Heaven Sent

“Heaven Sent” has a complicated story line involving grief, truth, persistence, and patience. The Doctor is still reeling over the death of Clara and he struggles with his own fears about death and the passage of time. While most articles written about this episode have justifiably and understandably focused on the Doctor’s grief or the Doctor’s fear of death, those ideas will be secondary to the themes  of telling the truth, especially in regards to what we tell ourselves and the importance of persistence and patience in the midst of difficult or even soul crushing times.

The Doctor is not only mourning the loss of a close friend, but he is also being forced to confront his own fears and lies that he has tried to keep hidden from other people-even from himself. He gives off the impression of being reckless and dangerous, and as part of a species that can regenerate, his recklessness is a bit understandable. Sometimes, if you think you are invincible, you begin to act like you are. But perhaps his recklessness also harbors a darker fear: that of dying, because Time Lords can still die.

DOCTOR: Well, that was another close one. Or it will have been, once I’ve been and gone and got myself out of it. So, how am I going to do that? Come on, teacher, ask me questions!
BLACKBOARD: Tell no lies.
DOCTOR [tower]: I’m actually scared of dying.pizap.com14584271255671

Not only did his hijinks  provide a way for him to distance himself from the thought of his own death, but Clara’s death, once again reminded him about the fragility of the people with whom he chooses to spend time with and this fragility reminds him of how alone he is. He is no longer the last Time Lord, but he is estranged from his people (for very good reason, we find out).

The organizers of this place created a giant trap to try and force the Doctor to reveal his darkest truths. But in order for the Doctor to figure out that this was the plan of whomever sent him here, he needs to be willing to confront some lies and truths that he has been hiding from himself. Sometimes the lies and truths we battle with aren’t ones that need to be told to others, but ones that we need to confront within ourselves.

I spent spring break in Cuba on a trip organized by two professors at the seminary I attend and while we did go see some touristy spots (remember, while it is difficult for US citizens to visit the island as tourists, other countries do not bar their citizens from doing so) the heart of the trip consisted of talking with various leaders of Historic churches (ie Mainline churches) and their struggles in Cuba. While the leaders talked frankly about the problems and weakness of their government which has caused pain and suffering to the inhabitants of Cuba, they were also frank about how the US embargo wreaked havoc on Cubans. This bought up two uncomfortable truths 1) that the Cuban government, the “evil communist party” was no better or worse, than the corrupt American government that proclaims freedom and liberty while systematically eroding both for its citizens. It is also a government that aligns itself with countries whose human rights records are much worse than Cuba’s (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Batista military dictatorship that was in power before the Cuban revolution etc). Don’t get me wrong, Cuba has had and continues to have human rights issues  but the point is, so does the United States and so do many of our allies.  2) That American foreign policies, which are justified on the basis of a respect for human life and dignity, in fact often disregard human life and cause civilians’ untold suffering.

Now I had an inkling of the first truth before I went on the trip to Cuba by virtue of preliminary research and the second truth is pretty evident for anyone with a thinking brain. Yet no matter how orientated towards social justice a person may be, it is still easy to get wrapped up in American propaganda and political excuses demonizing other countries while deflecting the hard questions that we as a nation need to think about. It is also easy to forget about the impact that our foreign policy can have on oppressing others, even “nonmilitary” options such as embargos and blockades cause a great amount of suffering.

Various Cuban leaders talked about the devastating poverty in Cuba and the government’s inability to help all citizens because the blockade and the fall of the Soviet Union has hamstrung Cuba. Not many countries are willing able to trade with Cuba because they want to avoid the wrath of the United States.  There was mention about the “special period” which occurred in the 90s and bought widespread economic devastation on the populace. People were struggling to get food on the table, sometimes had to skip meals. While some members on the trip pointed out that other Latin American countries “had it worse” (an irony considering that these were spoken by Americans- not exactly the most oppressed group of people), the Cuban people experienced a lot of pain.  While it is important to acknowledge the role that the Cuban government played in the suffering of the Cuban people, the reality is American policy had a major role in the starvation and poverty suffered by the average Cuban. (Remember neo liberal capitalism is no more a guarantee of justice, wealth, and democracy than Communism.)

Even those of us who are critical of American government policy, don’t always get to hear first hand about the impact that our government has on the lives of the marginalized.

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When the Doctor finally begins to understand what is required of him to defeat this trap, he rebels. Why does he always have to “win?” why does he always have to do the “right thing.” Why not just give up and do the easy thing?

For those of us interested in social justice, this can be a tempting line of thought. At least I know it is for me. In fact, I can’t tell you how many people have told me that I needed to learn to compromise some of my most cherished principels. “Compromising is a part of being an adult,” I am told. And in many cases, compromises need to be made. But what principels am I holding onto that others say I should compromise on? American foreign policy and the slaughter of thousands of innocent people. I am supposed to support politicians who are ok with slaughtering others because another politician is “worse.” We live in a society where people make compromises all the time. Many times such compromises are needed in order to get things done and live in harmony, other times, people compromise because it is easier to do so. It is less painful. More people will like you if you learn to censor yourself and not point out how we all contribute to the exploitation and suffering of others.

In Cuba I met with church leaders that knew they needed to compromise on certain issues in order to bring about change, but they were also insistent on maintaining their core values even in the face of poverty and government harassment. Many continued to embrace their Christian identity even during periods when it would be easier to just down play it. Many refused to bow down to the false choice of Communism  and Christianity. It would have been so much easier for them to give up on either aspect of their identity. They could abandon Christianity or they could give up on trying to work with the government to help the poor. But they refused to do either. And as they look towards the normalization of relationships with the US, many church leaders state that regardless of what the two countries decide to do they will continue to uphold the principles of Christianity and their political belief in caring for all.

