Captain America is no longer sure what it means to be an American. At least, that’s the premise behind The United States of Captain America, the Marvel mini-event by Christopher Cantwell, Joshua Trujillo, and Mohale Mashigo. In the opening pages, Steve Rogers, the original Sentinel of Liberty, reflects on the nature of the American dream and how easily it has been used to divide as well as inspire. A museum wants to put Captain America’s shield on display as part of an exhibit celebrating “Americans Who Fight,” but Steve is worried that his iconic symbol no longer represents the promise of truth, justice, and liberty for all. Instead, it has become mired in battles driven by personal ego and violent ideology.

Through a series of panels, Steve demonstrates how the shield has been targeted, appropriated, and commercialized by people seeking to use it for their own gain. Conflict and competing narratives have drowned out the memory of those who, in Steve’s words, “reached with selfless clarity” for the ideals the shield was meant to protect. Now, its message of liberty must contend with nationalism, jingoism, and a narrowing view of what it means to be an American. For Captain America, who has spent years championing the United States and the American dream, this injustice strikes at the very core of who he is and what he believes.

“A good dream is shared,” Steve insists. “Shared radically. Shared with everyone. When something isn’t shared, it can become the American lie.”

Captain America’s crisis of belief will probably resonate with many Christians. Over the past several years, the American church has been rocked by scandal, division, and heartache. The same cross that represents Christ’s unending grace has been used to legitimize violent insurrection and perpetuate baseless conspiracy theories. Congregations have fractured, with some younger members choosing to abandon the faith altogether. Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising that many believers have found themselves asking, What does it even mean to be Christian?

One wouldn’t expect to find answers to that question in a comic book. Yet, surprisingly, The United States of Captain America can point Christians toward some hopeful truths while also showcasing the kind of superhero panache only Marvel can provide. The story continues with a mysterious assailant breaking into Steve’s home and making off with his shield. The thief then races into the city and uses it to attack a nearby train, endangering hundreds of lives, before fleeing into the night. Steve and Sam Wilson (a.k.a. the Falcon) are aided in their rescue efforts by a surprising ally: a passing teenager who also dons the guise of Captain America.

The Captains Network holds a special significance for Christians as well. Each of its five leading members represent a group of people who have a long history with the church.

Through the teen, the two learn about the Captains Network, a loose fellowship of citizens who have taken up the mantle of Captain America to fight injustice and protect their communities. With this newfound information, Steve and Sam set off on a journey to reclaim the shield and discover more about these everyday men and women fighting to make the world a better place.

The Captains Network holds a special significance for Christians as well. Each of its five leading members represent a group of people who have a long history with the church. They are histories fraught with ignorance, frustration, and neglect. Their stories remind us how too often Christians have failed in the Great Commission, creating rifts that are not easily healed. Yet despite this, there are many within these communities who continue to reach selflessly for Christ, taking up their cross each day and living out their faith in humility and passion.

Aaron Fisher, Captain America of the Railways

Aaron is the first Captain that Steve and Sam meet on their journey across the country, as well as the one who introduces them to the Captains Network. A teen runaway who champions the homeless, Aaron is the very model of a comic book sidekick. He’s brave, compassionate, and won’t hesitate to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of others. Aaron is also gay. For some Christians,  this last fact will negate all his other positive qualities.

Christians have long asserted that individuals with same-sex attraction can find fulfillment in a life of spiritual dedication, but our actions usually tell a much different story. For people like Aaron, their experience with the church is often characterized by derision, hostility, and abandonment. Such mistreatment would erode anyone’s faith, but for countless gay and lesbian believers, it hasn’t. Every Sunday these men and women choose to walk into services and raise their voices in worship. They receive crumbs from the table and wait patiently for their peers to realize they truly belong at the feast.

Aaron himself reflects this reality in his own words and deeds. Unlike Steve and Sam, who sport high-tech armor and weapons, Aaron must make do with painted rags and a shield made from discarded scraps. But still, he fights. Despite how the world treats him and how little he’s been given, Aaron chooses to live and serve as a Captain.

“Everything felt different when I picked up that shield,” Aaron explains. “I had become more than myself. A symbol to those I was protecting. The legacy of those who fought before me. A promise of hope for the future.”

