Incas, the cult of the Black Panther and contextual missiology

We have seen the Black Panther movie. It was a good film, but these days that is not enough, everything seems to need to be a statement about identity politics. Hence, the film has been acclaimed as empowering and offering an alternative vision to how African society could have developed in the absence of Western colonialism. The BBC especially has been gushing in its praise of the film.

Utter nonsense. To begin with, suggesting that the alternative to colonialism was receiving a precious metal from outer space and remaining hidden from view is hardly empowering. More significantly, if we are to take a political look at Wakanda (the kingdom in which most of the story is set) what emerges is an oppressive and authoritarian state.

Despite the nation’s founding myth, Wakanda emerged through the subjugation of four tribes by the ruling tribe, with one dissenting tribe being forced into exile in the less fertile and prosperous mountainous regions. The monarchy controls the nation’s technology and lives in luxury, in an unequal society in which many are forced to live off subsistence farming. The king’s power is strengthened by his control of the cult of the Black Panther, which is a blend of possession cults and ancestor worship, and which is seen to provide him with mystical strength. The legitimacy of the monarchy is maintained through violent male combat rituals and the king is supported by the army, whose devotion to the monarch comes above ties of family, tribe and friendship. Dissent is not tolerated, repressed with murder if necessary so that it can only be expressed in radical, fringe, terrorist groups.

This reminds me of the tendency to romanticise the pre-colonial period in South America. Yet, the societies before the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese were violent and oppressive, hence initially the Spanish received the support of many groups who had been subjugated by the Incas. However, they were soon to discover that Spanish colonialism not only had firearms on its side, it was also weaponised by terrible viruses.

[There is a famous quip, that “in capitalism, humans oppress humans, in communism, it is the other way round.” ]

This points to the dangers of mixing our cultural values with our missiology. For those from the West, it is quite easy to assume that our cultural values are right and correct. A prominent Baptist minister in the UK once urged -in the context of a debate on sexuality- for a global discussion on the authority and interpretation of scripture. In the ensuing furore, I was, as far as I could tell, the only one to point out the arrogance of a British pastor urging a global discussion and seeking to determine the terms on which that discussion would take place, terms which were set by the Western theological tradition.

[My master’s supervisor Meic Pearse once wrote a book on why the rest of the word hate the West– people still don’t get it … just take a look at the arrogance of the Oscar’s… a bunch of celebrities denouncing the culture of sexual harassment which they helped create through their promotion of immorality and promiscuity]

None of us is innocent. [Paul expressed this much better than I can in Romans]. I have witnessed Brazilians, Asians and Africans display as much cultural insensitivity as the worse of Western missionaries, sin knows no geographical boundaries.

This is one of the reasons that the BMS seeks to work in partnership. Here in Peru, we work with the Baptist Convention. Working in partnership is slower than simply coming in with all guns blazing (in the past this might have been literal, now I am using it as a metaphor), overwhelming people with our money, personnel and expertise. It is certainly less picture friendly. It is, however, not only a more biblical and theologically sound approach, it is most effective in the long run.

Working in partnership is harder than it seems. Each one of us has an unregenerate, colonialist and cultural xenophobe hidden within us. That is why we need prayer as we work in Peru to truly work in partnership, to seek to empower those we work with and to serve the Kingdom of God rather than of man (be it the UK, Peru or Wakanda!).