What many people, including Christians, seem to forget is that Jesus was a radical. Yes there were times Jesus changes his mind, but he also stuck to his principles. He believed that the political and religious systems of his time were corrupt and that he needed to speak out against it. Yes he was killed, but he also inspired countless others to fight for justice. Those who claim to be Christian and compromise, often ended up re-creating systems of death, destruction, and exploitation. The very systems Jesus wanted to abolish.

But standing on one’s principles is painful. We might expose ourselves to government harassment, we might lose friends and family members, we might despair.  In fact those who know me, know that suicide has often been something I grapple with. It would be so easy to just give up-on myself, on life, on humanity, on anything changing.

DOCTOR: But I can remember, Clara, You don’t understand, I can remember it all. Every time. And you’ll still be gone. Whatever I do, you still won’t be there..)
CLARA Doctor, you are not the only person who ever lost someone. It’s the story of everybody. Get over it. Beat it. Break free.  
CLARA: Doctor, it’s time. Get up, off your arse, and win!

Clara appears to the Doctor and tells him he has had more than enough time to mourn. He is in pain, she gets it, but he is not the only one to suffer loss. He can’t use her death as an excuse to give up. For many of us, such a message might not come through a vision or dream of a loved one, but this message will come to us. For me, it came during my trip in Cuba. I am not the only one advocating for justice in a society where change seems difficult and hopeless. I am not the only person who feels as if I am crying out and no one is listening to me. I am not the only one frustrated by a society where people, in a need to feel better about themselves and to sleep better at night, encourage others to compromise their most sacred values and then berates those who refuse to do so. In Cuba I saw that there were others going through much tougher circumstances who continued to advocate for the kingdom of God. And they sure had even more reasons than I do, to give up.  But they didn’t.

DOCTOR [room 12]: Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain.
(Faster still.)
DOCTOR [tower]: Nearly a billion years. 
DOCTOR [room 12]: Argh! And when the entire mountain is chiselled away, the first second of eternity will have passed!
(Faster still.)
DOCTOR [tower]: Well over a billion years.
DOCTOR [room 12]: Argh! You must think that’s a hell of a long time, 
(More and more.)
DOCTOR [tower]: Two billion years. 
DOCTOR [room 12]: Personally, I think that’s a hell of a 
(Again.)
DOCTOR: Aaargh! Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.

In “Heaven Sent” the Doctor spends billions of years punching away at the wall made of azbantium, which he describes as being four hundred times harder than diamond. So he has to go through a grueling cycle of dying and being reborn and experiencing the same thing over and over again. Like the bird in the Grimm’s tale he references, the Doctor slowly makes his way through the wall. Justice work often feels the same way. The Cuban Church had to have patience. I’m sure it felt as if they were not getting anywhere with the Cuban or American governments. Yet they continued pushing for normalization of relationships between the two countries and they kept advocating for a greater say in Cuban politics. Their work isn’t done and thy will face more problems and setbacks in the future. But this is the nature of social justice work. Sometimes all we can do, as individuals or as a group is keep punching against the azbantium wall hoping that one day there will be a breakthrough.

 

“I don’t think you want to become that man.”- The Temptation of Violence

DOCTOR: We can end this right now. We could save everyone right now.
AMY: This is not how we roll, and you know it. What happened to you, Doctor? When did killing someone become an option?
DOCTOR: Jex has to answer for his crimes.
AMY: And what then? Are you going to hunt down everyone who’s made a gun or a bullet or a bomb?
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In my introduction to preaching class (I am in the final year of the Masters of divinity program) the instructor asserted that no matter how many times a pastor has preached on a specific biblical text he/she should be able to craft a different sermon each time that takes into account their current context. In a similar vein, I decided to write a blog post on the above quote from the episode, A Town Called Mercy.I know have written on the episodes and the aforementioned quotes and to be honest I will be touching on a recurring theme on this blog which seems to be a variation of the biblical mandate “to love your enemies” (which has turned into an over-used cliché that masks the difficulty of such a task) and to follow Christ in trying to demonstrate a way of living that runs counter to the status quo of daily life.

In A Town Called Mercy the Doctor struggles with his own inner demons based on his decision to destroy galifrey (this is a pre-The Day of the Doctor episode) and the numerous instances where he has tried to save lives and failed. Yet in addition to his struggles with his own guilt, there is something pure, raw and relatable about his anger and his belief that killing Jex would not make Jex pay for his past actions but would also protect the town from the Gunslinger seeking to bring Jex to justice (or rather what the Gunslinger considers to be justice: Jex’s death) I at least, relate to the Doctor’s anger and his struggle with the temptation to believe the myth of redemptive violence: that death and destruction can ultimately bring about justice.

In the past few days, a handful of police officers have been killed and the police officers and politicians want to lay the blame of their deaths on the Black Lives Matter and police accountability movements. Despite the fact that the murder of police officers are down and that the numbers of officers killed by gunfire so far (24) nowhere compares to the numbers of civilians killed by officers, police departments throughout the nation have argued that there is a “war on police officers.” The injustice and absurdity of such an argument angers me. The fact that 786 people can be killed by police officers and over 100 of those killed are unarmed (and one should question the remaining deaths of those considered to be “armed,” especially if the only record of the incident is the word of the police officer) renders the assertion that there is a “war on police officers” to be disingenuous. To be clear, I am not arguing that police officers are “bad” in fact I find the dichotomy of “good” cops and “bad” cops to be false. I think most cops are regular people-with the strengths and weaknesses that we all struggle with. While there are cases of rogue cops-the larger issue is institutional.  The American legal system-including law enforcement is built on notions that foster white supremacy and compliance to authoritarianism. As citizens we are supposed to accept the idea that somehow black and brown people rare inherently more violent than their white peers. We are to acquiescence to the notion that the state can and should be able to kill with impunity-no questions asks. We are encouraged to comply with the state’s demands and actions in the name of “national security” even if it involves the deaths of hundreds of American citizens, false imprisonment, and the erosion of civil liberties.

