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Black Panther, Power, and Love

By Rev. Ryan Dunn

Ryan Coogler's blockbuster movie, "Black Panther," exemplifies Martin Luther King Jr's expressed need to find a balance between power and love. Both the movie and the writings of Dr. King wrestle with how power and love connect to deliver justice.

In Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. King wrote:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

Coogler's "Black Panther" personifies the polarized abuse of power and the paralyzation of sentimentality in the conflict between main characters. On one hand is the villain, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Killmonger is the kind of villain who truly unsettles: Under different circumstances many of us might actually agree with his somewhat noble goals. He wants to empower the oppressed (himself among them), but his means are cruel as he ultimately calls for the exercise of power without love.

Standing in opposition is T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther. T'Challa is a super-powered crime fighter, he is also the king of Wakanda — a technologically advanced African nation. The people of Wakanda hide their vast resources and advanced technology from the rest of the world. They are aware that their assistance could provide a lot of good worldwide, but they are afraid of the implications of sharing their technologic resources. Wakandans may be concerned for their worldwide neighbors, but their unwillingness to utilize or display their power leaves their love anemic to the point of impotence.

There is a lot of inspiration to be found in the story of Wakanda, however. The nation does not need to bend to whiteness in order to offer something to the world. It has real, authentic power. This story is refreshing because, as it applies to people of color, their success is not tied to overcoming suffering. Rather it is tied to achievement.

But what have Wakanda's achievements really meant? While Wakandans enjoy comfortable living, people of color outside Wakanda endure oppression. This inequality inspires Killmonger's attempt to seize control of Wakanda and bring the nation's power to bear on the rest of the world. Wakanda has become the living the example of American civil rights activist Derrick Bell's observation: "We have made progress in everything yet nothing has changed." Killmonger wants to bring about change.

There exists a third way: a way in between Killmonger's recklessness and T'Challa's anemia. In "Black Panther," the third way is represented by Nakia, T'Challa's love interest and a Wakandan spy. When we first meet Nakia, she tells T'Challa she is uncomfortable with Wakanda's comfort while there are so many who are sick and starve. Nakia suggests Wakanda reveal its technology as a means for uplifting the poor and downtrodden. She longs to see Wakanda's power used to empower the powerless through loving actions.

At its best, is this not what faith should do? Rather than being a means through which those with power exert control over those without… Or being an institution so accommodating that it fails to take a stand against injustice… Faith well-lived seeks to correct what stands against love. Faith reminds us that we are, in fact, in life together. We are community. We are responsible for each other.

Killmonger is misguided in his efforts to violently uplift the oppressed because his way will not lead to peace. He misses the wisdom witnessed in someone like Mother Teresa: "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."

"Black Panther" closes with this thought in mind, as a key character offers: "We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe."

In real life, it is challenging to identify areas where these values are being lived out, where power is balanced with love. It's one of the reasons Rethink Church exists: to offer up stories of belonging and to provide expressions of empowerment through love while challenging the Church to consider how we meet those "on the outside." "Black Panther" offers a challenge to communities of faith to rise in care and empowering love for those who are not already a part of their "tribes." In so doing, it issues a challenge for all of us to consider the power we wield in our own lives and how we use it to express love to others.

Ryan Dunn is the author. He serves as the Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church and is based in Nashville, TN.

[Posted February 23, 2018]