This article will contain spoilers for Black Panther Wakanda Forever
Can we be honest for a moment and acknowledge a part of the Bible reading that we skip past? How many of us have actually cared enough to read Matthew 1? A list of names doesn’t exactly make for the most interesting reading material. Why should we care whose dad is whose? In this book full of truth, power, and teachable moments, it would seem like a strange choice to kick off the New Testament with a list of names.
And yet, the Bible, at it’s most pure form, is a collection of family stories. It’s a testament of lineage after lineage that are being born out of the origin story of the triune God. The recent Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, Black Panther Wakanda Forever, deals with a similar revelation: there is power in the family that came before us.
A Mournful Opening
With the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman, the original Black Panther of the MCU, the world has been waiting with bated breath for the next film in the series. Would Marvel create a fully CGI deepfake T’challa (Boseman) to provide a transition in the movie? Would Shuri, T’challa’s little sister, take up the mantle?
The film gave us our answer quickly, opening the film with Shuri frantically trying to create a synthetic heart-shaped herb in order to save her brother from the operating room floor. She fails and T’challa is pronounced dead in-universe before the iconic Marvel stinger arrives onscreen.
The Next In Line
The events of the film continue to progress until Shuri eventually is faced with the challenge of being forced to take up the mantle of the Black Panther against her better interests. Without diving too deep into the details, the path to become a Black Panther is to be of the lineage of the original Panther, to consume a tea made of the heart-shaped herb, and to access the Ancestral Plane to bond with a former Panther.
Shuri is able to create the heart-shaped herb at last and takes the tea in order to awaken the power within her lineage. She goes to the Ancestral Plane, but it looks different than when audiences saw T’challa access it in the prior film. Shuri is a self-avowed atheist and prefers her knowledge and technology over familial bonds. The Ancestral Plane reflects this, taking place in the space above her laboratory.
She explores a bit and discovers that the ancestor she has bonded to isn’t her brother… instead she has been linked to the villainous Killmonger (the antagonist from the first film). Killmonger explains that he is the ancestor she relates most to due to her reason for wanting the power of the Panther being one of revenge.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
This scene in the film has me reflecting on the history that has come before us in the Christian tradition. We’ve been privy to things that we shouldn’t take pride in. We’ve caused harm. Often it takes root in just a few bad actors, but the Church itself has also been the perpetrator of these heinous acts.
We would be remiss if we didn’t read those names in Matthew 1. There is power in the history of our great lineage. These names were picked by the gospel writer for a reason. The names included and those omitted were intentional for the story being told. This is because our ancestry does indeed tell a story.
We would be equally remiss if we didn’t continue that lineage into the present age. In the Methodist tradition, we have inherited fa tool known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral for scriptural analysis and holy living. The four parts are: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience, with more credence often being give to Scripture.
Note that one of these parts of the puzzle is tradition.
When we analyze and understand theological matters, we are tasked to consider the historical tradition that has come before our time: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we consider what antiracism looks like in the Church, we must consider our complicity in oppression, our recent role in the Civil Rights movement and our historical involvement in the slave trade and scriptural arguments in favor of it. Avoiding our dirty laundry prolongs the inevitable confrontation with our ugliest ancestors.
What I appreciate most in the way that Black Panther Wakanda Forever handled this conundrum was not allowing Shuri an easy way out. To the bitter end of the film, Shuri remains in conflict with that part of her ancestry obsessed with revenge and anger. She doesn't return to the Ancestral Plane and see her brother and then everything is resolved. Instead, she has to do the hard work of facing the pressing issue herself while considering where the past has gone before her.
Shuri is able to engage with the tradition of the past. She doesn't embrace the past transgressions nor does she outright reject them. By allowing processing to occur, she is able to move into a new place staking her own position in the history of the family.
This decision by the script writer to use the ugly past to work through the conflicted present provides a helpful framework for our own lives.
Even though we aren't able to metaversally interact with our ancestors via a heart-shaped herb, we are able to read the tougher parts of our history.
We are able to wrestle with those names of the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew.
We are able to wrestle with the challenges of the Old Testament.
We are able to wrestle with the mistakes of the early church.
We wrestle with the apathy and ignorance of our recent past.
As we continue to move forward in our lives, let us not shy away from tough conversations or reflections of a shattered past. Let us not embrace it foolishly either. Instead, may we engage the past and find the best bits to move tradition forward with discernment.