As a person of faith-it is disheartening to see how cycles of oppression and valence continue unabated. As a person of color it angers me that some of the issues that the civil rights movement were addressing are still a problem and that the state refuses to acknowledge the existence of said issues, let alone take steps towards a sustainable solution. It feels as if there is no hope that of long lasting change. And it is this despair that causes me to wonder, in the darkest recesses of my heart, if violence might, in fact, be the answer. If the state refuses to listen to relatively peaceful protests, then maybe we should fight back. If the lives of black and brown people (though it is important to acknowledge unarmed white people are also killed by police) seem to value so little to the state and to police officers, why the hell should I care if a police officer is randomly gunned down? While I would never engage in physical violence, I find myself thinking that perhaps in order for change to occur we need to start using the state’s tactics against it. In other words, I find myself very much empathizing with the eleventh doctor’s decision to put a gun to Jex’s head. Violence seems to offer a solution.

Amy Pond however, points out the futility and cruelty of such action. Not only should the Doctor avoid reducing himself to Jex’s level but she wants to know what happens after he kills Jex. Amy responds, “AMY: And what then? Are you going to hunt down everyone who’s made a gun or a bullet or a bomb?” If the doctor kills Jex because of his past actions of injustice, then where will the killing end? Who else should be executed-those who make bombs and the guns that lead to war and destruction? And what about the ways in which we all in some measure benefit from oppression and injustice? If we point the gun at those we believe to be the cause of oppression, then at some point we will need to point the weapon at ourselves.

Later on in the episode the doctor recognizes the futility of violence. The Doctor tells Walter, a 17 year old who wants to kill Jex that doing so would only extend the cycle of violence:

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In the gospels, there are verses in which Jesus condemns violence. One such case occurs in Matthew 26:47-56, in which Jesus is being arrested. One of his followers cuts off the ear of the high priest’s slave and Jesus responds, “put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew26:52). By the time Matthew was written, the Jewish temple had been destroyed and the armed revolt on the part of some Jewish people was brutally put down. The fact is that violence is rarely if ever redemptive and it often perpetrates more injustice and oppression.  Furthermore, what did cutting off the slave’s ear accomplish? It didn’t end the systematic exploitation and injustice Jesus often railed against. And as a slave of the high priest-how much power did the slave truly have? Likewise, what does the act of killing an individual cop accomplish? Does it end police brutality? Does it eradicate institutional racism?  Or does it simply expand the suffering that violence causes?

Intellectually and spiritually I understand this. As someone who yearns for a better world, I understand that violence-even in the name of justice or in response to injustice, often only creates more pain and suffering. Yet despite knowing that I find myself wanting to act like the person in Matthew who cut off the slave’s ear, or like the Doctor who put a gun to the head of the person who committed horrible atrocities. I have to continually listen to the prompting in my spirit and the yearning in my heart that tells me there is another way, a better way to respond to injustice.

Torchwood: They Keep Killing Suzie

SUZIE: What do you believe?
GWEN: It’s stupid, but I always sort of think, like, you know, white light and all that. And I think of my Gran. Like she’ll be there waiting for me. The smell of carbolic.
SUZIE: Your faith never left primary school.
GWEN: So what’s out there?
SUZIE: Nothing. Just nothing.

Death surrounds us. If we are lucky, those of us in the developed world who have enough economic stability and access to health care can perhaps keep death at bay for a while. However, eventually death comes for all living things-plants, animals, etc but humans have the additional capacity of being able to contemplate and reflect on what it means to die. As far as we know, animals don’t necessarily live with that kind of fear and anxiety, at least not to the same extent (this is not to say animals don’t grieve for the dead-there is evidence that some do) but it is humans that have an obsession with death that often leads to constantly reflecting on it in order to avoid it or to pretending that death does not exist or is some far off event in the future. On the occasions when death can’t be avoided we develop notions that can help lessen the pain little. One such notion is the idea of an afterlife. Ideas about the afterlife vary. But in popular Christian understanding there is a heaven and hell. Heaven is a comforting place, where we can be reunited without loved ones. Hell, is a place of eternal torment.

In They Keep Killing Suzie, Suzie points out that the faith Gwen has is still childish. It is the faith of someone hoping that something exists but not having truly grappled the meaning of death. The faith Gwen discuses is one where the afterlife becomes a comforting notion that simply exists to lessen the pain of grief. I personally don’t know if there is an afterlife or not, but I remember vividly as a teenager, how heaven was described in my conservative, Pentecostal church. Heaven was a literal place (reserved of course only for those who ascribed to our understanding of Christianity) where the pain and suffering of this life would be erased and forgotten. The idea of heaven did help many of us survive-at least for a while- a life filled with abuse, poverty, and illness. Heaven became the answer to what often felt like a meaningless existence and it served as the promise of justice in a world where injustice was rampant. The problem with the heavy emphasis on the idea of a literal heaven-is that it devalues life in the here and now and it cheapened the pain and suffering that goes on. Heaven becomes a pat answer for whenever people struggle with loss or question a God who would allow such pain and suffering to occur. While some find the whole idea of an afterlife problematic, I remain agnostic about its existence. What strikes me as problematic is the obsession with heaven to the determent of living here and now. The afterlife becomes a convenient excuse, for example, to not fight against injustice, because in heaven those who have borne the brunt of injustice will be vindicated while those partaking and benefiting from justice will be condemned to hell. The idea of an afterlife becomes an endorsement for the status quo: “Don’t worry about the injustice in this world, because God will take care of it in the next.”

