Panel Discussion: Captain America and the Gospel’s Political Perils
Every Friday in Panel Discussion, Jeremy Writebol considers how the latest comic book releases intersect with the Good News of Christ. This piece may contain spoilers.
Sunday afternoon found me in an interesting quandary. I had already chosen Ms. Marvel #19 as the comic book I was going to review for this week’s “Panel Discussion.” However, as I scrolled through Facebook’s trending stories, I was surprised to see that the October 14th release of Captain America: Sam Wilson #1 was getting some chatter. After digging a little deeper, it became obvious why the story was a hotbed of discussion. For some, it seems that the good Captain has betrayed his country. At least, that’s what the pundits would have you think.
A little background: within the last few years Marvel has passed the mantle of “Captain America” from Steve Rogers to his friend and associate Sam Wilson, formerly known as Falcon. Some speculated that this was merely to diversify Marvel’s pantheon from mostly white males to a line-up consisting of every gender, race, and orientation. From a business standpoint, it makes sense to appeal to a wider reader base by making the protagonists relatable to as many people as possible. But somehow the comic book realm has become sacred territory. Stringent adherents to the lore of comics refer to it as “canon” and get all sorts of whacked out if a writer deviates from some subjective sense of the storyline’s established rule. If Superman gives up his powers and becomes a stockbroker to save the world, we have a violation of the canon and the story is rejected outright.
In this case, however, it isn’t the vigilant comic book faithful who are crying foul regarding Captain America’s latest adventure — it’s the politically sensitive. So what is Captain America’s crime in the eyes of the political pundits? His sin seems to be caring about people.It is precisely because the image of God is inherent in every human being that we seek the good of every human being.
The issue, written by Nick Spencer, is part of Marvel’s relaunch as a result of the “Secret Wars” crossover series. Much of the issue concerns Sam Wilson’s internal wrestling over the ideological reality of what it means to be “Captain America.” In Wilson’s view, Captain America means being able to “inspire Americans, show them what they could be, if they worked hard and worked together.” Yet the job isn’t as easy as it appears. The heart of the issue, both in its exposition and art, demonstrates the ideological divide our nation faces today. Gay pride parades, police violence protests, the NSA’s illegal spying on U.S. citizens, immigration regulation: the new Captain America doesn’t exist above such issues but is very much impacted by all of them. If he’s a symbol of the country’s greatness, how does he rise above the its differences and fight for the ideology of what it means to be “American”?
Yet, this issue didn’t start trending on Facebook because Captain America was trying to find his place weaving through the political fray of the world today. Sam Wilson: Captain America #1 became controversial because certain pundits saw the depiction of a super-villain organization known as the “Sons of the Serpent” and wondered if it was referring to them. In reading the banter of a white supremacist organization against sojourning foreigners dying for lack of rest and water in the middle of the Arizona desert, it is possible that these readers felt the sting of their own words, and didn’t like it.
At the end of the day, this particular issue challenges us to weigh the value we place on political ideologies versus real people. Could Captain America be a hero for someone who wasn’t an American? Would he defend a political position or would he help a thirsty, dying person? While we might want to paint these issues with a simple classification of “right” and “wrong,” the real world doesn’t always offer us those simple categories. If we were thrust into Sam Wilson’s position, how would we respond?
The immigration issue facing our country — as well as much of Western Europe — is a tense one. Christians stand on both sides of it and seek to make legitimate points to win their arguments. Yet we cannot dismiss the fact that, regardless of nationality or citizenship, the imago dei exists in every human being on this planet. People have intrinsic value and worth regardless of their nationality, skin color, or language. It is precisely because the image of God is inherent in every human being that we seek the good of every human being.
Wilson’s crime, politically speaking, was that he sought to defend the weak and the unwanted. He went out of his way, at great cost to himself, to serve those who, from the law and the Constitution’s standpoint, didn’t deserve serving. And that’s exactly where good hero stories engage the Gospel. They show us the nature of the real hero, Christ. The Scriptures tell us that Christ came, served, and saved people who were, in no way, followers of the Law. Instead, we were law-breakers. Christ, at full cost to himself, protected and provided for those who were weak and estranged foreigners. The Gospel is one of immigration from a kingdom of death to a kingdom of light.
Certain elements of our culture struggle with that kind of message because it is not a “solve your own problem” kind of message. It requires someone else solving your problems — which sounds like a handout. Yet the Gospel implications towards our fellow humanity is clear. We love those who are most desperate, needy, and estranged because God in Christ loved and served us. As Jesus proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, ESV).
Jesus himself was rejected shortly after quoting those very words because he implied that the fulfillment of them would come not to his own national tribe, but to those who were foreign, ethnically and spiritually. The ideology of compassion was almost tossed over a cliff because it didn’t embrace the politics of nationalistic purity.
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“His sin seems to be caring about people.”
An excellent read, Jeremy. A good example of examining something in popular culture through the lens of our faith, without resorting to heavy-handed “Jesus Jukes”. I look forward to more!
Thanks Jon. I usually only try and resort to soft-handed “Jesus Jukes”. Thanks for reading.
I wasn’t really fond of Wilson taking over Cap’s role at first, but if the 616 version is anything like his MCU counterpart, that is a change I could quite live with.
Captain America usually gets taken over like this once in a while. and Sam Wilson makes sense in canon. It’s when the person replacing the role doesn’t make sense apart from “we chose it due to race and gender” that fans get mad. Thorina, Miles Morales (who still hasn’t taken off,) etc.
Haven’t read the book, but there have been worse cases. ironically Iron Man 3 was based on one-the extremis mini series has iron man pretty much fight a super-powered straw conservative, and they quietly ignored that aspect when they made the movie.
Miles Morales has, by all accounts, been very well-received by quite a few fans. Saying he hasn’t “taken off” is a bit disingenuous, really. The fact that the comics didn’t try to act like Peter Parker had never existed only helped.
The current Thor is actually the 616 Jane Foster, so she actually *does* have a connection to the mythos.
He hasn’t though. He was supposed to be the main Spiderman if I remember right, but he kind of didn’t take off with enough fans to achieve that. It sounds like they are trying again, with the whole Secret Wars thing. Not sure it will do that well.
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