Wakanda Forever: Part 6 – Ancestor Worship and the Bible
The #BlackPanther movie showcased the spirituality of the people of Wakanda. I believe this aspect of the story shows how important it is to remember that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. No one is a “self-made” person. We all have a past which stretches back to our ancestors and we should honor their legacy. However, honoring those who came before us and worshipping them are two different things altogether.
A DIFFERENT LENS
As a Christian watching Black Panther, ancestor worship was a point of contention for me. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I rely on the Bible as the final authority about the nature of physical and spiritual reality. It is the “lens” through which I try to view the world. The teachings of Jesus Christ (who-as an aside- is not white) is of the utmost importance to me. So, I hold to be true what the Scriptures say about life (how we are to live) and death (what happens after our earthly life is over).
I understand, we all have our own worldview about life and death. And I do understand that even though this film is in fact fiction, it is presenting a belief that is held by many cultures around the world. By no means am I trying to disparage another person’s belief. I am simply sharing my thoughts about an aspect of the film which moved me. So, please, allow me to share nine observations on similarities and differences between the spirituality of #BlackPanther and the Bible:
*Observation One: There’s more to life than just the physical. Wakanda is more technologically advanced than any other country in the world. Even with that being the case, the Wakandans do not live as if science and technology can explain all there is to existence. Here, both the spirituality of Black Panther and the Bible agree. While part of who we are is made up of physical matter and can be experienced by our senses (what we can see, hear, taste, touch and feel), our physicality does not encompass all that we are as human beings. There is an immaterial essence to us… something that is not quantifiable by scientific experiments in a test tube. And there is an invisible, immaterial essence to the universe itself. Not only that, this Ultimate Reality has an impact on how we experience life on earth in the here and now.
To live as if the physical is all there is, is to be limited to merely physical resources of our own intellect and making. Yet, to be open to Providence is to recognize that we need grace and a Source to rely upon in times of need when situations completely overwhelm our physical capability.
Where the spirituality of Black Panther and the Bible disagree is on the nature of this Source. In the world of Black Panther, its the ancestors and their animal goddess/god. In the Bible, it’s God, the Creator of all things who sees all, knows all and is all powerful.
*Observation Two: When you die, your spirit goes somewhere. Some people believe that once you die – that’s it. There is no afterlife. You are as they say, “dead as a doornail.” Both Black Panther and the Bible agree that the human spirit lives on. Where they differ is on the nature of that existence.
The spirituality in Black Panther is rooted in the natural world. The Ancestral Plane is linked to earth and you can interact with your ancestors. The spirituality in the Bible goes beyond the natural world. The spiritual activity on earth isn’t facilitated by our ancestors, but by God’s Spirit, angels and demonic forces. When a person dies, their soul no longer has connection to the physical world.
*Observation Three: There is a notion of judgement in the afterlife. In the Spirituality of Black Panther there is a notion of judgement as far as it relates to a sense of isolation. Prince N’Jobu (Erik Killmonger’s father) is in the Ancestral Plane, but not in the same area as his brother, King T’Chaka (T’Challa’s father) and the rest of the Wakandan ancestors. It seems since he betrayed his people while still alive, he has been isolated from them even in the afterlife.
The spirituality in the Bible also speaks of isolation. However, this is an isolation from God and community which also has a very real aspect of suffering associated with it. This realm is called Hell. Even for those who think “Hell will be one big party” will discover, according to the Bible, that it is a place of torment and great isolation. Ultimately, if we choose to live life isolated from God (refusing to receive his Son, Jesus Christ, as our Lord and Savior) then we will live apart from God in the afterlife. And that separated existence will be dreadful for all eternity.
*Observation Four: There is a sense of community in the afterlife. Both the spirituality of Black Panther and the Bible can agree on this point. There was a sense of fellowship in the imagery of the black panthers sitting on the great tree in the Ancestral Plane when T’Challa first arrived. And then later when T’Challa was being welcomed by his father to take his place among his ancestors (even though he chose not to stay). To know that we, as beings who enjoy fellowship, will continue to enjoy fellowship in the afterlife is a wonderful thing!
However, the Bible states that this community of fellowship (which will be greater than anything we’ve experienced while alive on earth) is only associated with those who have chosen to become part of God’s community/family, through Jesus Christ.
*Observation Five: There are answers in the afterlife. I almost had to fight back tears as T’Challa and Erik were able to reconnect with their fathers in the Ancestral Plane. They were able to get some sense of closure and answers to questions that have plagued them.
How many of us struggle with situations that we may never get answers about on this side of eternity? Why did certain things happen? Why did this or that tragedy happen? Why did they happen to us or someone we loved dearly? Why do the wicked always seem to prosper, while those who are trying to live right always seem to suffer? Why did our parents or another relative treat us a certain way?
Some of us become depressed and pull away from living life because we have questions for which there seem to be no answers. The spirituality of Black Panther, makes it somewhat easy to gain answers… just find a way to talk with your ancestors. Oh, if it were that simple!
However, the Bible shares that when we need answers, we are to seek God who is the Creator of all things and who knows all things. There are times when God will choose to reveal and other times when God chooses to withhold information. But God promises in Romans 8 that all things work out for the good of those who love him. And there will come a day when all that has been hidden will be made known. Then, we will finally get the answers to those questions which burned in our hearts.
*Observation Six: A death to self leads to life. In Black Panther, we see the times when T’Challa and Erik drank from the heart-shaped herb to receive the power of the Black Panther. Then they were buried in the dirt (one time in snow for T’Challa when he was physically near death.) This burial process metaphorically speaks to a death to oneself and a connecting with the natural elements. Then rising out of the dirt after returning from the Ancestral Plane symbolizes their rebirth into a new life with strength and kingly authority.