I find such an impulse to obsessively focus on an afterlife understandable. Because if there isn’t an afterlife then what is there? While the torchwood gang is going through Suzie’s stuff, Tosh remarks:

TOSH: That’s all we are, in the end. A pile of boxes.

Such a notion is scary. The idea of nonexistence is frightening enough but to think that we might be forgotten or reduced to some material stuff fills one with anxiety. Suzie, after being bought to life by Gwen and the resurrection glove, makes several references to how the torchwood members have simply gone on with their lives.

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We fear being forgotten. And I understand why holding on to the notion of an afterlife is so attractive. It is bad enough when death comes at the end of a long, well lived life, but what happens when a baby is born still born? What does one make of a life that did not have a chance to truly begun? Or what about a life cut short during the prime of life, or just when the person was about to make a turn for the better? The idea of heaven, doesn’t totally eradicate the pain of the loss but provides hope that perhaps the lives of the still born baby, or the young child/adult, or the drug addict had meaning.

As someone who cares about justice-I want to believe that if justice is denied in this life-it will be fulfilled in the next. Thinking back on the deaths of all those unarmed men and women who have been killed, or who have died in police custody just within the past year by police officers, has me crying out for justice. I think of those who were mentally ill and because of poor treatment options and access to healthcare, and poor mental health training for police officers, are dead. Kristiana Coignard, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, Joseph Hutcheson, Christian Taylor, Tamir Rice, and many more have been brutally gunned down by a system where officers are trained to treat every encounter with a citizen as a potential threat. But I can’t allow a hope or a desire for an afterlife to allow me to forget about life here and about my responsibility for fighting for justice now.

GWEN: But if there’s nothing, what’s the point of it all?
SUZIE: This is. Driving through the dark. All this stupid, tiny stuff. We’re just animals howling in the night, because it’s better than silence. I used to think about Torchwood, all those aliens, coming to Earth, what the hell for? But it’s just instinct. They come here because there’s life, that’s all. Moths around a flame. Creatures clinging together in the cold.

The desire to make death less frightening by holding onto the idea of an afterlife can provide people with the comfort needed to work through their loss and grief, but it can also serve as a way to dismiss the necessary work that grieving entails. The idea of the afterlife can serve as an excuse for disregarding this life and for maintaining the status quo. Why work for justice now? Justice will be served in the next life. We want to hold onto an infantilizing faith, where our parent God, will suddenly make everything ok with little work on our part. Suzie’s view on life is a bit pessimistic, and many people of faith will want to reject that characterization of life as simply being one of instinct. But she also speaks to a core truth-that what matters is the here and now-the stupid little things that preoccupy our time. Our work for justice now, matters. We are all going to die, no amount of money or wishful thinking will change that. And yes, we might be forgotten in the future, reduced to a tombstone or to a pile of boxes. But what are we doing with our lives now? How are fighting to make the world a better place now? How do we, who are living, remember our loved ones who have passed before us? How do we give meaning to their lives, no matter how brief or trouble filled? We can’t simply hope that an afterlife exists to give meaning to our lives, we have to try and fashion meaning for our lives in the here and now.

Small Worlds

As I delve deeper and deeper into trying to understand the roots of injustice and to uncover various avenues to try and promote social justice, I am left pondering if in order for progress to be made, whether some people need to die? In order for the wickedness and tragedy of a situation to become evident, do lives need to be extinguished so that the rest of humanity can finally get the message that if we don’t care and if we don’t act, people, including children, will be killed?

In Small Worlds, the Torchwood team is confronted with fairies who take pleasure in killing and torturing others. Gwen, at the beginning of the episode scoffs at the notion of fairies, to Jack’s annoyance.

GWEN: Anyone could have made this circle.
JACK: Why do you keep doubting me? I spell out the dangers, you keep looking for explanations.
GWEN: That’s what police work’s about.
JACK: This isn’t police work.
GWEN: All right then, science.
JACK: It’s not science.
GWEN: I know. You told me. It’s that corner of the eye stuff.

While Gwen does begin to sense that she and the others are being watched as they walk about n the forest, it isn’t until people begin to die and until her very home and sense of safety is threatened that she begins to take seriously the danger that these magical beings pose.

GWEN: In the whole of my working life I have never had to bring the bad times home with me. I have never had to feel threatened in my own home. But not anymore, because this means these creatures can invade my life whenever they feel like it and I am scared, Jack. What chance did Estelle have? What chance do any of us have?

In a similar way, when it comes to speaking out against injustice, many react as Gwen first did. They mock those who are suffering from injustice, assigning blame to the victims while ignoring or protecting societal norms that aid in the subjection of others. When women are beaten or raped, the response is “well they deserved it for not being more careful, for dressing like sluts.” Instances of brazen racism are denied. The poor are vilified and accused of being lazy. And those who die and suffer outside of our western reference? Well to be blunt, their lives don’t seem to matter. People don’t care.

