“Black Panther” and the church’s origin story

Guest commentary by Samuel Son

The film “Black Panther” opened to record-breaking presales, new-iPhone-release lengthed queues and packed theaters thick with an air of excitement any moviegoer could run her fingers through. A romping Marvel superhero flick through and through — there is an armored rhino that comes to a complete halt to give a doggy-lick, which also serves as a political and social statement by shattering the racially-biased Hollywood myth that an all-black-cast movie cannot be a global blockbuster. Whites, it seems, are not the only stand-ins for the universal human drama.

The success of “Black Panter” serves notice to Hollywood’s execs and their default stance of making movies catering to racial prejudices. The game has changed. But the notice has also been served to all industries and institutions, including the church. In a post-Black Panther movie era, white churches and white denominations appear quaint and increasingly irrelevant.

American churches are now faced with the morality of their segregated congregations. White churches staying white no longer has the illusion of the force of habit. Staying monocultural has never been merely a preference of comfort, but a protection of white supremacy. We did not end up separated by natural affection but by decisions to protect our privileges. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. and his friends went to worship at Birmingham Gospel Tabernacle. They were met by deacons who formed a line at the entrance and tapped their fingers on the pistols in their holsters. Such willful actions segregated Sundays then, but our churches remain more segregated than we care to admit now.

So it will take equally willful decisions for us to undo those rejections. Churches have to make drastic and dramatic decisions for diversity. Decisions to conduct a worship service of repentance where the sin of racism in named: racism not just in our country, our city and our denominations, but racism in our own congregations. Then, open every part of our worship service to different cultures so our words of “welcome” in the bulletins will be supported.

How about this? A megachurch calls an African-American as their new senior pastor. That would be a blockbuster.

Producing “Black Panther” was a bold decision by Disney to embrace representation in its movies. The $235 million dollar opening weekend has made that decision into a sound business decision. But this is the certainty of the Monday morning quarterback: The decision was fraught with risk. It was a risk they took for moral reasons, prodded by the #oscarsowhite movement. But it was also a financial decision. Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations, an entertainment research firm, says that the precipitous drop of theaters of 6 percent in 2017, hitting a 22-year low, meant “Hollywood can no longer afford to take any moviegoer for granted … causing them to look at underserved groups where there is pent-up demand, and the black audience is one.” The winds of financial need and moral impetus blew in the same direction.

White churches face the same weather. The white American church is dying. Many immigrants are Christians looking for a home church. If we stay white, not only are we going to become irrelevant, but continue closing church doors. A diverse church is not just the right thing to do, but perhaps the only decision left for us.

The “Black Panther” movie’s success has another lesson for us church folks. The movie has become more than just a movie, it’s become a rallying cry for justice and equal representation. Its message contrasts the current racial tension simply by being faithful to its original material: a black king and an African nation as the most advanced civilization on earth.

If the church dares to embrace the badass decision for intercultural congregations, it already has everything needed to make that happen. The church only needs to be faithful to its source material. Do you remember the origin story of the church? The tongued-fire of the Spirit gifting supernatural powers? Powerful apostles – men and women, young and old, masters and slaves – proclaiming the gospel, regardless of threats from authorities? People from all corners of the earth hearing the same message, but understanding it in their heart-language? 3,000 getting baptized? All because superhero Jesus defeated death and now lives in a new form in their assembly, which we have come to call the church, the body of Christ.

SAMUEL SON works in the area of diversity and reconciliation for the PC(USA). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.