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The Power of Humility Grounded in Dignity: A Lesson from Black Panther
Posted 03/07/2018 12:00PM

Sermon Wednesday March 7, 2017

Philippians 2:1-11

I recently had a life changing experience...I saw Black Panther. But more about that later.

While I was studying theology at Duke I took a class on Howard Thurman, one of the most important voices in the Christian church during the civil rights movement. After making pilgrimage to India and meeting Gandhi, Thurman combined Gandhi's nonviolent resistance tactics with Christian theology. He did this in such a way that religious leaders saw a clearer path forward in advocating for racial justice in this country.

It was in this class that I first realized that it is not enough to read the Bible by myself. To understand God and what God desires for this world, we need the voices and perspectives of people different from us. Philippians 2 is the passage that changed my heart and my understanding of the importance of different perspectives. It all began in my class on Howard Thurman, while reading Philippians 2 with my friend Camille. Camille was completing a dual degree in theology and law at Duke; She was already ordained in the AME Zion church, and I was intimidated by her intellect and accomplishments. Camille had lived a very different life from me. She grew up in Brooklyn, while I grew up in southern Alabama. She faced the hard realities of coming of age as a young African American woman in the city. My own coming of age was rather uneventful.

We were discussing the dangerous ways in which Philippians 2 was used to endorse slavery. This passage on the importance of humility was used by slaveholders to preach the glory of enslavement, saying that Jesus himself took "the form of a slave."[1] But the truth that Camille understood and pointed out to me is this: Jesus knew himself as one grounded in certainty of love and being loved, of knowing God's purposes for himself and humankind, and of his own worth and dignity. The humility described in Philippians 2 is a choice. It is a choice to humble one's self while grounded in the knowledge of one's dignity. It's a choice to serve others knowing that one's own life means something.

Slaves brought to the United States who were bought and sold as livestock, whose families were broken up to make a profit, and who were treated as being naturally less human and therefore worthy of slavery did not have a choice. People enslaved and preached at using Philippians 2 to justify their treatment had no choice in humility. Their dignity and personhood had been violently ripped from them. The true humility embodied in Jesus, and the call to be humble first require being grounded in the knowledge that you have inherent value and purpose as a human being.

And this is where Black Panther[2] becomes important. I believe that the mission of our school at its best mimics some of the key themes and values found in Black Panther. Three themes from this film especially stand out as things we as a community must strive for: humility, diversity, and restoration of dignity.

The Black Panther is the royal leader of Wakanda, a fictional nation of five tribes in the heart of Africa. Wakanda is the richest and most technologically-advanced nation on earth. But to protect themselves, Wakanda has hidden its advantages to deter colonizers. To the outside world, Wakanda looks like an insignificant, impoverished country.

The Black Panther, T'Challa, is empowered by the Panther's spirit, a Goddess called Bast. T'Challa is a fantastic mirror to the humility of Jesus described in Philippians 2. He understands that his rule depends on earning the love and trust of his people, and by serving and protecting them from outside harm. T'Challa is granted superhuman power from the Goddess, but he does not allow this power to go to his head. He never allows arrogance or love of title and privilege interfere with his purpose and serving his people. Grounded in his identity and purpose, T'Challa is able to be the king Wakanda needs when under threat.

The humility modeled in Jesus and mirrored in T'Challa is what we strive to cultivate here at SAS. To be humble means to know fully who you are (with all your goodness and flaws) and to see your own key role in working for the good of the community and the world.

A second theme beautifully portrayed in Black Panther is the strength and value of diversity. The vibrant society of Wakanda does not insist on everyone being the same, dressing the same way, or even being members of the same tribe. The five major tribes of Wakanda[3] are all essential and all offer critical counsel to their king. We learn that the strongest, richest community will be one which honors the unique perspectives and gifts of the many.

As an Episcopal school, we believe that God is honored in the diversity of languages, cultures, and traditions.[4] It is the very differences that delight God. At our best, we at SAS promote the importance of differing perspectives, because in so doing we better understand the world, God, and ourselves and will more fully understand how God is calling us to serve the world.

Finally, the most inspiring theme of Black Panther is the restoration of dignity. The nation of Wakanda stands as a beacon of hope, a vision of what it would look like to restore the dignity of African nations who have been stripped by colonization and enslavement. In Wakanda, the people, land, and economy have been protected from the brutality of slave trade. By this protection they have been able to flourish and progress in art, science, and technology.

One especially commendable aspect of Wakanda's social structure is its treatment of women. Each female lead in the film is valued for her intellect, skill, and prowess. T'Challa's sister Shuri is the mastermind behind the technological innovations of Wakanda. She is responsible for the high tech Black Panther armor, incredible weapons, medicine, and surveillance that make the Black Panther's missions possible. Shuri is also responsible for healing technologies and medicine to bind up the wounded. The fierce women of the Dora Millaje, the royal guard of Wakanda, dedicate their lives to protect the nation. Using advanced martial arts, they fight as a single unit to defeat their enemies. These women are entrusted to be bodyguards for the Black Panther, and these women alone possess the stamina, intelligence, and instinct to reach the highest warrior potential.

The restoration of dignity by striving for justice is at the heart of the mission of the Episcopal church, and of our school. Each time a church member is baptized, she is asked: "Will you strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being?"[5] In this way, the Episcopal church lifts the restoration of dignity up as central to our roles as followers of Jesus.

Grounded in humility, how will you make room for and promote the diversity that God longs for?

Knowing your own dignity, how will you work to restore the dignity to those who've been stripped of the knowledge of their worth?



[1] Philippians 2:7, NRSV.

[2] Black Panther. Dir. Ryan Coogler. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2018.

[3]Karama Horne, "Everything you need to know about the tribes of Black Panther's Wakanda," SyFy Wire, 19 February 2018, http://www.syfy.com/syfywire/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-tribes-of-black-panthers-wakanda.

[4] "For the Diversity of Races and Cultures," Book of Common Prayer, p. 840.

[5] "The Baptismal Covenant," Book of Common Prayer, p. 305.

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