Religion & Liberty Online

Isolationism and internationalism in Black Panther

I finally got around to seeing Black Panther last night, and my early reaction echoes so much of the overwhelmingly positive response to the film. As so many superhero tales do, Black Panther weaves together complex ideas within the often deceptively fantastical trappings of science fiction and fantasy.

A few themes among the many immediately leap out, especially the dynamics of isolationism and internationalism that face Wakanda throughout its history. The isolationist attitude is embodied by Wakanda’s past and especially its most recent leader, T’Chaka. Black Panther picks up with the transition to a new sovereign, T’Challa.

The new Wakandan King T’Challa faces immediate challenges

And with that transition new internationalist attitudes come to the fore. The first is represented by Nakia, T’Challa’s love interest. Nakia represents a call to a humanitarian vision of international solidarity. Wakanda possesses gifts to offer the world, and Nakia cannot rest while those who could benefit from these gifts suffer.

The second version of internationalism is represented by Erik Killmonger, whose goal is to bring Wakanda out of isolation in order to establish a militaristic, global Wakandan empire, one on whose possessions the sun will never set (echoing the great claims of the nineteenth century global empires).

Navigating these alternatives, and indeed seeking a way to authentically respond to the legitimate claims of national identity, cosmopolitan community, and global solidarity, is T’Challa’s great challenge and one well worth reflecting upon as it mirrors the challenges we face on the world stage in real life today.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.