More than just the latest in a slew of comic book movies, Black Panther reveals the state of the country’s current climate on race relations – and gives clues as to how Christians can effectively communicate God’s grace in the midst of it.
Warning: Severe spoilers for Black Panther follow.
A new favorite film of the socially progressive, the film has been garnering praise from many cultural voices, not just because it’s a good film, but because of representation – it’s the first widely successful black superhero film, and engages many themes relating to race and prejudice.
In simple terms, T’Challa is the warrior-king of the highly advanced African nation of Wakanda. They hide in secret, allowing the world to believe they are a poor third-world country, incapable of giving the world any aid. The film’s villain, Killmonger, wants to bring the power of Wakanda to oppressed black people through weapons distribution. The central argument between the two characters is one of isolationism versus radicalism, and where in between the truth lies.
The film’s themes are distinctly political. Our villain is motivated by racist oppression, and our hero is the king of an African nation. The film ends in a press conference, surrounded by politicians, with T’Challa rejecting isolationism and embracing resolution. This is meant both to curb the isolationist foreign policy that was associated with Donald Trump’s candidacy, and to reject the more radical notions of some race-relations activists. In its best moments, the film is more political thriller than high-stakes action flick.
Black Panther is a product of the culture, and reflects its evaluation of race relations: that we are not living in a post-racism society, that it is tempting to turn to violence in response, and that the de facto answers are political.
This is where the Christian response comes in. First, Christians must take seriously the fact that we are not living in a post-racism society. The fact that Jim Crow laws are no longer present does not eliminate racism any more than the death of Hitler erased anti-semitism. While we can and should thank God that institutional slavery is no longer present in America, we should also be actively seeking to correct injustice wherever we can. At times, Christians have become so entrenched in partisan politics that we have neglected even to show compassion to marginalized groups. Jesus himself was especially careful to show compassion to marginalized groups such as tax collectors and Samaritans, and Christians ought to take special care to do the same. We must always affirm compassion for the neglected and mistreated.
Second, the temptation to violence is one that must be met with strong and severe opposition. The film does this quite well, taking a villain with an understandable core motivation, but a vile and wretched response. When emphasizing compassion to marginalized groups – and drawing a connection between the that compassion and the life of Christ – it’s also important to adopt an ethic that rejects violence, and emphasizes trust in a greater power.
But finally, and most importantly, we must stop putting so much faith in politics. Granted, Christians should sometimes support political changes. Every Christian ought to rejoice at the eradication of Jim Crowe. But manmade political systems are insufficient to solve spiritual sickness. We ought to look to the spiritual brokenness that leads to our social problems – the hate that leads to racism, the greed that leads to political corruption, the violence that leads to broken homes. These are wounds only God can heal.
Black Panther is a valuable conversation-starter when it comes to race relations. There is a danger, however, that politically-minded Christians will allow these conversations to devolve into political debates. A more productive course of action is to make it theological – how can we turn to God and heal these wounds? That is a far more productive discussion and, dare I say it, a more Christian one as well.
Like in Black Panther, racism has been a big problem worldwide. What do you think is the reason people are like that? How do we change those people?
We know at our core that racism is wrong. Where do you think that sense comes from?
T’Challa wants to solve racism through peaceful means, and Killmonger wants to do it with violence. Why is one wrong and the other right?
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author with a Batman complex. At A Clear Lens, he focuses on worldview analysis and pop culture, as well as co-hosting the A Clear Lens Podcast. In addition to his work on the ACL website and podcast, he is also the founder of Cross Culture, the host of the Cross Culture Podcast, and the author of three novels. He tweets @loganrjudy about writing, apologetics, entertainment, parenting, and Batman.