In 2215, we humans made our first contact with an alien species. For centuries, we'd been sifting through the static of interstellar space. Finally, we heard something. It could have been a weather report. It could have been a poetry reading. It could have been anything. But it was more than random noise. It was a signal. It was technology at work, and it was not of human origin.
Humanity decided to introduce itself. It was not an easy decision. We might travel all that way and find nothing but a grave. Based on its rate of travel and point of origin, we knew it had taken nearly 300 years for that signal to reach us. Over the course of three centuries, a civilization could destroy itself. We might travel to this distant galaxy and find nothing more than ashes and regret.
Or it might be dangerous. Those who made the trip could be eaten. Even worse, the expedition could lead a warlike race of aliens back to earth. Our well-meant gesture of introduction could be the precursor to invasion. All of human history could end in the stewpots of Alpha Centauri.
In the end, we had to see for ourselves. If the aliens were truly hostile, then it was better to meet them at a distance and prepare our defenses back home. If they were friendly, then we could learn much from one another. There was no advantage to remaining ignorant.
Nothing in the human fleet was equipped for such a long journey into the unknown. And so, humankind devised a new ship. She was christened, "Mei Xing." The ship was fast, and bristling with sensors and antennae. It would record every scrap of data and remain in constant communication with Earth. Just in case, the ship was equipped with reinforced military plating. And plasma cannons.
The Mei Xing was given a crew of Nobel laureates: mathematicians and chemists, xenobiologists and linguists. Earth's most decorated pilot was given the helm. And, just in case, military experts were brought onboard.
Gifts were loaded into the cargo hold. Millions of school children wrote letters, introducing themselves to the aliens. "My name is Spencer. I live in a blue house. My cat is called, 'Ribbons.' I hope we will be friends." "My name is Dhwani. I like honey on toast. If you come to my house, I will give you some." There were also postcards, decorated with famous painting or with photos of earth's most scenic locations.
The Mei Xing was launched from earth orbit on January 23rd. There were celebrations all around the globe.
* * *
Three years later, the human starship arrived at its destination. The Mei Xing's monitors flared with sudden activity. The aliens were very much alive. Sensors woven into the hull overheard countless conversations. The whole system was abuzz with their activity.
The captain of the Mei Xing said, "It's time to broadcast our arrival, Lieutenant. Let them know we are here." A greeting was spliced into every communications signal as it passed within range. Presumably, all across the local star system, aliens were hearing the human voice for the first time. "Greetings from Earth. We come in peace. This brief message was followed by Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and the first 200 digits of pi.
"That got their attention," said the navigator.
The military advisor was more precise: "Sensors show a large ship is moving to intercept us."
The captain gave a guarded smile. "Only one ship, you say? It sounds like they are showing restraint."
"One large ship," the military advisor repeated. "It has heavy plating. Carbon scoring across the hull would suggest it has seen combat. That's a warship, Captain. There's no doubt about that."
The captain ordered a full stop. Under his breath, he muttered, "Think happy thoughts, everyone."
"The warship is still closing," announced the military advisor. "It will be within weapons range in 2 minutes. Captain, as a precaution we should raise our deflector shields."
"Steady," said the captain. "'Behold, I stand at the door and knock.' We'll let them make the next move."
The military advisor was starting to perspire. His voice was brittle and urgent. "There's a sudden upsurge in energy production aboard the alien ship. Captain, they could be preparing to firing their weapons. We're not even a moving target. We need to raise shields, now!"
"Shields up," said the captain.
"They're firing!" someone shouted. "They're shooting at us!"
"Brace for impact," said the military advisor. But there was no impact, no damage to the shields or the hull.
"It's a probe," announced the navigator. "We are being scanned." All the monitors on the bridge started to flicker wildly. On every screen, random files appeared and vanished. It created a strobe effect. At each terminal, members of the crew fought to regain control of the equipment.
"They've hacked into our computers," said the chief researcher. "They are downloading all of our information."
"Cut power to the computer systems," said military advisor.
"Why would we do that?" asked the chief researcher. "We want them to have information about us. It's why..."
"It's information they can use against us," interrupted the military advisor. "Our every weakness will be exposed. They'll know which of organs are most vital. They'll know what frightens us. They'll know everything! Cut the power. Do it, now!"
"We want them to know about us," insisted the chief researcher.
"Captain!" shouted the military advisor. "Cut the power!"
Before the captain could reply, the navigator quoted Albert Einstein. "'You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.' What are we here to do, Captain? Are we here to act like a friend, or to act like an enemy? We can no longer hedge our bets. It's time to choose one or the other."
* * *
If you were the captain, what would you do?
Would you make yourself vulnerable for the cause of friendship? Or would you defend yourself until you knew it was safe?
There's no guarantee.
Even here, surrounded by peace-loving Quakers, there's no guarantee that choosing to be vulnerable will bring about a happy ending. If the captain allows the alien probe to proceed, it could mean death for his entire crew. It could mean grave danger for all of planet earth.
Being vulnerable can end in disaster. There's no way around it. Being vulnerable puts us at risk. Choosing the path of friendship leaves us more vulnerable to insults and injury.
* * *
Jesus, who could have defended himself with twelve legions of angels, was vulnerable for the sake of love. It killed him.
As a peacemaker and follower of Jesus, I want to be among those who accept risk for the sake of peace. And now, I get to the scary part. Pyongyang is no threat to me, personally. The Taliban is no threat to me. When I call for peace in North Korea or Afghanistan or Iran, I'm not taking much of a risk.
I feel much more vulnerable when I need to make peace with my wife, or my children, or with the people who know me the best.
Just for a moment, put aside international conflict. To what extent are you preparing for war with the people around you? In your day to day life, are you making yourself vulnerable for the cause of friendship? Or do you defend yourself until you know it was safe?