And why should they? It is easier to live in a world where we can say pretend everything is ok and mock those who talk out against evil. In the Torchwood universe, it was easier for Gwen to mock the existence of fairies or for Estelle, to ignore the evil that lurks in them, than it was to believe that they could have such disregard for the lives of other living beings. Until of course, a moment arrives where ignoring or deluding oneself is no longer possible. And in many cases, humanity has a tendency to wait until a major catastrophe occurs to awaken from its stupor. And even then, we need to have a personal connection for us to really feel something. For instance, how many children are suffering in the Middle East as a result of our foreign policy? How many children are starving because we endorse trade agreements that make it harder for their parents to make a living or we give companies incentives to create sweatshops in third world countries? And we don’t notice until a particularly heart wrenching story catches our attention. It’s as if, as a society we require people to die in order for us to pay attention, for us to care.

In the episode, the fairies demand a little girl in exchange for sparing the world:

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I often wonder, if as a society we play a similar game or demand a similar sacrifice. The fairies demand their “Chosen One.” In some ways, society demands that others pay the price for our comfort and for our empathy. Our economic system is based on the exploitation of other people. Our empathy is tied to suffering that is able to awaken us from the haze of modern consumerism. It’s as if we demand the deaths of other people in order to keep our economic system running or in order to get us to care just long enough to maybe talk about doing something before the next new catastrophe catches our attention. But what is the alternative? Trying to keep track of all the various instances of injustice can be exhausting and mentally unhealthily. Exploitation and apathy are not just a part of the American way of life-but are global realities.

JASMINE: A dead world, is that what you want?
JACK: What good is that to you? There will be no more Chosen Ones.
JASMINE + VOICE: They’ll find us, back in time.
JACK: Take her.
GWEN: Jack, no.
JACK: You asked me what chance we have against them. For the sake of the world, this is our only chance.

As a society, we demand that other “less important lives” be expended in order for us to live comfortably or alternatively we wait until we hear horrific stories of death before we intervene, usually for a short amount of time.

Dark Water: “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?”

Dark Water starts off with a twist: Danny dies within the first five minutes. And he dies, as Clara describes it, a boring and ordinary death.
GRAN: It’s a terrible thing. Just a terrible, terrible thing.
CLARA: It wasn’t terrible.
GRAN: Clara?
CLARA: It was boring.
GRAN: Boring?
CLARA: It was ordinary. People just kept walking with their iPods and their shopping bags. He was alive, and then he was dead and it was nothing. Like stepping off a bus.
GRAN: He deserved better. And so did you.
CLARA: I don’t deserve anything. Nobody deserves anything. But I am owed better. I am owed.
Clara isn’t a stranger to death-she lost her mother as a teenager and of course during her travels with the Doctor she has witnessed numerous deaths-some very gruesome. She herself, has also faced death on more than one occasion. Yet she has also helped the Doctor save an untold number of lives. She reminded the Doctor there was another way to end the Time War and she has helped save the world and universe. She-the impossible girl-has done so many amazing things. And yet, Danny-the person she loves- dies by getting hit by a car. Danny-who had survived a war zone dies a simple death. There is nothing particularly heroic or memorable about getting hit by a car. Yet, Clara isn’t willing to accept that he is dead. She wants Danny back, and she feels that she is owed at least that much. How many times has she saved the Doctor? How many times has she had his back?

None of us will face homicidal aliens, Daleks, or a mummy soldier. Yet we will all face the death of a loved one. If one watches the news-it seems as if those of us in the western world are facing numerous catastrophic dangers. Terrorist attacks, deadly illnesses, brutal murders (because regular shootings, especially in low income neighborhoods are so blasé and not noteworthy), kidnappings, etc. are presented as very real risks, but the reality is that for a good number of us, our loved ones will die a boring, ordinary death: Old age, health problems, accidents; deaths that might warrant a paragraph in the local newspaper/website. Deaths that are so ordinary-that they are largely ignored except by those directly affected. And while the world happily moves on, we are left struggling to make sense of a new world without our loved ones.

And of course, some of us like Clara, will feel as if we are owed better. Growing up Pentecostal, we were taught to treat God with the utmost reverence. We weren’t to question why certain things happened-they were all part of God’s plan. Even in many mainline denominations, stating that one is owed something by God would be pretty presumptuous. We are to accept that life is unfair and move on. To question God, to demand that things be different is viewed at best as misguided and at worse as blasphemous. But damn it, sometimes the pain is just so much that we have no choice but to cry out in agony and anger. And based on various theological understandings of God, which in one form or another construe God as manipulative, puppet master, God deserves our anger.
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Clara knows the Doctor and she knows how he would react if she asked him for help in bringing Danny back-or she at least thinks she knows his response. As a result she feels as if she needs to manipulate and threaten the Doctor in order to get her desired response. Her grief and anger, have in fact, alienated her from the Doctor. He is no longer a friend that one can confide in and ask for help, but someone that needs to be forced into helping her.

Clara’s response is borne out of grief and anger, but it is also based on a misunderstanding of the Doctor. She’s seen how cold and uncaring he can be, and even though he has thawed a bit since the beginning of the season, she still feels as if she needs to try and control him in order to get him to help her. Her understanding of who the Doctor is, directly impacts how she approaches him while she was in pain and grieving over Danny’s death.

In a similar way, our notions of God impact how/if we turn to God in the midst of our suffering. Some of us have grown up with a theology that states that God is in control of everything-nothing bad or good happens without God’s permission. In this theological framework, God at best, allows someone we care about to die or suffer, and at worst actively caused said death or suffering. We our left questioning, “Why did God allow/cause this to happen?” While some people do gain comfort from an all-powerful God-others wonder how God could be so uncaring and heartless. How can we trust and seek love from a God that seems to act like a cosmic puppet master, deciding when some will die, saving others, etc? This God deserves our anger and perhaps our hate.

