Movies have a way of mirroring reality. They are cultural products, even if written by a single person. Our creative mind is formed and shaped in the reality we live. With that in mind, I have been thinking about the guys who wear red shirts on Star Trek episodes. In popular lore, they are the ones who are expendable. They show up in a single episode, maybe beam down to a planet’s surface with Spock or Kirk. And, you just know that at least one of them is never beaming back up.
That stands in stark contrast to the main characters. You can remove Spock’s brain, put it in a machine, and he’ll have it back before the episode ends. Heck, in the movie versions, you can kill him and he still comes back! Spock does not wear a red shirt.
Who are the Red Shirt people? They are the people on the periphery. They are not the stars or principal actors. Red Shirt people are stage props. You’ll probably never know their names. In terms of the story, their identities have no necessity or meaning. And that is very significant.
We imagine ourselves to be the stars in our own drama (we do not wear the red shirt). But we live in a culture where everyone is somebody else’s Red Shirt. Perhaps there are a privileged few, those whose names show up regularly in the news feed, those whose lives and opinions are supposed to be so important that we must notice them. But today’s star is probably only a few steps away from the red shirt.
The difficulty in our culture is that a large number of Red Shirts is always factored in. When we read the number of the unemployed or the number who have no medical insurance, it is a number. Red Shirts can be counted. The media like to do “human interest stories,” when they treat Red Shirts as though they were stars, for a couple of minutes. When the story is over, they’ll be lying face down dead, unable to beam back up to the Enterprise. Red Shirts.
The narrative of Star Trek (its treatment of characters) is quite common in our entertainment media. It is, tragically, rooted in the larger narrative of our culture as well. That narrative is bound up with hard work, success, and good luck. We are largely satisfied with a cultural narrative that treats losers (the lazy, unsuccessful, unfortunate) as worthy of less interest than others.
In an odd similarity, our cultural religions tend to run in the same direction. Americans are saved as individuals. Individuals are responsible to have made the right religious choice and found gainful hope of the Kingdom of Heaven. Sadly, we admit that there are many Red Shirts: they will never be beamed up.
Charles Taylor, in his magisterial Sources of the Self, noted that with the coming of the Reformation, the Church is no longer the ship of salvation, but rather a collection of rowboats.
Salvation as a collective reality (in which there are no red shirts) has lost a place in the popular imagination.
However, the faith teaches an infinite value to each soul (“the least of these”). St. Maximos the Confessor describes human beings as a “Microcosm,” that is, an incarnate reality that contains within itself the entire cosmos. And we are more than a microcosm; we are a communion of microcosms, worlds within worlds, in which the life of one is the life of all.
It has been said somewhere, “No one is saved alone. If we fall, we fall alone, but no one is saved alone.” It is possible to err in both directions in these thoughts. The individual has value and a unique role in his own life. But we are not merely, or purely individual. This is precisely the case when viewed from the angle of salvation itself. In the New Testament, salvation is incorporation, a joining into the Body of Christ.
I once encountered a woman whose son was being brought to the Church by his grandmother for Baptism. The mother was from an Evangelical background. She was willing, she said, for her son to be Baptized, but not to “join the Church.” The two were very distinct things in her mind. That conversation became an extended opportunity for teaching.
We are a culture that is comfortable with its many Red Shirts – community is time-consuming and requires an extension of the self that we have come to dislike. True Christianity raises the matter of community (communion) to an actual mode of existence. It is more than a mere moral activity – it is a manner of being.
Of course, our culture was founded and built on individualistic notions. It has always had an underclass of Red Shirts, and may very well have more now than at any time in its history. It is not given to us to change the culture (that remains a matter of God’s providence). But the Christian life must, in this respect, separate itself from the norms of its culture. Mutual responsibility, shared existence, and true communion are the only form in which salvation is given to us. No one is saved alone.
Scotty, beam us all up.