On the 28th of August 2020, the world was rocked by the news that Chadwick Boseman who played the role of the Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe had died of a silent struggle with bowel cancer.
The Black Panther was the highest earning superhero film of all time. This accomplishment was even more remarkable as he was the first African American film star to appear as the lead in a movie as well.
Why did the Black Panther resonate so much? There are several factors but none so powerful than the fact that for many Black, brown and minority groups, they could finally see themselves in their stories represented.
As I have viewed the outpouring of love for the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman I cannot but help reflect on my own context in ministry as a leader. Here are some of my most recent reflections on what the Black Panther, and representation, has taught me about Church Leadership.
If he can do it so can I
As a brown person in a predominantly white denomination I have often struggled to find leaders who look like me. Despite the fact that I grew up in South Auckland, the most Polynesian city in the world, those in positions of leadership were white. Pastors, Youth Leaders, those who led church from the front—they were all predominantly white.
In the sports world we see quota systems, and in New Zealand we have institutional level consultation with indigenous people.
In the church (and I am thinking specifically of my own denomination), we have statements of intent on a national level but an ecclesiology that gives autonomous control to these types of appointments. Meaning, we can “talk the talk” but it doesn’t guarantee we will “walk the walk”.
What the Black Panther teaches me is that we can legislate representation, however, unless we actively showcase and give airtime and resources to minority representation, then true transformation of hearts and minds will not occur.
Who is really the minority?
In 2017 I took a postgrad class in theology where we looked at biblical hermeneutics from the perspective of those in the Majority World/Two-Thirds World (commonly referred to, and problematically so—“the Third World”—a term that unfortunately implies inferiority).
Wakanda was conceptualised as a paradox—in the comics it is the most technologically advanced and richest nation in the world (with said technology used to “cloak” the nation in invisibility so that the outside world thinks it is simply another asset-poor African country which so happens to be closed off to visitors and known for the fact that they are simple farmers).
For Black Americans, as the comic was written for and to, this stood in stark contrast to their collective experience in the USA. This intentional juxtaposition saw Black Americans drawn to the character of the Black Panther and his representation of Black self-determination in a way no other white superhero could.
Finally little children could see themselves in the comics that they read.
Change is a coming?
This point builds on the last: as our world population grows and ages we will become more diverse—and our churches must reflect this reality too. The honest answer is that they probably won’t though.
A family friend researched his Masters thesis around the idea of finding what churches are ethnically multicultural rather than homogenous. His findings indicated that within his denomination by and large people stuck to those “who look like themselves”.
It’s human nature to group ourselves in communities with people alike us.
A biblical vision of the church however shows us that every tribe and tongue, majority and minority culture if you will, will be gathered around the lamb in worship. United as one, yet uniquely diverse (for example, they are still identified in tribes).
John’s Revelation paints a picture of the people of God that is multi-coloured and represented in all its diversity. Let us aspire to be people experiencing this now and (Wakanda) forever! Amen.
Caleb Haurua is a young dad, a NZ Warriors supporter, and Youth Pastor in Central Auckland. A proud Maori & Cook Island man, he gained his Masters in Applied Theology at Carey Baptist College and has been in ministry since 2017. He loves to openly muse about things in articles like this one.