Other theological frameworks focus on God’s anger and humanity’s sinfulness. Death and suffering is viewed as a punishment for humanity’s sin. For instance, natural disasters are interpreted as God’s punishment towards a nation living in sin. The hurricane that killed hundreds of people, including infants and children, occurred because of the legality of abortion or because of the LGBT community’s instance on living a life of “perversion.” Individuals die, because of some sin they had not repented of. Instead of viewing those who die from suicide as being in unbearable emotional and mental anguish, they are portrayed as sinners who refused to look to God for help and sustenance. Those who die from illness or poverty, have only themselves to blame for somehow disobeying God. This God needs to be appeased and feared.
For others God is a heavenly Santa Clause watching our every move and keeping track of how “good” or “bad” we are. If we manage to stay on God’s nice lists, than we and our loved ones will enjoy God’s love and protection. But if we get on God’s “naughty” list-than we can expect God to withhold love and protection from us.

And of course in my blog post, Kill the Moon, I talk about a God that seems to arbitrarily decide when to get involved with the pain of humanity and when to respect humanity’s “free will” and allow things to unfold.

DOCTOR: Clara? You asked me what we’re going to do. I told you. We’re going to hell. Or wherever it is people go when they die. If there is anywhere. Wherever it is, we’re going to go there and we’re going to find Danny. And if it is in any way possible, we’re going to bring him home. Almost every culture in the universe has some concept of an afterlife. I always meant to have a look around, see if I could find one.
CLARA: You’re going to help me?
DOCTOR: Well, why wouldn’t I help you?
CLARA: Because of what I just did. I just
DOCTOR: You betrayed me. Betrayed my trust, you betrayed our friendship, you betrayed everything that I’ve ever stood for. You let me down!
CLARA: Then why are you helping me?
DOCTOR: Why? Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?

So much of our theology is based on fear and appeasing God. But what if like Clara, we have misunderstood the level of compassion God has for us? Clara thought she needed to manipulate the Doctor in order to convince him to help her, so when the Doctor reveals that the previous scenario hadn’t actually occurred, she is left wondering where their relationship stands. When the Doctor insists that he is going to help her despite her actions, she is shocked. The Doctor cares about her. He is willing to try and find Danny and bring him back from the dead-even though he is not exactly sure such a thing is even possible. Yet he is willing to try because he cares about her. He loves her. Clara under-estimated how much the Doctor truly does care for her.

Likewise, so many of our ideas about God severely underestimate how loved we are. When it comes to death and suffering, God is seen as the cause or as a being that we need to fear and appease in order to avoid pain. God’s love is directly tied to our actions. When we do good, God loves us more, when we make mistakes or sin, than God loves us a little less. This idea under-girds traditional understandings of the afterlife. God loves us and wants to be with us-but first we have to accept doctrinal statements that weren’t completely formulated until the fourth century. God’s love is conditional and limited. As a result, our interactions with God are about avoiding punishment or trying to get God to help us, protect us etc.

But what if God isn’t an angry puppet master, who for some reason or other, decides that one person will die while another lives? What if we understood God as our companion in our suffering? What if we let go of defining God primarily in terms of power and instead focus on God’s love and desire for relationship with humanity? Christians- often offer theological notions that simply support the lopsided power structures dominant in our world. To minimize or even question God’s omnipotence, is seen as discarding a central, necessary tenant of Christianity. But why do we desire an all-powerful God so much-one who cause or at least wills bad events to happen, one who decides when and where to get involved in the suffering of humanity?

The Doctor is betrayed by Clara. He saw how far she is willing to go in order to manipulate him and get what she wants. Yet he essentially dismisses her actions as unimportant. He doesn’t demand an apology, he simply tells her that his love for her is greater than her betrayal. Of course he will help her, even though he thinks what she is asking is impossible, of course he will stay by her side. Steven Moffat, through the Doctor, seems to understand the nature of love, yet somehow we insist that God’s love is based on power, control, and fear. God doesn’t cause our suffering. God’s heart breaks when we are in pain. And when we get angry, curse God, etc God isn’t ready to strike us down with a lightning bolt, or humble us. God is willing to listen to us, to hear our pain, and when we calm down, God reassures us of God’s love. When we behave in ways that are terrible, when we hurt others and hurt God, God loves us. Of course God hold us accountable, but accountability is not necessarily synonymous with punishment. God is a God of love and grace. And no matter what we go through or what we do, nothing will ever change God’s love for us.

What if God, like the Doctor wonders, “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” Do we think that our actions, our emotions, our pain could cause God to love us less?

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Time Heist: A Reflection on Mortality

MADAME KARABRAXOS: You gave me this number. My name is Madame Karabraxos. I was once the wealthiest person in the Universe. I need your assistance.  I’m dying, with many, many regrets. But one, perhaps, you may be able to help me with.

When I first saw this episode, I was a bit confused by the ending. Why did Madam Karabraxos suddenly have a change of heart? People don’t just wake up one day and say, “oh well I was a horrible person, now I need to right all of my wrongs.” Something dramatic must have happened to change her. However, on second viewing, I realized something dramatic did happen to her: she finally became aware of her own mortality and she recognized how her cruelty has left her facing death alone. And as death inches closer, she becomes desperate for one more chance to go back in time and do one good thing-perhaps make her life mean something. Of course that one action does not negate all the wrongs she did, but it puts into stark relief the importance of ensuring that we make the most of the time we have, because unlike Madam Karabraxos, those of us in the real world, won’t have the opportunity to go back in time. We don’t get do overs.

On the surface, this episode seems to lack depth. The Doctor, Clara, and some one off characters need to find a way to rob an unbreakable bank. Pretty sure there have been quite a few books, TV shows, and movies with the premise of robbing an unbreakable bank. Yet sprinkled throughout the episode are hints of something a bit deeper: glimpses of loneliness and despair.

