Deep Lessons Learned from Star Trek

A life of forgiveness, repentance, and hope is a recurring theme in Star Trek

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galaxy of stars in space
Monthly graphic for January, focusing on faith & forgiveness featuring an image of friends embracing

The word “forgive,” in one form or another, shows up in the NRSV translation of the Bible 132 times. For a word to be repeated that many times, it must be important! Themes of forgiveness also show up quite a lot in Star Trek. I happen to have a longstanding interest in both, and can recognize the points of intersection! In both, forgiveness is an act of love, and God calls us to love not only the people close to us but also the people around us, even our enemies. Most especially, we are called to forgive ourselves.

When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, he envisioned a world where humanity lived in peace and harmony, and where greed, politics, and hate were no longer a factor in life on earth. The fantasy world of Star Trek has been an important piece of North American culture for decades, its episodes full of lessons on relationships, peaceful coexistence, faith, and many other topics. A life of forgiveness, repentance, and hope is a recurring theme in many of its television episodes and movies.

I strongly recommend Deep Space 9, even if you watch no other series or movie. However, many examples of forgiveness can be found throughout the whole series—likely enough to write an entire book! However, for this article I will concentrate on two specific movies—Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek V: Final Frontier.

Act now, forgiven later

*Spoiler alert* In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Captain Kirk’s science officer and best friend, Spock, dies while saving the ship and crew. Kirk feels a lot of guilt around this event, blaming himself for his friend’s death. Almost the entire plot of Star Trek III is Kirk processing this guilt and then trying to relieve himself of the guilt through reckless actions. He discovers that his friend has been resurrected from the dead through the effects of Project Genesis. (Project Genesis was a theoretical process to terraform dead planets by means of a genetic explosion that would reduce the surface of a planet to its elementary particles.)

He broke plenty of rules by stealing the Enterprise from a space station and going against direct orders not to go back to the Genesis Planet. Kirk acted on his heart and his instincts hoping (and probably knowing) that he would be forgiven later for his actions, especially if he brought back a resurrected Captain Spock. His faith  was in knowing he was doing what was right. Kirk states, “If I hadn’t tried, it would have cost me my soul.”

Keep your pain

Star Trek V: Final Frontier is one of the most corny of all the movies. It is about a Vulcan named Sybok who thinks he has found the end of the universe. Sybok believes that God, or whatever deity someone believes in, will be found past the edge of the universe. He needs a starship to get there and, happening to be Spock’s brother, he decides to convince the crew of the Enterprise to take him there. To convince the crew, he uses his Vulcan abilities to show people their innermost pain and then promises that God has given Sybok the ability to remove that person’s pain.

One example is with Dr. McCoy, whose father was dying from an incurable disease. McCoy released his father from pain into death to preserve the man’s dignity. McCoy had been carrying around that guilt for years because soon after he had let his father die, a cure was discovered. Sybok removed McCoy’s pain to lead him to self-forgiveness.

Sybok truly believed that the way to self-forgiveness was to have one’s pain taken away. However, Kirk’s argument back to him was that “pain and guilt can’t be taken away by the wave of a magic wand. They are the things we carry with us; the things that make us who we are. We lose them, we lose ourselves.”

Self-forgiveness

Forgiveness, at heart, is the restoration of relationship. But it is also letting go of the hope that the past can be changed. When we talk about forgiveness of self, the word guilt easily comes into the conversation. Guilt can feel like a cross that Jesus tells us to pick up and carry. We often beat ourselves up as a failure, we sit in regret, and we crucify ourselves.

In high school, I had a group of people whom I hung around with at lunch and after school. We would celebrate birthdays and Christmas together. We would stay up late on a Saturday night playing cards or watching movies. It felt like we were a pretty tight-knit group.

I knew I was the odd one out because I wasn’t as smart as them and I didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school. I followed them to university, but it was quickly obvious that I didn’t belong.

Slowly I was left out of an event here and another one there, and eventually we drifted completely apart. It broke my heart because in my head, I thought we were all best friends.

That was more than 25 years ago, and I still think about everything that happened, wondering where I went wrong. Did I say something or do something wrong? And I often think of them, wonder where they’re at, if they have families, things like that.

Thinking about forgiveness, I know that my work in this story is to forgive them for leaving my life, to forgive myself for those events, and to let go of the hope that the past will change or that these people will return to my life some day. When we fail to forgive, we are just torturing ourselves, bringing tension and bitterness into our lives.

Points to ponder

I have learned a lot from my years of watching Star Trek. When it comes to the theme of forgiveness, here are some thoughts on which to ponder:

  1. Forgiveness is hard. Whether we are forgiving others or ourselves, it takes work to process the pain we hold, and the steps needed for bringing forgiveness. It can be important to find someone with whom you can talk things out.
  2. Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed. As Kirk argued with Sybok, without our past, good or bad, we would be someone completely different than we are today.
  3. Forgiveness leads to hope. God has given us the inheritance of eternal forgiveness. It is not a reward for good behaviour nor will the removal of forgiveness be used as a punishment.

Forgiveness is extremely difficult to do fully and wholly, but if you keep in mind that what we leave behind is not as important as how we’ve lived, perhaps you will forgive yourself and others just a little bit more easily.

  • Theo Robinson

    The Reverend Theo Robinson (he/him) is an Anglican priest serving the Interlake Regional Shared Ministry of the MNO Synod of the ELCIC. This ministry involves seven parishes (six Lutheran and one Anglican) in Selkirk, Teulon, Arborg, Riverton-Hnausa and Lundar, MB. He lives on Treaty One Territory in Winnipeg, MB with his partner, two children, and four cats. As a transgender man, Theo wants to help in the reconciliation between the church and the queer community.

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