Note: This article contains plentiful and major spoilers for Black Panther. If you haven’t seen it yet, we recommend you check out our spoiler-free review first, and come back when you’ve seen the film.
We live in a world that’s no less polarized and contentious than the world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I don’t think that’s accidental. The best sci-fi and fantasy fiction has always held a mirror up to the world in which it is written, and Kevin Feige’s MCU is certainly not an exception. So when the sun rises on Wakanda in Black Panther, it’s shining on a nation that’s managed to remain hidden from the creeping polarization of the world around it – but, with T’Chaka’s death at the hands of Baron Zemo at the end of Captain America: Civil War, that strife is about to break in.
For Wakandans, and for Black Panther T’Challa in particular, the question is simply stated: do we have the responsibility to step out of our shadows and save the world? Should we follow our insular traditions of old, or aid the world with a more active intervention?
We, as Christians, face a similar choice in our world. We have the ability to share the Answer to the problems of the world, and to ease suffering in those around us. I think T’Challa and his struggle can teach us something valuable about that responsibility.
Now, there’s a long and ugly history of westerners co-opting the accomplishments and hard work of African people for themselves; as a “colonizer,” I’m aware of the dangerous tightrope I’m walking here. I don’t want to appropriate the culture that Ryan Coogler and his cast & crew have so expertly created; however, I do think that the Wakandans have a lot to teach us, and this unique and confident film does so in a really compelling way. So I’d like us to listen to their opinions, to their mistakes, and to their choices.
See, the fictional nation in the film has rewritten history by its very existence. It’s built up a lot of tradition around that rewritten history. And when Erik Killmonger comes home to Wakanda, he’s about to rewrite it again.
The World’s Going to Start Over
Prince N’Jadaka of Wakanda grew up in a broken world like the rest of us. That was a reality that struck me while watching the film, and probably one of the things that made Erik Killmonger one of the best villains in Marvel history: he’s suffered at the hands of his uncle, and at the hands of a racially-divided Oakland in the early 1990s. But through it all, he has the memories of his father’s tales of Wakanda to fall back on.
And, over time, those memories go from comforting to infuriating.
Erik doubtless watched the Los Angeles race riots of 1992 thinking, “my people could stop this.”
He watched racial and religious unrest tearing apart the Middle East and Africa thinking, “my people could ease this suffering.”
He helped liberate and free people from brutal, evil dictators, and thought, “my people should be helping.”
He saw aliens invade New York, and thought, “my people should stop this!”
He watched Ultron try to destroy Sokovia and raged, “my people are doing nothing!”
Erik watched oppressors taking the upper hand and getting away with it, time after time, all over the world, knowing that he came from a nation that could give his brothers the ability to fight back; and yet they did nothing. When they did intervene in the real world, they didn’t ease pain; they killed his father and left Erik an orphan.
So, when Erik returns to Wakanda out of exile, he’s understandably furious at the tradition which keeps Wakanda from helping the people it could – and the people who, it seems to him, have a responsibility to help.
Do you weep this much at the brokenness of the world, and the inaction of those who could fix it? Do you see pain around you and rage that those who could ease it are hiding from it instead?
Like Ultron, Erik wants to restart the world. Like Ultron, he wants to put those like him on top. But not as a result of some logical algorithm. For him, it’s because he’s watched the world be broken, knowing that his people could fix it but instead made it worse. He wants to restart the world because the brokenness of the world has torn him up.
A Monster of Our Own Making
When T’Challa learns the truth about Killmonger, he stands before his father in the spirit realm with confusion; how could this man he looked up to have betrayed him so? And as the sun in that spirit realm rises on the new Wakanda that T’Challa will create, he literally turns away and returns to the real world, to absolve and put aside the (literal) sins of the (literal) father that made Killmonger who he was.
It’s a very literal portrayal of something that’s usually quite abstract. But we all have a monster of our own making; a sin that we’ve allowed to overcome us and manifest in a dangerous and deadly way. A weakness that will one day return to destroy us.
T’Challa confronts this weakness by making an about-face in his leadership of his country. Rather than living in hiding and fear of the outside world, he steps out to become the world leader that Wakanda should have always been.
He doesn’t just turn aside from the sins of his father, the tradition that created this threat. He turns around completely, running from it with all his might.
Our Brothers Elsewhere
And so T’Challa and his new Wakanda stand before the United Nations as a nation that seeks to help; to build bridges instead of barriers, and to lead by example and by aid.
Throughout the film, Erik speaks about “our brothers elsewhere-” regardless of where they are, the people of Africa are part of the family of Wakanda. He insists that aiding them is paramount – which T’Challa extends outward by the end of the film. “The wise build bridges,” he says; “the foolish build barriers.” As the literal and metaphorical barriers come down around Wakanda, the bridges to both Africans and non-Africans worldwide are built; T’Challa’s new Wakanda is reaching out.
It’s been said before by men wiser than I: The American Christian has more in common with the African Christian than with the American who ignores God. This isn’t a call to ignore our neighbors; it’s a call to build bridges of evangelism to our neighbors, and to extend healing and empowerment to our brothers elsewhere.
T’Challa’s decision is a hard-won choice. He is always wrestling with his father’s tradition and his cousin’s innovation; his eventual middle ground is a third way which is not wholly like either. But his choice is not just a decision of philosophy or politics; when he decides to bring Wakanda out of hiding, it is a decision of identity. He’s chosen to be a different man than T’Chaka or Erik, and that identity is clear when he chooses to bring Ross back to Wakanda to heal him.
Much has been made about the fact that black men, women, and children have been empowered by the identity of this black superhero who is not only the lead, but also the brave, confident, wise ruler of a proud nation. Rightly so. So what can they teach us with this film?
First, King T’Challa of Wakanda is not only brave, confident, and wise; he’s also compassionate. He presents a great example to people with power and to those who have the gift of God’s grace within them.
In that way, seeing T’Challa is both like and unlike seeing Christ. We’re empowered by the example of Christ’s bravery, confidence, wisdom, and compassion – and not just the example, but the actual power He delegated; not in combat, but in His death. We’re empowered to be all of those things because He purchased them for us with riches greater than vibranium.
And second, the responsibility we hold as believers is great: to build bridges, not barriers; to heal, not harm; and to seek the good of the nations even as we call them to repentance as leaders. We don’t have this responsibility because we expect to get something from them; on the contrary, we have this responsibility because they can’t give us anything. The King of Wakanda reminds us of that duty from the beginning of the film to the end. And so does Paul, in his letter to Timothy:
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
–2 Timothy 1:8-14, ESV (emphasis added)
Guard your valuable deposits by sharing in suffering. Pursue life by the power of the Spirit. And don’t forget your duty to the world.
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