In the Bible, the death/rebirth motif is seen in water baptism. Water baptism was used to show repentance to God for the sins committed by the person being baptized. When Jesus Christ was 30, he set the example for all who would believe and trust in him by being baptized. Due to his miraculous virgin birth, he himself was sinless. This is why he was declared to be, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
When someone places their faith in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross for forgiveness of their sins, they are then baptized in water. This is a way of identifying with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. Going down in the water represents being dead to the world with Christ. Being under the water represents being buried with Christ. Rising out of the water represents having been given a new life in and through Christ. It is a way of saying to others, “I have died to myself that I might receive the abundant life Christ has to offer anyone who would believe in him.”
And Jesus says, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” [Mark 8:35]
*Observation Seven: Black Panther’s spirituality presents a pantheistic worldview. Though the people of Wakanda and the Jabari are essentially of one blood, they worship two separate gods. The Wakandans worship the Panther Goddess, Bast. The Jabari worship the Gorilla God, Hanuman. In a pantheistic worldview, a multiplicity of gods can exist – often limited by a particular geographic locality or which can be carried and invoked by a particular sacred object. The Wakandans and Jabari have chosen to worship the creation rather than the Creator. [Romans 1: 20-25]
In the Bible, a monotheistic worldview is juxtaposed against the pantheistic one. The God of all creation reveals himself to humanity as the One True God who is not limited by time and space. All other deities are in fact idols made by human hands (with no real power) or demonic entities. God’s jealousy comes from the fact that according to the Bible, humanity is being deceived by darkness into creating false gods and worshiping creation or demonic powers instead of worshipping God almighty.
There are those who believe multiple paths to God exist and God is called by many names because there are so many cultures on the planet. They believe if we live a good moral life, we can believe whatever we want and still be received by God. However, this is not what a monotheistic worldview espouses. The Bible states that God has revealed himself through creation, and yet we refuse to acknowledge him as Creator, but would rather create our own idols which we can see and touch [Romans 1:20-25]. Then God revealed himself through Jesus Christ and many of us still resist the invitation. Could it be that we choose to make idols in our own image which we can control instead of submitting to God’s way of salvation? Whether these idols be supposed deities, philosophies, science, or self?
*Observation Eight: The Wakandans pray to their ancestors. “Praise be to the ancestors.” And they invoke the name of their animal goddess/god. Both the spirituality of Black Panther and the Bible agree that we should pray. Where they disagree is on who we should be praying to. Ancestor worship looks to our deceased relatives as mediators between the physical and spiritual realms; between earth and heaven; between us and God.
In Exodus 20:12 the Bible tells us to honor our father and mother (and by extension our relatives), but it never tells us to pray to them. What the Scriptures do declare is that God’s eternal Son, Jesus Christ came in the flesh and is our mediator. And so, we are to pray to God in his name.
“For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.” -1 Timothy 2:5-6
*Observation Nine: The Ancestral Plane seems to be a closed system connected directly to earth. As stated before, ancestor worship is rooted in the natural. It is a part of the great “circle of life.” It is the belief that our deceased ancestors are in a realm just out of our reach, but can affect our lives now as we live. In effect, it is a closed system which loops upon itself. If the Ancestral Plane is inextricably connected to the earth, then does it cease to exist if the earth is destroyed?
The Bible teaches that this physical universe is not all there is. However, the spiritual realm which exists is not limited to the earth or universe, but extends beyond into the vast regions of heaven and hell. Heaven, where God resides, is infinitely larger than the universe itself. Hell has been created as a place of torment and isolation for the devil and his fallen angels. It has been enlarged for fallen humanity as well. It is into one of these two places in this spiritual realm that all the souls of humanity will go when they die.
The system the Bible reveals is not closed like the Ancestral Plane. Humanity is not limited to a physical life on earth and then a disembodied life connected to earth. When someone dies in Christ, they go to heaven. Someone who dies without Christ goes to hell. [Luke 16:20-31]
At a point in the future, Christ will return to earth as the judge of humanity. Each person will stand before God and give an account for the life they lived. Evil will finally be vanquished and those who refused God’s offer of salvation through Christ will face eternal separation. The Bible speaks of a time of resurrection and the renewal of all things. Those who have been received by God will be given glorious physical resurrected bodies. Then God will recreate the entire universe, and heaven and earth will exist as one kingdom where the people of God get to live out God’s original intent for humanity. [Matthew 25:31-46; Hebrews 9:27; Revelation 21:1-8]
THE FINAL WORD
It seems that we as a Black community have inherited some aspects of ancestor worship as displayed in Black Panther. I hear it every time at a funeral where at least one person inevitably says something like this in their remarks, “Though our loved one is dead, they’re not really gone. Their spirit is with us in our hearts. And when you need help, just pray to them and they will speak to you.” We heard this in the film when T’Challa’s queen mother Ramonda, referenced her deceased husband, “Your father and I will talk about this day all the time… He is with us.”
Perhaps, at the heart of this practice is the fear of being forgotten, which in a sense, is to cease to exist. No one wants to think of the day when family and friends no longer remember us or are deceased themselves. There’s a finality to death which is haunting to the living. Perhaps this is why the notion of ancestor worship seems so appealing. But, though death may be final from our perspective, it does not have the last word. That last word, which is one of RESURRECTION is reserved for Jesus Christ alone. “O, death, where is your sting? O, grave, where is your victory?”
On that Day of Renewal, everything that has been lost and stripped away through the struggles, hardships, turmoils and tragedies of this life will be renewed. And not just to the level that they were before we lost them, but to such a great and staggering degree which we can barely imagine! What a mighty God we serve!
These are my observations on the spiritual reality of Black Panther. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the nature of physical and Ultimate reality as you see it.
Let me know what you think. #WakandaForever
-Allen Paul Weaver III-