Ethos Education

Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy: To what extent does war make otherwise unacceptable actions justifiable?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understanding of different Christian responses to war.
  • Awareness of Christian responses to nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon whether circumstances justify particular actions which would otherwise be considered to be wrong.
  • Analyse arguments about the morality of certain actions in a war-time context.
  • Analyse the concept of the Just War from a Christian perspective.
  • Analyse a number of Bible passages to determine possible Christian responses to violence.
  • Synthesise learning by writing a report on a proposed project to turn ordinary people into half-human killing machines in order to end a war.

STARTER:

Write the following list on the board for the students to read: disagree with someone; tell someone that they are wrong; shout aggressively at someone; punch someone; intentionally break someone’s leg; kill one person; kill ten people; kill a thousand people.

Ask the students which of the things on the list are, generally speaking, bad things to do. Are all of them wrong, or just some of them? Where on the list would the students draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable?

Some students may point out that some of the things depend on circumstances. They may feel that punching someone is usually wrong, but if that person was attempting to mug an old lady, then punching them to protect the innocent victim might be the appropriate thing to do. If none of the students expresses this point of view, then raise the issue yourself.

Take the activities on the list one by one (you don’t have to do them all, and you don’t have to start at the beginning of the list) and see if students can suggest circumstances where something that they would normally consider wrong becomes acceptable. For example, what would have to be happening for it to be right to kill someone?

Explain that in this lesson you are going to be thinking about the use of powerful weapons as a means of preserving peace, and asking whether the intended goal justifies acts of extreme violence.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Set the scene for the clip from the Doctor Who episode A Town Called Mercy from Dr Who series 7 (BBC DVD, 2012, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online. Explain that the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions have arrived at a Wild West town that is being plagued by a robotic gunslinger. The gunslinger is besieging the town and demanding that the townspeople hand over Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough), an alien who has been living among them for several years and has become an important and trusted member of their community. Ask the students to pay particular attention to what is said about why the gunslinger wants the alien handed over to him.

  • Start time: 0.18.52 (in chapter 6 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.22.05
  • Clip length: 3 minutes and 13 seconds

The clip starts with Kahler-Jex saying, ‘It was stupid of me, I realise that now.’ It ends with Rory (Arthur Darvill) saying, ‘Save us all? Yeah, I really am’.

Ask the students which description of Kahler-Jex they think is the most accurate – murderer and war criminal, war hero, or the guy who saved the town from cholera?

Ask the students what they can remember of Kahler-Jex’s justification for experimenting on people and turning them into killing machines. Draw out that he claims his actions were necessary to end a war that has lasted for nine years and ‘decimated half of the planet’, saving a million lives by ending the war in just a week. How convincing do the students find this argument? Is Kahler-Jex right to argue that, ‘War is another world. You cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did’?

If the students take a high moral line against Kahler-Jex’s actions, you could ask them to assess whether certain actions in real life wars are justifiable, for example, Britain’s carpet bombing of Dresden and other European cities during World War 2. Was the inevitable loss of civilian life justifiable in the cause of weakening the Nazi war effort and seeking to halve the spread of fascism across Europe.

Introduce the concept of Just War, and give out the Just War worksheets. Explain that the idea of a Just War was developed as people attempted to reconcile the belief that violence against others was wrong, with the need to respond to other people who were perfectly willing to carry out such acts. In its modern form, the theory of the Just War involves fulfilling five separate conditions:

  • The war must be a defensive response to unjust aggression.
  • There must be a realistic chance of success.
  • There must be some proportion between the costs and the post-war settlement.
  • Only military targets can be chosen.
  • The force must never be an end in itself – it must be for a specific purpose.

To reinforce the learning, ask the students to complete the two tasks on the worksheet (this could be done now or later as a reminder for students).

Discuss how Kahler-Jex’s actions compare with the doctrine of the Just War.

Ask the students if they think that Christians would be likely to agree with this criteria for establishing whether or not a war is legitimate. It is worth pointing out that this is a subject which Christians have always disagreed about. The first Christian form of the Just War theory dates back to Augustine in the 4th Century. Prior to the conversion of Emperor Constantine (also in the 4th Century) the vast majority of Christians refused to become soldiers. Even today many Christian groups (such as the Mennonites and the Quakers) and individuals adopt a pacifist position and argue that war is always wrong, while many others serve in their nation’s armed forces.

Break the students into small groups and ask them to produce a list of reasons for and against agreeing with the principle of a Just War from a Christian perspective. Some groups may need some help in getting started, in which case you may want to feed some or all of the following ideas to them:

  • Jesus taught that people should love their enemies.
  • Jesus taught that people should turn the other cheek (i.e. not retaliate when provoked).
  • The Bible teaches that God hates injustice and wants people to stand against injustice.
  • Jesus taught that Christians should love their neighbour.
  • Jesus taught that peacemakers would be blessed.

Allow the groups to feed their findings back to the rest of the class and to discuss any interesting points that arise.

Give out copies of the Wars and Rumours of War worksheet, which features nine quotes from a Christian perspective which have some relevance to this discussion. Read through the quotes on the worksheet one at a time, asking students to decide in each case whether the quote seems to suggest a pacifist response to the problem of conflict, a Just War response, or some other response. You may want to remind the students that these statements are not necessarily contradictory, but are indicative of the tension between biblical demands for love and justice.

You could set students the task (in pairs or small groups) of ranking the quotes according to how strongly they support one position or the other (e.g. the most pacifist oriented quote being allocated number one, all the way down to the most pro-Just War being given the number nine). Once the quotes have been ordered, set the task of writing answers to the following questions:

  • Where would you place yourself on this scale?
  • Is it more important to love those who don’t show love and tolerance to others, or to protect the innocent from aggressors?
  • Prepare a response to this issue that you would be willing to defend in front of the rest of the class.

Here are the quotes from the worksheet:

‘You have heard people say, “Love your neighbours and hate your enemies.” But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you.’
Jesus, Matthew 5:43-44

‘God blesses those people who make peace. They will be called his children.’
Jesus, Matthew 5:9

‘When you hear about wars and riots, don’t be afraid. These things will have to happen first, but that isn’t the end. Nations will go to war against one another, and kingdoms will attack each other.’
Jesus, Luke 21:9-10

‘Obey the rulers who have authority over you. Only God can give authority to anyone, and he puts these rulers in their places of power.’
Romans 13:1

‘Try to live at peace with everyone! Live a clean life. If you don’t, you will never see the Lord.’
Hebrews 12:14

‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.’
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (abridged)

‘The purpose of all war is ultimately peace.’
Saint Augustine

‘Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.’
Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’
Micah 4:3

All quotes are taken from the Contemporary English Bible.

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask the students to put themselves in the place of a senior leader in the government of Kahler-Jex’s home planet. Their task is to write a report which recommends or rejects the proposal for the project which created the gunslinger cyborg. The report should address the moral concerns of experimenting on ‘volunteers’ who don’t know what they are volunteering for, as well as the pressing need to find a way to end a bloody and destructive war. Students should make reference to Christian principles, including the Just War doctrine, and use these to help them to come to a conclusion about Kahler-Jex’s project.

YOU WILL NEED:

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