Ever since Christianity’s been a thing, we’ve struggled with what it means to live in the world, but not be of it. Like the people of Wakanda, we feel like we’ve been blessed with a pretty great thing. But we also worry that the treasure of our faith could be exploited or corrupted if the world gets its too much of its grubby little fingerprints on it. On the other hand, we’re also told to share this faith with the world. Oh, and we’re supposed to help folks not just spiritually, but in every which way they need it. Salt and light, the Bible tells us.
So, which way is right? Are we supposed to protect ourselves from the world to protect our faith? Or are we supposed to dive headlong into that world to share it? Maybe … both?
Christianity’s critics often point to when Christianity failed to be a light among nations, when it showed little truth or mercy. And let’s face it, there’s plenty to point to. Sometimes it’s retreated from the world—turning away from its problems, ignoring obvious evils it should’ve addressed. Other times, it gets a little too cozy with that world, and both the world and the Church paid a price. Look at what happened in 18th-century France, when the country’s church and monarchy habitually excused each other’s excesses and thus were seen by many as one and the same. “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest,” revolutionary philosopher Denis Diderot said in response, and even now France is one of Europe’s most secular countries.
Christianity is at its best when its leaders strike the right balance: The Apostle Pauls, the William Wilberforces, the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, the Martin Luther King Jr.’s. They plant their feet in the muck of the world, but they speak out against its ills and injustices, seemingly unafraid, and suggest there’s a better way forward. These leaders are never perfect, but they speak up, and that matters. When the Church actually stands for what the Church should stand for, I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful. Or, really, more powerful.
For me, T’Challa and his allies encourage me to do things a little differently (even if sometimes they choose different paths). When you watch the movie, you’ll notice that almost all of them—T’Challa, Nakia, Okoye (T’Challa’s skilled general) and N’Jobu (one of T’Challa’s fiercest rivals) face incredibly difficult choices.
But they don’t make those choices based on self-interest. They don’t choose based on what might be most expedient or most reasonable or safe. They choose based on what they feel is right—what they know is right. By definition, those are always the right choices to make.
That exhausting commitment to integrity is pretty remarkable, even in the world of superheroes. Wonder Woman and Captain America stand out because of their own clear commitments, even amongst their own kind. In Black Panther, righteousness is practically contagious.
T’Chaka is correct, of course. It’s hard to be a good man and be king, too. And frankly, it’s hard to be good even when you’re not. The right way to go doesn’t always feel like the smart way to go. Maybe it’s telling that three of the four Christian heroes I mentioned died for speaking out, and the fourth—William Wilberforce, England’s legendary anti-slavery advocate—was mocked for decades before his crusade ever bore fruit.
But those are the folks we remember today. Those we read and revere. Those who become, in a sense, real heroes.