The truth is that Christians like Aaron are more than worthy to bear the shieldbe it the shield of faith or the shield of Captain America. They have held to their convictions despite having every reason to throw them away. Through daily acts of humility, forgiveness, and long-suffering, they model what it means to follow Jesus. The church’s responsibility is to embrace them, not as objects of pity, but as brothers, sisters, and co-heirs to the kingdom of heaven. Only then can we begin reconciling the mistakes of the past and, with Christ as our guide, move forward together as a family of believers.

Nichelle Wright, Captain America of Harrisburg

Nichelle is another Captain who is bound to strike a chord with some readers. For starters, she’s a young African American woman and a vocal activist. Her story arc also draws on racially centered events from the past few years, namely, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Nichelle herself is unapologetically driven. She is determined to do what is best for her neighborhood and isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers in the process.

It would be an understatement to say that these are complicated themes. Race is a subject that many Christians try to approach with caution. The last few years have sparked heated debates over how believers should talk about race as well as its influence on our broader theology. Terms like “intersectionality” and “critical race theory” have been twisted into boogeymen, resulting in several pastors cutting ties with their denominations. Most Christians simply prefer to say that Scripture condemns racism and leave it at that.

For the Captain America of Harrisburg, this attitude of timidity is unacceptable. The people of her community are not topics to be debated. Their needs are real and urgent, from tainted water to crumbling infrastructure to lawmakers who refuse to keep their promises. Nichelle fights because she knows her people need more than vague assurances of support; they need someone who will show up for them and work toward real, tangible change. Failing to do otherwise would mean turning her back on her neighbors.

“That’s how the Captains do their thing,” Nichelle tells Steve. “We fight on the ground. Not in the clouds.”

Christians will never mend the damages caused by racial inequality if we are too fearful to even mention them. Like Nichelle, we must be willing to take decisive action. This means having the courage to navigate conversations about race and acknowledge where we have erred. It also means putting our boots on the ground and working alongside diverse communities to achieve meaningful solutions. In the end, Nichelle imparts the same lesson that Jesus gave his followers in the parable of the Good Samaritanloving your neighbor means choosing to cross the road and make their struggles your own.

Joe Gomez, Captain America of the Kickapoo Tribe

To Christians, these five Captains embody one of the greatest truths found in Scripture: God is not constrained by our human divisions. His disciples come from every tribe and nation. They speak every language and carry a variety of human experiences.

Unlike his fellow Captains, Joe Gomez did not start out with a high view of Captain America. After all, the fabled “American dream” embodied something much different to an indigenous man like himself. It represented stolen land, broken promises, and generations of loss. Joe would eventually change his mind after meeting Steve Rogers in person, but their interaction did not undo the past or cause Joe to relinquish his Native identity. Instead, Joe chose to take up the shield, and its message, for his people.

“When I dance at intertribals,” Joe muses. “I’m connected to everyone in the circle. Kickapoo, Blackfeet, Apache, we are people of the land called America. Shoot, we’ve been here long before America, and we’ll survive it, too. So if Cap’s mantle truly represents the people, I’m claiming it for people like me.”

Captain America’s shield isn’t the only symbol that holds conflicting meanings for Native Americans. Under the cross of Christ, Christians spent years robbing indigenous people of their culture while trying to force them into assimilation. Boarding schools were established by Christian missionaries with the intent of “civilizing” Native children and indoctrinating them into white society. The result was unspeakable abuse and profound intergenerational trauma that has haunted Native people to this day. Even so, there are still indigenous Christians who refuse to let the cross of Jesus become an icon of colonization.

Though American Christianity can make it difficult for Native people to follow Jesus, many have found God within their own history and traditions. Native dances and ceremonies of thankfulnesswhich predate European settlersspeak to them of God’s radical love and unending mercy. By inviting God into their lives like this, indigenous Christians have learned something western evangelicals still struggle to accept: we do not have to choose between our faith and our heritage. Christ redeemed us, not to take on someone else’s culture, but to serve him within our own.

