Black Panther and Theology: Unity and Our Call to Face the World

By Stephanie Pacheco

[SPOILER ALERT]

As the characters of T’Challa’s Black Panther and Erik Stevens’s Killmonger, take their respective stances, the film personifies two major responses to the historical colonization of Africa: unity versus retribution. The film’s roaring success is in its championing of authentic unity, precisely as we are called to as Christians and as a Church, without demonizing the pain or personage of those who favor retribution stance. Through the history and character of Erik Stevens, we see a compassionate sketch of the pain’s source and his fierce quest for justice.

“We must find ways to look after each other as though we were one single tribe,” says King T’Challa, alias Black Panther, at the post-credits press conference where he announces that the secretly-advanced African nation of Wakanda will end its isolation and instead put its gifts of vibranium and technology at the services of the needy throughout the world.

Previously, T’Challa and his father, T’Chaka, had avoided the problems of the rest of the world, particularly the struggles of black folks, as Killmonger himself, the Marvel film’s antagonist, declares when he announces his agenda to spread Wakandan weapons in the fight for the liberation of “people who look like us” around the globe.

As T’Challa comes into his own as king and faces Killmonger, Black Panther shows us what authentic unity looks like: care for others paired with empathy and compassion to those who are estranged. It is a model for what the Church should be, workers of unity, equality and whole-hearted service.

In the John’s Gospel, Jesus calls all members of the Church to be as one and prays for this, saying:

The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23).

Christ’s call to unity brings all human persons into himself and therefore into the Father, as he is united with God the Father in the Trinity. By bringing the Church into himself as his mystical body, Jesus erases the divisions between peoples and enables us to love, work and worship together, loved by the Father.

He also gives those united to him one mission: to love all others as equal in value. The Greatest Commandment goes: “Love God with all your heart, all your strength and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). In directing us to love our neighbors as ourselves, Christ’s asks that we others as fully valuable as we are, as truly equal and not in competition with one another. Rather than warring clans or nations, we are meant to a single, tribe, to use T’Challa’s phrase.

In the beginning, however, T’Challa does not ascribe to this unity with other nations and peoples. He disagrees with his girlfriend Nakia who wants Wakanda to be more active with refugees and global human trafficking. He defends Wakandan isolationism against Killmonger, saying “Our weapons will not be used to wage war on the world. It is not our way to be judge, jury and executioner to people who are not our own.” T’Challa holds no animus against the outside world, but neither does he wish to help it or black folks specifically, that Killmonger mentions.

Stevens, nicknamed Killmonger, takes to neither unity nor isolationism, but righteous fury at the injustice in the treatment of black people, particularly in the death of his father.  Stevens’ backstory includes the former King, T’Chaka, killing Stevens’s father over the latter’s role in the theft of vibranium from Wakanda. Stevens’s father, like Stevens, was a proponent of the view that Wakandan vibranium ought to be distributed to people of color to assist them overthrowing their oppressors. Stevens tells T’Challa, “There are about two billion people in the world who look like us, but their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.” Having lost his own father for the protection of vibranium and having grown-up alone and facing racial injustice in America, Killmonger presents a compellingly sympathizable anti-hero.

There is a victory in Stevens’s own character because his personal story and struggle leap off the screen with emotional clout. For white folks, the sense of on-going racial inequality can be hard to understand. It’s easy to believe that because the laws no longer stigmatize people of color, that  everyone is suddenly equal. The reality is that a hundred years of slavery followed by discriminatory Jim Crow laws have simply left many black families at a social and economic disadvantage that cannot be legislated away by merely changing the words on the legal papers.

[One example would be the unofficial practice of declining people of color for home loans under Jim Crow. Such a practice had a ripple of effect of preventing people of color from owning homes in the same neighbors as white people and contributing to the formation of inner-city ghettos.] Social legacies like these, not to mention slavery itself, indeed cry out for justice. Personifying this reality in Killmonger makes his struggle and the struggle for justice face-smackingly understandable for just about any viewer. Rather than demonized, he is a vibrantly relatable character that elicits empathy for his loss and for his vision, a vision–that while violent, is so earnest that it divides Wakanda itself.