Saibra transforms into anything or anyone that she touches. Her ability to change is what enables the group to get inside the bank and avoid initial detection. In addition, because she has changed so often she finds it incredibly easy to read faces. As a result when the Doctor lies to the group and says he has no idea what the capsules in the second suitcases are, Saibra is able to quickly call him out on his lies. The Doctor claims that her ability to transform is a gift and she responds with disdain:

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As a child, I remember asking and being asked the question, “if you could have one superpower, what would it be?” Of course my answer changed every time I was asked, but being able to shape shift was an answer that I definitely used more than once. And why not? Being able to turn into another person or animal and maintain that form as long as I wanted? Who wouldn’t want to do that but Saibra quickly points out that her gift comes at a price: she can become other people, but she can never be known or touched by another person. Regardless of what we may say about our physical bodies not being important, for many of us they are a central component of our identity. Our body’s limits and strengths  define how we relate to the world and others in some way. As babies, we need to touch and be touched in order to thrive and even survive. Without constant touch and affection, we can develop serious developmental, emotional, and social issues even if all our other basic needs are met. Even as we age, touch and being able to relate to others on a physical and emotional level, is extremely important. Yet Saibra’s mutation essentially cuts her off from others. Other people distrust her. In addition, for some-especially those who hate themselves-she represents a sort of condemnation. When people see her-they see what they hate. They see themselves as they really are as well and the projections that they have of themselves-both positive and negative come to light. What others consider a gift or a superpower, isolates herself from others.

Another example of loneliness is found in the story of Psi. Psi-the augmented human-is essentially a walking computer. He can instantly download information. Instead of having to read and remember everything, his brain acts like a computer saving the information and processing it at the same time. He also has the ability to manually delete memories. Clara points out the advantage of such an ability, while Psi explicates that it comes at a price:

CLARA: You can delete your memories?
PSI: Yeah, it’s not as fun as it sounds.
CLARA: I’ve got a few I wish I could lose.
PSI: And I lost a few I wish I hadn’t. No, I was, I was interrogated in prison. And I guess I panicked. I didn’t want to be a risk to the people close to me, so
CLARA: You deleted your friends?
PSI: My friends, anyone who ever helped me, my family.
CLARA: Your family?
PSI: Of course my family.
CLARA: How could you do that?
PSI: Well, I don’t know. (sighs) I suppose I must have loved them.

Memory is a funny thing. Our memories are never an objective snapshot of reality but are filtered through our own particular lens. And memories often change-in subtle ways-we might remember something else, or other experiences we have had influence the meaning we assign to said memories. And of course, we forget a lot of things. I’m sure quite a few of us have memories we wish we could forget, yet memories are vital to who we are. They help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Memories tap into our deepest emotions-invoking feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, grief etc.

Those of us who have experienced trauma and abuse-deal with it in varying ways. Our bodies and brains are really good at trying to protect us. For some of us that means that our ability to remember becomes hindered. Going through life it feels as if we are living in a hazy fog. The events and memories that we hold dear, often seem to slip away without our trying. And that’s scary because we all know that all that will remain of us at one point is our memories. The people that we love will one day pass away and our memories of them and our interactions with them will be a source of pain, pride, anger, happiness etc. And one day we will die and be nothing more than memories Forgetting is terrifying. Psi-by erasing memories of his family and friends also erased an essential component of his identity for we are all shaped in part by the experiences we have shared with our loved ones. In addition, being forgotten is scary, because it expresses a finality. Being forgotten is almost the same as never having existed.

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Psi-when he thought he was dying, was confronted by the reality that he was alone. He had no memories of those he loved to comfort him-no assurances that he will be remembered-that his life mattered. He saw no one.

Madam Karabraxos, on the other hand, was haunted by her memories. And the Doctor-an old man himself, whose regrets and memories contribute to his intense self-loathing, warns her as much.

DOCTOR: Give me a call me some time
KARABRAXOS: You’ll be dead.
DOCTOR: Yeah, you’ll be old. We’ll get on famously. You’ll be old and full of regret for the things that you can’t change

The Doctor however, provides her with an opportunity to do one good thing before she dies. The Doctor can’t reverse every instance of death and destruction she caused, but can help her make things right for one species. Madam Karabraxos lived a life based on greed and exploitation. Money is all that mattered to her and life was of secondary importance. She created clones of herself, only to kill them when they disobeyed her or failed at something. She exploited the teller’s love for his partner in order to get him to kill people. Madam Karabraxos lived a life based on selfishness and hatred, and as a result she was going to die alone. The Doctor, however, provided her with one chance to do something right. It’s a shame she waited until the end to do something good.

How about us? How are we living our lives on a daily basis? How do we want to be remembered? When death comes knocking our door, we won’t be able to call the Doctor and plead for one more chance at making things right.

Listen: Fear Makes Companions of Us All

Fear serves an important evolutionary purpose: namely survival. Fear enables us to mentally and physically discern threats and dangers and our body automatically begins acting in ways that will hopefully increase our chances of survival. As the Doctor explains to Rupert while they are confronted by what may be a monster, hiding under his bed sheet, fear can be good:

DOCTOR: Are you scared? The thing on the bed, whatever it is, look at it. Does it scare you?
RUPERT: Yes.
DOCTOR: Well, that’s good. Want to know why that’s good?
RUPERT: Why?
DOCTOR: Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard, I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now, you could run faster and you could fight harder, you could jump higher than ever in your life. And you are so alert, it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower. It’s your superpower.

