Marvel’s Black Panther movie portrays the interesting idea of an African society largely untouched by European colonialism. Introduced to comic-book readers in the 1960s amidst European decolonisation and the US civil rights movement, the fictional Kingdom of Wakanda’s success in resisting forces that would exploit its people and resources was compelling. Movie goers today, when popular depictions portray a war-torn and poverty-stricken continent, find the portrayal of a free African society at the forefront of technological advancement no less compelling. As a scholar of African Christianity and colonialism, the idea of Christianity in this African culture unaffected by colonial influences intrigues me. What would such a Christianity look like?
The character of Wakandan Christianity depends in large measure on how Christianity was introduced into the country. Assumptions that Christianity could only have been introduced by missionaries accompanying European colonisers ignore the history of several real-life African Christianities. Egyptian and Ethiopian Christianity, for example, go back as far as the Bible itself. Matthew 2 recounts the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and Acts 8 tells of Philip teaching and baptising an Ethiopian eunuch who then returns home.
Ethiopia provides a convenient base for the faith to spread to Wakanda, which in the Marvel movies lies to the southwest of Ethiopia, bordering Kenya and South Sudan. Despite the New Testament story of the eunuch, tradition holds that Ethiopian Christianity took root when a Tyrian man, Frumentius, was shipwrecked there in the fourth century. Frumentius was appointed bishop of Ethiopia by Athanasius, the patriarch of Alexandria, in Egypt. Alexandrian patriarchs continued to appoint heads of the Ethiopian church until 1959, exerting a Coptic influence on the Ethiopian church. Egypt’s and Ethiopia’s influences would likely have persisted and manifested in Wakandan Christianity even after Wakanda began isolating itself from the rest of the world. An Egyptian/Ethiopian-based Christianity would differ considerably from Western expressions of the faith that would have come from European missionaries. Theology and worship in Wakanda would look more like Alexandria or Addis Ababa than any of the Western churches.
A second possibility for Christianity’s introduction into Wakanda arises from the country’s founding myth, relayed at the beginning of the movie. Wakanda, we are told, was peopled by five distinct groups and remnants of their different cultures are apparent in Wakanda throughout the movie. Costume designer Ruth Carter has identified inspiration from across the continent, adapting elements from unrelated peoples living hundreds or thousands of miles apart.1 These various groups, possibly fleeing drought, European colonialism, or Muslim expansion elsewhere, may have brought a variety of Christianities with them. Apparent ongoing cultural differences in Wakanda’s tribes hint that the different Christianities likely did not coalesce into a single Wakandan Christianity but remained separate manifestations, retaining the distinctive characteristics of their parent churches.
What role does the church play in Wakandan society? For all its technological advancement, Wakanda is not an unqualified utopia. Petty crime is apparent in graffiti that can be seen in the city. Tribal tensions manifest in the country’s politics, notably in the leadership succession. Realising the Pauline ideal that there be ‘neither Jew nor Greek’ (Gal. 3:28) is still a work in progress in the larger society, if not in the church. Wakanda’s prosperity raises questions about its responsibility to help the downtrodden and oppressed in Africa around the world. These questions play a major role in the movie’s plot and battle for Wakandans’ attention. But, by all indications, Wakanda’s Christian community is small and possibly underground. The state religion, at least the civil religion, is based on various animal cults, dominated by that of the Black Panther. Without a public role for the church, individuals are left to inject a Christian influence in society on their own, perhaps furtively.
The fictional Wakanda presents some interesting issues for real–world consideration. The connection between Christianity and Western colonialism in Africa has been debated for a long time. But the two are not inevitably connected. Christianity’s introduction into some real African societies was not at the hands of European agents. Nor have European agents been entirely responsible for the development of distinctively African theologies and practices. Christianity’s presence in African societies independent of Western colonialism is actually more realistic than Wakanda itself.
- Tanisha C. Ford, ‘Why Fashion Is Key to Understanding the World of Black Panther’, The Atlantic, 15 February 2018. ↩