Ultimately, however, T’Challa prevails against Killmonger, and though he offers to save him, Killmonger makes a final demand of T’Challa: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” Killmonger takes his cause to the grave and grips the audience with his last line as viewers can’t help but feel for him and the true injustices that he strove to fight.

Killmonger’s dedication to his cause moves even T’Challa himself. When his throne is restored, Black Panther branches out from his father’s policy of isolation and sides with Nakia, who he then asks to be his queen, agreeing that the injustices faced by black folks are formidable and venturing to put the full heft of Wakanda’s resources towards helping them. He founds a center in America to start the work of aiding others, and finally, he proclaims the necessity of seeing others as “one, single tribe.”

With the unity of this call, T’Challa puts isolationism behind him. He abandons the idea that the problems of others are not his problem. Rather, global injustice does matter and because he has the power to do something about it, he must. The idea of unity shines especially in vision of peace that guides his response. In seeing that the problems of others matter, he is “loving them as himself,” as Jesus calls us to do. Neither does T’Challa separate himself from the enemies of the past. He works with America, personified in Agent Ross, whom Princess Shuri calls “colonizer,” at one point. Conversely, even in his defeat of Killmonger, T’Challa still aims to save him and bring him into the Wakandan fold. He does not desire to vanquish his opponent.

T’Challa’s work towards unity between people and nations that incarnates Jesus’s prayer that we be united as one. Jesus founded the Church to be one body, and called all of us to “love your enemies.” When we are united, there is no true enemy, we become free to work together and solve problems seeing all our problems as belonging to each of us, rather than to separate components. St. Paul says:

“The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” In fact, it is just the opposite. ….In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. (1 Cor. 12: 21, 22, 25, 26).

Each part of the body, each person, each nation matters. This is T’Challa’s closing message too.

In the Church, the work of unity and love belongs to all of us. It is specifically the role of the laity to bring temporal affairs in line with the Gospel and order them to God. Lumen Gentium, a document of the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council says:

“Moreover, by uniting their forces let the laity so remedy the institutions and conditions of the world when the latter are an inducement to sin, that these may be conformed to the norms of justice, favoring rather than hindering the practice of virtue. By so doing they will impregnate culture and human works with a moral value”(447).

It is precisely the call of the everyday members of the Church to bring a Christian consciousness into the world, to see the value in all humans as loved by God. We are not meant to separate, divide and fling mud. Even our “enemies” are to be loved.

If the modern world needs a demonstration of unity and fraternal love, Black Panther stands as a powerful cultural model. As Blank Panther, T’Challa is willing to turn around his father’s legacy; he unprecedently brings outsider Americans Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier, from Captain America: Civil War) and Agent Ross into Wakanda to heal them, he accepts Stevens’ challenge and strives to save him too after their clash, and finally, T’Challa reveals Wakanda to the world and starts work right in America, in the neighborhood where Stevens was from, where he lost his father. Born in Wakanda, he doesn’t inherit the racial struggles of African Americans. Nevertheless, he realizes that their struggles are his struggles–not someone else’s.

Treating those around us and in the world as “one, single tribe” is perhaps the best modern translation of unity, of what unity means in the Christian tradition. The sad part is that we don’t always or even often live up to Christ’s vision, and the examples of our failures are legion. Yet there is always the opportunity to leave our isolation behind and take a place in the tribe.

Stephanie Pacheco has an MA in Theological Studies from Christendom College’s Graduate School of Theology (2012); BA in Religious Studies, minor in Government from the University of Virginia (2008). She has written freelance since 2012, tutored 2017 and I’ll be teaching 5th grade at St. Thomas More School in Arlington in August. I’ve been published by America Magazine, Sojourners, Crisis Magazine, Ethika Politika, The Truth and Charity Forum of HLI, Soul Gardening Magazine and the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. Her articles have been syndicated by EWTN and Zenit. Check out her blog and her resume on LinkedIn here.

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