We're three movies into the rebooted Star Trek franchise and what has nagged at me since the reboot is the question of what, exactly, the Federation does. What does it do? What does it stand for? Unity? I was watching the film last night with some friends and one of them pointed out that the quest to seek out new life and new civilizations sounds cool but ... to what end is it done?
Considering that three movies in a row the villains have it out for the Federation or those people who are held to embody the vices of the Federation, it would seem pretty important to establish what the Federation does.
The Federation and Starfleet seem to be a fairly simple stand-in for the United States. This is an unavoidable consideration when we consider that Roddenberry made Star Trek half a century ago in the United States. It's been easy for some film critics (looking at you Richard Brody) to have a cavalier and condescending approach to the worn out franchise. But the franchise embodies the most optimistic and egalitarian blue state sort of mentality that would seem right at home in what old lefties regard as the hopelessly middlebrow New Yorker.
Watching the film again I was struck that Krall (the human warrior Balthasar Edison, played by Idris Elba) believes that the Federation made humanity weak. But it's more blunt and personal than that, Edison had spent his whole life defending the human race from Romulans and other planets bent on crushing humanity and then the wars ended and the peace that came resulted in the Federation. Edison becomes Krall and vows revenge on the Federation for abandoning him and his crew. For Krall the Federation is emblematic of a haughty, self-satisfied conflict averse empire in which the humans who risked their lives to save humanity were cast off in favor of sharing meals with the races that were previously set on destroying the human race.
Captain Kirk, our hero, argues that the war was won and Edison needed to change. But there's a core problem in the conflict that Captain Kirk has with Edison/Krall that never gets addressed. In fact the conflict is taken for granted. The assumption is that Kirk is right and Krall is wrong but we're never given a reason why this is so. Well, we're given a reason, Kirk tells Krall he'd rather die saving lives than live with taking them but he ... does kinda let Krall die. Captain Kirk hasn't exactly had problems killing to save lives over the last fifty years or, if he's had reservations he has been pragmatic enough to recognize that sometimes saving billions of lives might entail killing millions (see Operation: Annihilate, for instance, from the original series).
But let's step back and think about something that the film critics at The New Yorker didn't seem all that interested in even thinking about--Krall and Kirk are both men who are fighting for the benefit of the human race as they understand what is beneficial to humanity as a whole. So the conflict is not about humanity, the conflict is about something else. The question is the one that was posed to Jesus by an expert in the law, the question about eternal life. Jesus replied that you love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The law expert, seeking to justify himself, asked "and who is my neighbor?" Jesus proceeded to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus' parable in Luke 10 warns that if you ask "who is my neighbor?" in a way that forecloses someone as having that relationship then you will not inherit eternal life.
In other words, Krall rejects the Samaritan and Kirk seeks to help the Samaritan, if we articulate their positions in terms that are explicable in light of the teaching of Jesus on love of neighbor. Krall has concluded only humans are truly his neighbor; Kirk is committed to the precept that you love your neighbor as yourself and you DISCOVER who your neighbor is through the quest of seeking to be neighbors to as many as you can. If it seems that Star Trek is permeated with a kind of liberal piety, well, that's not a big shock. What's surprising is that liberals can sneer at the piety in the schlocky series with its genre trappings without realizing they would generally affirm the ethical precepts.
But there's another way in which the conflict between Krall and Kirk is explicable in terms of Jesus' parables. Krall is the older brother who rejects the return of the younger brother. He can't respect a father who decides to welcome the one who rejected the father. This is a loose analogy, of course, but the disposition toward the neighbor is a theme that can be drawn from this parable, too.
And that gets to a problem in the Star Trek narrative universe, and not just the problem that it can have an unexamined endorsement of what could be globally regarded as American cultural imperialism (although Simon Pegg could, as a co-author of the script, actually get that this is a thing to be concerned about, being British). The problem is that the ethical ideals of the secular/progressive Star Trek franchise, when push comes to shove, gives us a Captain Kirk who articulates an ethical view that, however admirable we may find it to be, is parasitically dependent on the Christian ethical tradition that is preserved in the parables of Jesus.