t just teach me to accept diversity as normal, it taught me a lesson that would inform the faith I would later claim, that God made humanity with different ethnicities, skin colors and cultures. And that, as Philip Schaff wrote in The Principle of Protestantism: “Christianity, having awakened in a historical and cultural context, did not seek to destroy culture, but to infuse them with its transforming power.” That is, make them the sanctified versions He had developed them to be.
Now, there was one drawback to these lessons, that is, that I came to the conclusion early on that humanity had already solved many of these issues. That is why my first encounter with racism was so jarring, when you are raised without prejudice and learn things like The Civil Rights Movement was a completed action (it is if we are talking about desegregation, but not if we are talking about integration). I also thought humanity was much more divided then I found we actually are. That we had solved our problems and had moved on from the racial tensions of our past. It wasn’t until later that I understood the gravity of some of Star Trek’s more poignant episodes such as “Let that be Your Last Battlefield” (TOS) and “Past Tense Part I&II” (VOY).
So much in my life has made diversity normal, Star Trek, proximity to Ohio University, where I saw the same kind of diversity I was seeing on TV. Even the music I was listening too, DC Talk and TobyMac and the Diverse City Band, reinforced and normalized the fact that diversity was normal. This doesn’t make me better than anyone, and I learned some lessons I shouldn’t have and have had to unlearn some things and relearn others, but what I saw in Star Trek was normal and reinforced by what I saw in the real world (even as a kid who was shielded from the racism that actually existed in the world).
Rodenberry’s future is a good one, it is one we should strive for, but it is also one that the Church can create within itself now by standing up against Racism, Ethno-nationalism, Christian Nationalism and those other great evils that we have long participated in and even endorsed, sometimes even twisting and mistranslating scripture, as in the case of the Slave Bible, to support and reinforce heretical and inhumane doctrines. The Church is a global organism, made up of every tribe, nation and tongue. It is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural made and reflecting the image of GOD. We can learn from Star Trek, what Rodenberry modeled is what the Church is and was meant to be since its birth.
Let us reflect that diversity and model it for the world.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church.