Yet fear can also become an obsession. Haunting both our nightmares and our waking moments. In this episode, the Doctor becomes gripped by the desire to find what exactly is lurking behind the shadows, preying on our fears and ensuring that we are never alone:

DOCTOR: Yes, you know sometimes when you talk to yourself, what if you’re not?
CLARA: Not what?
DOCTOR: What if it’s not you you’re talking to? Proposition. What if no one is ever really alone? What if every single living being has a companion, a silent passenger, a shadow? What if the prickle on the back of your neck, is the breath of something close behind you?
CLARA: How long have you been travelling alone?
DOCTOR: Perhaps I never have.

What is scarier than a threat that we can’t see, yet which we have an inkling is there, watching our every move? The purpose of fear is to keep us alive and enable us to discern potential threats, but how can we protect ourselves over something that can’t be seen? That can strike at any moment?

The Doctor Who fandom will spend the next few months or years debating whether or not a monster actually existed in this episode. Is it ghost? An alien? Or is the monster simply the figment of the character’s collective imaginations? But regardless of whether or not there actually was a monster in the episode, Listen effectively plays on humanity’s fear of vulnerability. A fear that can be seen in the smallest child. And what renders into sharp focus our vulnerability more than imagining our own deaths or the deaths of those we love? Death is the ultimate boogeyman. We do whatever we can to delay it or to at least push the thought out of our mind, but no matter what we do-no matter how we attempt to soothe our anxiety-we know that death awaits all of us and it is only a matter of time.
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Of course, most of us are able to push aside our anxiety in order to go about our daily lives. But as someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, the fear and the allure of death is never far from my mind. One the one hand, death terrifies me. Like the Doctor. Clara, and Orson, who are terrified by the noises that seem to come from outside the spaceship-even though no life exists beyond their doors, death deeply frightens me. It is the great unknown. Death in my mind is a menacing presence waiting to snatch my loved ones away and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to prevent it. Death can take so many different shapes and forms that even if one successfully prevents one form-another will inevitable takes its place. Yet like the Doctor, who is determined to find out what exactly is behind the strange noises, death also has a certain allure.

CLARA: That’s you turning it, right?
DOCTOR: No. Get in the Tardis.
CLARA: Why?
DOCTOR: I have to know.
CLARA: Doctor. Doctor
DOCTOR: The Tardis, now!

We all have at least heard of people who perform crazy stunts and who are often accused of trying to cheat death. I am most definitely not one of those people and often view their antics as crazy, yet at the same time I understand the impulse to want to get as close to death as possible-to find out what actually occurs, what happens, without actually dying. Death holds a perverse attraction, and for those of us with insatiable curiosity death is the definitive puzzle to be solved.

But the danger with fearing/obsessing about death, (or any other fear) is that it can hinder one’s ability to fully live and can instead isolate ourselves from one another.   In society, the fear and fascination with death is a central feature in the TV shows we watch, the books we read, as well as the news we consume. There is a reason bloody video games and horror movies garner huge ratings and why the news continues to describe in graphic and sometimes exploitative details various instances of death. Fear can be manipulated and used by those in power as a form of division. Muslims are terrorists, blacks and Hispanics are violent, undocumented workers are trying to steal American jobs and destabilize the economy, the mentally ill are dangerous, etc. Fear has been used to justify going to war, to limiting and dismantling constitutional rights, and as justification for endorsing the complete annihilation of perceived threats.

Unfortunately, some forms of Christianity also rely on fear as a manipulation tactic in order to gain converts. Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior or risk spending an eternity in hell. Preach the gospel to all of your friends and family so that they can avoid burning. The gospel is reduced into a thinly veiled obsession with fear and death.

But what if there was a different way of living that acknowledges fear and the reality of death, yet does not become consumed with it? In the final moments, Clara tells a young Doctor:

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For me, as a Christian, one of the central messages that lies at the heart of my faith is the insistence that fear and death cannot and will not overcome God’s purposes. Jesus Christ is portrayed in the gospels as living his life in such a way that being crucified by the religious authorities and Roman government was the only possible outcome. Jesus consistently called into question the empire’s and religious authorities’ obsession with material wealth, status, and power. In the ancient Roman Empire, in order to survive, it was in a person’s best interest to blend in with the dominant culture. If the dominant culture was heavily hierarchical, then of course, one learned to stay in one’s place. If the dominant political and religious culture viewed the poor, the blind, the sick as unimportant or as sinful, then one did not associate with those condemned by those in power. Yet Jesus refused to fit in. Jesus repeatedly told the ruling authorities that they were wrong. No one, challenges an empire and expects to live. Yet the gospels also depict Jesus as being afraid of dying. In the garden of Gethsemane, he is in agony, begging for a different outcome. Yet unlike his disciples, who’s fear of the Roman authorities and of being killed causes them to react violently or run away, Jesus does not let his fear consume him. He is afraid, but his fear does not separate him from God or God’s purposes. He refuses to become a coward.

Being afraid is ok and in many cases serves an important purpose. But fear can also consume us, especially the fear of death. We can allow our fears to isolate us and cause us to view the world as an inherently dangerous and frightening place, which will then color how we interact with others, or we can harness said fear to make us better people. Fear can bring us together. The fear of losing the one’s we love to death, can in moderation enable us to appreciate them while they are here with us and to cherish them. The fear of terrorism can force us to reflect on the ways that our nation has contributed to its rise. Instead of denouncing all people of a certain religious or ethnic background as terrorists, our concerns and fears can unite us with the direct victims of terrorism and can help us figure out effective ways to lessen terrorism without defaulting to violence. No matter how hard we try we are never going to eradicate the sources of our fears, we are never going to outwit death, but we can at the very least decide how our fears will impact us.