Black Panther: From Suffering to Royalty
We. Are. Tired.
This is the cry of Black Americans in 2020. By all accounts, this year has been unfriendly and it seems like it has been particularly difficult for us. From COVID disproportionately affecting minority communities and Black bodies being murdered in the streets, to the reminders of the nation’s racial injustices that have been plaguing our country since the beginning. If that wasn’t enough, 2020 began with a punch to the gut when news hit that NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter were killed in a helicopter crash. It is still hard to believe that the Black Mamba is gone.
If for a second we thought this year couldn’t get any worse, we were all reminded that it certainly can and did. Late Friday night, news hit that prominent and gifted actor Chadwick Boseman died after a 4-year battle with colon cancer. Another hero, role model, and Black success story cut short due to another disease that is disproportionately affecting Black men. As Lebron James put it, “To lose the Black Panther and the Black Mamba in the same year, we can all agree that 2020 is the s–ttiest year.”
Black Pain and Suffering
These moments have brought into the light once again the reality of Black suffering. We all understand that everyone under the sun suffers. Jesus teaches us in Matthew 5:45 that rain falls on the just and unjust alike. Black suffering, however, raises some unique questions for us Black Christians. How do we make sense of so much suffering? Most importantly, what does God have to say about it? I think the answers to these questions can be found in the life of Chadwick Boseman and in the Scriptures.
What’s so remarkable about Chadwick Boseman is that even in the midst of his own private suffering and pain, he found the strength and perseverance to play several significant roles in major films over the past few years; the most popular one being “Black Panther.”
In many ways, Boseman wasn’t only depicting a superhero, but he lived like one. I can’t help but think that his decision to keep his cancer diagnosis and treatment private was to communicate something about Black suffering and Black royalty. His desire wasn’t to make pain and suffering his narrative, but rather purpose and triumph. A powerful element of “Black Panther” is that it breaks Black movie stereotypes. It shines a light on Black royalty rather than Black suffering, presenting main characters as kings and queens.
I recently shared with a friend that though Chadwick Boseman’s death is crushing, it is not defeating. Black suffering is real and must not be ignored but it isn’t the totality of our story. Chadwick’s suffering didn’t diminish his purpose but centralized it. He suffered quietly and with dignity, but his performance and role as Black Panther caused his royalty to shine brilliantly. The pain of his suffering fed into his Black excellence and heroic performance as Black Panther. In a 2018 speech he gave to Howard University’s graduating class, he eloquently and powerfully stated, “The struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.”
I write that quote with tears in my eyes. Suffering has been a struggle in our journey as a people, but it certainly isn’t our end. The life of Chadwick Boseman exemplifies this and testifies to the truth of the Scriptures that royalty will have the final say, not suffering.
One of the key texts in Scripture that helps us face and fight racial injustice is Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.” The theology of the image of God claims that all human beings were created with intrinsic worth, value, and purpose. In the very next verse, God commands humanity to be fruitful, to rule, and to have dominion over the earth. The Hebrew word for rule is radah which can be translated “reign” or “have dominion.”
This is kingship and kingdom language with a connection between image and rule. God is not only calling us to be worshippers but partners with him in ruling and reigning over the earth. We fight for dignity because we have purpose that is connected to our position, and Boseman’s life and acting displayed that so well.
Black Panther wasn’t simply a hero, but a King of a beautiful land. T’Challa was a representation of the imago Dei—a King who ruled with dignity. John Mark Comer writes, “All of us are made in the image of God. This is the democratization of humanity. We are all kings and queens, and the entire earth is our kingdom.” Anything short of this misses our role as image-bearers.
The Fight Continues
Injustice is so grievous because it not only robs us of the dignity we deserve, but it robs us of our God-given purpose to reign and rule as image-bearers. This may give us some insight into why the next generation is so attracted to our African heritage and royal background. This is why Beyonce can make an album and film called “Black is King” and be celebrated. There is something eternal about human dignity and our desire for royalty, beauty, and value. Deep down, we know that dehumanizing image-bearers contradicts God’s design for us.
Understandably, we must fight against the injustice against image-bearers because God does too. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus shows us that injustice and suffering won’t have the last word. The vindication and victory of Jesus will redeem our royal position in God’s Kingdom as rulers and partners with God. We must not forget that amid a painful year, Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father. He is inviting us to not only believe in him, but to reign with him. This is our inheritance.
1 Peter 2:9 says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
The life and death of Chadwick Boseman doesn’t reveal a story of Black suffering, but a story of victory and Kingdom royalty. In a year where it seems that Black suffering is on the front page of every news outlet, let us remember that though it is a part of our journey, it’s not the whole of our story.
As we think about Black suffering, how can the life of Chadwick Boseman inspire us towards Kingdom royalty and purpose? May the truth of the Scriptures and truth of the Gospel move us to fight against anything that would diminish our purpose of reigning with Christ.