One of my problems with pop theology (theology that has infiltrated popular culture but contains little to no substance)* is that mercy and forgiveness are used as a way to ignore and excuse injustice. “Oh it does not matter if that person abused you, you have to forgive them, because that is what God would want you to do.” Mercy and forgiveness become an excuse to ignore issues of justice and morality. Pop theology has turned notions of forgiveness and mercy into a tool of oppression and those who speak out against personal or systematic injustice are portrayed as being “unforgiving” or “bitter.” Yet is forgiveness and mercy really a matter of pretending that an injustice did not occur or pretending that harmful actions have no consequences? Is mercy and forgiveness at odds with justice? Even as I continue my studies and am exposed to various and more nuanced theological understandings of mercy and justice and even as an agnostic, who does not believe that issues of mercy, justice, and forgiveness need to be tied with belief in a deity figure, I still find myself grappling with how to define mercy, justice, and forgiveness in ways that don’t white wash oppression and injustice.
I guess my whole ambivalence about this subject is why A Town Called Mercy is one of my favorite episodes from Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor. As a family show, the episode has funny bits (ex. When the Doctor walks into a bar and tells the bartender-“Tea. But the strong stuff. Leave the bag in,” as he proceeds to struggle with the tooth pick in his mouth) but it does not mince away from some darker stuff.
The Doctor is known throughout the series as a hero generally adverse to violence (especially after his experience in the Time War) yet he does not shy away from using violence when necessary. He, however, almost always seeks to solve problems without having to resort to killing. But at the end of the previous episode, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship we see the Doctor ignore Solomon’s pleas for mercy. Now one could argue, well Solomon deserved his fate. He massacred a ship filled with Silurians:
Not to mention Solomon had no qualms about implying that he would rape Nefertiti. Solomon was a brutal and cruel and as the Doctor told Solomon in response to his cries for mercy: “Did the Silurians beg you to stop? Look, Solomon. The missiles. See them shine? See how valuable they are. And they’re all yours.”
But the vital questions are not: does Solomon (or in A Town Called Mercy, Jex) deserve to die, but is killing them in a similarly brutal way akin to justice or is it simply revenge? And what does it say about the Doctor when he conflates violence with justice? What does it say about us as a society when we do the same?
The Doctor’s anguish over whether or not to hand Jex over to the gunslinger is only partially tied to Jex’s involvement in a brutal war:
But the Doctor’s anger and hatred of Jex is related to his own guilt for his actions in the time war and his inability throughout the centuries to save all those who have turned to him for help.
I’ve read in articles, blog posts, and facebook comments, and heard a speaker at a convention: deride the Doctor for trying to reason with his enemies and give them a chance to change instead of instantly blasting them to bits. Their reasoning was that Immediately destroying his enemies or launching into a violent frenzy would have saved more lives. But would it? In a tv show, the answer is perhaps. The writers can control the actions of any character as well as the consequences of said actions.
But, it seems as if some of those who advocate for the Doctor to use violence as a first resort see no qualms about such actions being used in the “real world.” While I am not in anyway a pacifist and I do believe that violence and war will occasionally be necessary, but I am weary of how violence and war is viewed as the first and best solution towards injustice. The impulse towards violence can, in the long one, increase the death toll.
Yet I also understand and sympathize with the violent impulse. Violence has an immediate effect-no need to wait for tricky negations or placing one’s faith in a corrupt justice system.
Even while cringing when the Doctor pointed a gun at Jex, I also understood his anger and frustration at Jex and at himself. The Doctor was not only disgusted at Jex’s actions, but as Jex points out, there is a similarity between him and the Doctor
The Doctor’s actions in the Time War, no matter how necessary, is arguably worse than Jex’s actions. The Doctor destroyed his own people in an attempt to avert even more deaths and destruction throughout the universe, yet he still feels overwhelming guilt towards his actions and to see someone like Jex, who ran away to avoid the consequences of his actions and who discusses what he has done so nonchalantly, reminds the Doctor of his guilt, of his past actions. Ever since the Time War the Doctor has been running away in an attempt to forget what he has done. Yet his guilt and he takes out his anger and hatred towards himself on Jex. The Doctor cannot forgive himself nor show mercy to himself, why would he extend it to Jex?
Furthermore, the Doctor also questions whether or not his mercy towards his enemies has truly benefited anyone. His acts of mercy do not involve an erasing or ignoring of horrible actions or consequences, but provides his enemies an opportunity to recognize what they have done wrong, stop their evil actions and perhaps try to rectify them. Yet his inability to instantly kill has resulted in the deaths of others, and he understandably questions his past actions. Perhaps by killing Jex or handing him over to the gunslinger to be killed the Doctor can atone for his actions in the Time War and all the instances in which he failed to save others.
But the reality of violence is never so simple and justice and violence are not necessarily one and the same. In this episode, Amy reminds the Doctor of who he is. Amy questions his impulse for violence and she challenges him to think-to provide a different solution. The Doctor has tried violence before and look where he has ended up…
I believe when the Doctor remembers he who he is-when he refuses to give into his violent impulses, he encourages Jex to take responsibility for his actions and to end all the death and destruction.
I still don’t have an easy answer for how to define justice, forgiveness, and mercy and I’m not sure I ever will. But I appreciate it when the TV shows I watch wrestle with said issues and encourage its audience members-including children, to do the same.
A quick note: did anyone notice the limited role the preacher played in this episode? The preacher, who one would assume would take the lead in discussing issues of justice and mercy does not. He relies on others to do so. He will offer prayers but very little action…
*And yes even as an agnostic, I find pop theology to be harmful and believe that being knowledgeable about Christian theology is vital for Christians and non-Christians. While Christianity is influx in developed countries, it is booming in developing countries and will continue to be an important force in world events in years to come.