Arielle Agbayani, the Campus Captain America

The story of Arielle Agbayani is one that carries grim significance for the American church. As the protector of her college campus, Arielle’s journey begins when she comes to the aid of a fellow student, a young woman who was physically assaulted by a male peer. But given his privileged background, it’s unlikely that he’ll face any serious consequences for his crime. Donning her Captain uniform, Arielle sneaks into a nearby party where she hopes to find evidence of the attack but is soon confronted by the very man she seeks to expose. Luckily, quick thinking allows Arielle to mobilize her student allies, and the story concludes on a hopeful note, suggesting that justice will be done.

“We can’t undo what happened,” Arielle tells her friend, “but we can make it really hard for him to do it again.”

Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention released a third-party investigation that revealed a long history of abuse and coverups within the denomination. The report sent shockwaves throughout the country and has spurred new calls for structural reform. While the report’s details are painful to read, none of them would have become known if not for the courage and persistence of countless Christian women. For years, they championed abuse survivors and fought to hold spiritual leaders accountable for their actions. Their compassion, coupled with their relentless pursuit of truth and justice, is something all Christians should aspire to.

Characters like Arielle remind us just how much these godly women have to offer the church. Throughout history they have taken up God’s callingboth as prophets of justice and disciples of renewal. In congregations today, they serve as our teachers, worship leaders, petitioners, and friends. If we ever find ourselves asking what it means to be a Christian, we need only look to the women working tirelessly to see the gospel made real in our world. Their faith and fortitude provide the answer. 

Jeremy Merrick, Captain America of Soldiers

Our final hero is Captain Jeremy Merrick, a single father and Air Force officer who joins the Captains in the last stretch of their journey. At first glance, Jeremy’s role within the group seems fairly minor. He hovers in the background, offers advice, and provides transportation when it’s finally time to throw some punches. On reflection though, it’s Jeremy’s quiet support that ultimately allows the Captains to carry the day. His presence within the team is vital to their continued health and success.

Jeremy’s relationship with the other Captains provides a useful template for Christians seeking to empower and connect with singles in their midst. Their bond is one of mutual respect and encouragement. When Jeremy finds himself targeted by the shield thief for his interference, the other Captains rally around him and stay by his side until the danger passes. At the same time, Jeremy opens his home to his teammates, shares their burdens, and delivers some much-needed perspective. Their reliance on one another becomes a source of strengthlike iron sharpening iron.

Toward the end of Jeremy’s story, there’s a discussion where he emphasizes the unique challenges soldiers face when returning home from war: “I saw it as my job to make sure they had what they needed when they got home,” he reflects somberly. “Not trucks or cars. Mental health care. Real support.”

In the same way, single believers will only thrive when they have steadfast support from their congregations and neighbors. Most Christians don’t realize how actively hostile our society can be toward singles. Those who forgo marriage, whether by choice or by circumstance, will need a community radically committed to their growth, well-being, and happiness. Churches must become places where individuals can forge lasting bonds of faith and fellowship, regardless of their marital status. In doing so, we not only strengthen ourselves, but we transform the church into the life-giving home Christ built it to be.

A More Perfect Union

This diverse community of heroes is what makes up the heart and soul of The United States of Captain America. In each chapter, we witness a person, armed with nothing but their wits, compassion, and courage, reach selflessly for the ideals embodied within the American dream. The theft of the shield may provide a convenient backdrop for the characters’ cross-country road trip, but in the end, it is the Captains who remind Steve of what the shield represents, and what all of them are truly fighting for.

To Christians, these five Captains embody one of the greatest truths found in Scripture: God is not constrained by our human divisions. His disciples come from every tribe and nation. They speak every language and carry a variety of human experiences. Though we may be plagued by conflict and partition of our own making, Christ continually calls us to look past ourselves and make peace with one another. Because, as the theologian Henri Nouwen once gently summarized, “The vitality of the Christian community exists precisely because there are so many ways of following Jesus.” 1

Believers can take comfort in knowing that we are not so alone as we might suppose. There are many faithful brothers and sisters willing to stand beside us during times of conflict and teach us what it means to be a Christian. Though battered and bruised, and often overlooked, they show us how to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We simply need the courage and humility to see them.

1. Henri Nouwen, Following Jesus (New York: Convergent Books, 2019), 48.