Photo Credit: Marvel Studios
Growing up, I (like most American boys and girls) loved superheroes. Superman, Batman, the Flash — I could not get enough of them. I remember looking at X-Men comics and daydreaming about how fun it would be to have superpowers. How great would it be to have the powers of near invisibility, regeneration, adamantium claws, or super senses? I could be the best police officer, firefighter or soldier ever. I could use these powers to be a great football, baseball or rugby player.
Although my interest in superheroes has waned (even with the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), sometimes my mind still lingers on those daydreams, and I am tempted to read this same superhero daydream into my biblical studies. My flannelgraph Sunday school lesson didn’t help curb this tendency during my childhood either. My classmates and I heard stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, Judges and Kings, and our minds swirled with larger-than-life images of superheroes.
Then we meet Jesus, someone who doesn’t meet these same larger-than-life daydreams. He travels the region of Galilee — not the universe or even the whole world. He teaches that the poor (Luke 6:20) and the persecuted because of righteousness (Matthew 5:10) are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Persecuted? Can superheroes be persecuted? They seem too strong, brave and powerful. It doesn’t seem like people who lay their lives down without a fight — who condescend themselves and wash feet — fit into our superhero daydreams. But maybe we’re not looking at these biblical characters with the right framework. Maybe we need to change our definition of “hero.” There is at least one popular superhero who provides our daydreams with a more robust and biblical image of “hero.”
The recently released “Black Panther” is “the biggest comic book superhero movie ever in North America,” according to Forbes magazine (fmchr.ch/forbesbp). The movie proves that not only can African-American filmmakers produce a mainstream success, but that strength can come from places and communities that have been mistreated. One of the most interesting aspects of the superhero Black Panther is his suit – the Panther Habit. It is jet black with silver accents, a mask designed like a panther’s head, and razor-sharp claws on the fingers. The suit is an intimidating sight. It is made from a fictional material called vibranium, which is found in the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda (Black Panther’s home). Vibranium is an amazing miracle of nature. It is flexible and nearly indestructible. When it is woven and made into the Panther Habit (Black Panther’s suit), it has properties that allow it to absorb kinetic energy (like a punch or a bullet) and then, on command, release this energy (which is bad news for bad guys). Shuri, Black Panther’s sister and a promising Wakandan scientist, said it like this, “The nanites [the microscopic vibranium threads] absorb the kinetic energy and hold it in place for redistribution.”
This means that the weave of the suit acts like a spring, holding all the energy that hits it and then using the same energy to strike the wearer’s opponents. The suit may serve as a metaphor for African-American communities. From mistreatment, persecution and unfair legislation, communities have raised themselves up to change legislation and enact culture change.
This is not just cultural, racial or political. This concept of using an opponent’s aggression as the source of power is weaved into the biblical narrative. Joseph’s mistreatment by his brothers (Genesis 37) became the way that God would save the family of Jacob and, by extension, the Israelites. Pharaoh’s greed and hard-heartedness toward the Israelites became the environment through which Moses was brought up and called to free Israel and lead them toward the Promised Land. Out of the exile and Jewish diaspora, God promised not only the Holy Spirit to guide and teach the Jewish people (Ezekiel 36:26–27) but also promised a new leader, savior and king (Daniel 7:13–14, Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 9:1–2). This was brought to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ, who was beaten and murdered as a sacrifice for us. Through that sacrificial death, Jesus was brought back and re-established on the throne in the resurrection.
Without the cross, the resurrection is not possible. In the same way, victory in our own lives comes through suffering of various kinds. Paul says it like this: “Now I’m happy to be suffering for you. I’m completing what is missing from Christ’s sufferings with my own body. I’m doing this for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24 CEB). When we suffer, we take part in the same pain, the same sadness, the same suffering of Jesus, and the same suffering that God experiences when humans sin.
But after crucifixion comes resurrection. In the resurrection, Jesus received authority and inheritance of the kingdom. This kind of suffering (for others and for righteousness) does not empower us to end our own suffering, but it empowers us to help heal the suffering of others. This can come through an empathetic word or an appropriately timed encouragement (or challenge) that can help others through their own suffering. We are more equipped because we ourselves suffered. This is why Paul can say, “I’m happy to be suffering for you.” When we suffer for others, we absorb the pain, and it is turned into expressions of love and ministry by the Holy Spirit. Like Black Panther, we can take the energy of our suffering and use it to save others. We take on suffering in order to gain authority and inherit the kingdom.
Erik Anderson is a Free Methodist elder serving as a discipleship pastor in Illinois. He is a Central Christian College of Kansas alumnus.