Saturday, March 22, 2014

Star Trek, Guns, Thugs, Worldview, and Africa Past, Present, and Future

by Ty

If you ask my Tanzanian boss what is his favorite book on missiology, he is likely to answer with a twinkle in his eye: "Star Trek."  I haven’t watched Star Trek in years, but I used to watch it in high school--both the original series and "The Next Generation," with Captian Picard.  Jean-Luc Picard was an interesting study in leadership and principles.  That’s what made it a captivating show, though if I realized that at all in high school, it was only on an intuitive level.  Captain Picard was a guy who stuck to his principles—most notably, the prime directive, about which he said: "The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous."  And he made other people stick to principles too.  The storyline of many episodes was built around the ethical dilemmas begotten by the prime directive.  Captain Picard always stuck to his guns.

Not only was Star Trek a fascinating study in ethics, it was a fascinating study in missions philosophy.  The prime directive in essence prohibited Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations.  A less developed world should be handled very carefully.  The indigenous leadership had to be respected.  The local laws had to be followed, even if they didn’t seem to make sense.  The crew of the Enterprise was proactive in trying to understand a new world (they even had a shrink aboard), and they were careful not to interfere with local matters without great need and only in the context of true cultural understanding and awareness.

Commonly, the plot involved Captain Picard and his crew visiting a new and less developed world, where they had to be very careful not to put technology into the hands of indigenous people who were not ready for it—who did not have the foundation to truly understand it.  Not just understand the physical laws of science upon which it was based.  More importantly, they needed to have the philosophical understanding of when to use it, and how and when to limit its use.  If the star voyagers didn’t hold to this directive, they invariably found that when they returned to that world in later years, there were big problems.  Amongst the people to whom the technological wonder had been given, the new power over the natural world had elevated them above their neighbors.  First they looked down on their neighbors.  Then they despised them.  Then they enslaved them.

A remarkably similar drama played itself out in the history of Africa (if you will allow me to oversimplify.)  A tribe was given guns by European or Arab slave traders.  They immediately became more powerful than the tribes around them, with whom they had been warring for generations.  Before long, they were capturing and selling their neighbors to the slavers.  It is STILL happening!  If a man believes it is normal, natural, and permissible to overpower and sell people who are not from his own tribe, when you give him any gift that makes him more powerful, he is going to continue to enslave his neighbors—and he is going to be more effective at it.  Obviously guns do that.  But so can education.  Learning to read and do arithmetic make you better at business, no matter how diabolical your business may be.

The story African history and Star Trek both tell is, it is very dangerous to hand people a technology that they don’t have a foundation for.  This happened with guns in 18th and 19th century Africa, and it’s still happening in Somalia, Sudan, Congo, et cetera.  And, it’s happening with guns in America.  When America was chivalrous, guns in the hands of the people were not nearly so dangerous as they are becoming now.  When we shared and valued a common foundational belief that not only is it wrong for a person with much power to take advantage of a person with less power, but it is actually the responsibility of the person with power to take care of the person with less power (my definition of chivalry), then guns were not so dangerous because our cultural assumptions limited their use.  But I don’t think we assume that anymore.  Western culture has devolved into a power grab.  Guns are a very useful bit of technology in that contest: anyone who grabs a gun gets instant power.

I’ve spend a decade working in maximum and super-maximum security prisons, so I know a thing or two about thugs.  The dangerous thing about thugs, be they Sudanese mercenaries, Somali warlords, or Chicago street gangsters, is not their guns.  Not primarily.  It’s how, and what, they think.  It’s their view of life, reality, and the world.

Observe the victim mindset of Job in Job 30:9-19, Job at his worst, most desperate, fatalistic, and hopeless, just before he finally says “the words of Job are ended:”

      Now they come and laugh at me;

      I am nothing but a joke to them.

      They treat me with disgust;

            They think they are too good for me.

         Because God has made me weak and helpless,

        They turn against me with all their fury.

      This mob attacks me head-on;

       They send me running; they prepare their final assault.

       They cut off my escape and try to destroy me;

    And there is no one to stop them.

      They pour through the holes in my defenses

     and come crashing down on top of me;

I am overcome with terror;

   My dignity is gone like a puff of wind,

   And my prosperity like a cloud.

Now I am about to die;

   There is no relief for my suffering.

At night my bones all ache;

   The pain that gnaws me never stops.

           God seizes me by the collar and twists my clothes out of shape.

He throws me down in the mud;

I am no better than dirt.
                                                    (Good News Translation)

Now take this worldview and put it in the mind of a man made desperate by circumstances: an African village in famine, the Atlanta slums with no jobs and racial discord, the Arabian desert amidst tribal warfare, or (dare I say?) an Asian American college student plagued by mental illness and loose on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007 (my home town).  These circumstances are common to man throughout history.

This is a man (any and all of them) who sees life as out of control, random, unjust, and malevolent.   He is fearful, purposeless, and worst of all hopeless.  He does not see his life, or anyone else’s life, as valuable.

Now put a gun in his hand.  No wonder he is dangerous!

He does not know:

            Help those who have less power than you.

            Do not be easily offended.

            Bear with one another in grace.

            Happy are the humble, merciful, pure in heart, persecuted, and peacemakers.

            Love thy neighbor.

            Love thy enemy!

He is dangerous because of how and what he thinks.

The gun is really just a bit of technology that magnifies the problem terribly.  It is not the root of the problem.  It is just a technological tool.

The difficulty for us in the West comes in because we, like Captain Picard, have a vast array of wondrous technological tools.  They must be wielded very, very carefully.  Medicine, wireless communications, sophisticated digital banking, etc.  If we put any of these tools into the hands of a person or people divorced from the Worldview that birthed (and constrains) the tool, we build a ticking time bomb.

You think the above (obviously good) technologies can’t be dangerous?  (Yes, I mean “good technologies.”  The idea that technology is morally neutral is a myth that only an American could believe.)  Then, what is the difference between guns in the hand of a tribal warlord, medicine in the hands of the Nazi doctors, an iPhone in the hands of a gang leader in prison, or high-tech finance in the hands of one of Ayn Rand’s more hardnosed characters?

And how does the desperate and fatalistic man see a gun or other bit of technology?  Accurately.  As power.  Power over the natural world.  Power over his neighbors.  Power to be grabbed.  He actually sees technology in much the same way that the animistic pagan in an African village sees witchcraft: as the power of the shaman to put a hex on any neighbor he is paid enough to curse.  If you believe like the desperate fatalist, then both a magic spell and an AK-47 are ill and ugly power tools.

The answer to the problem is not to limit access to technology.  That was the Star Trek answer, because the writers and producers dared not consider or publicize the true and scandalous answer.

The answer is to change how people think—cultural imperialism.  I think you know I don’t mean exporting Western culture.

Here we are, back at the Beatitudes again.  Talk about changing how people think.  Jesus turns the whole world on its head.

Beware the technological solution for a moral problem.

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