Let’s talk about Black Panther. If you haven’t seen the movie, this is going to be minimally spoiler-y. But you’ve been warned.
So there’s this scene partway through the movie, where Erik Killmonger (the antagonist played by a very… textured… Michael B Jordan) has ingested some of the heart-shaped herb that allows him to enter the spirit world. Earlier in the movie, King T’Challa (the protagonist) consumes the same herb and in transported as his current adult to a purple-skied savannah where he talks honestly with his dead father. But for Killmonger, something very different happens. He is transported back to his childhood home in Oakland, where he is a young boy holding the body of his dead father. You see, while T’Challa has been protected from a lot of the suffering of the world, growing up a wealthy prince in the powerful and secretive African kingdom of Wakanda, Killmonger grew up black in America, trapped in a system of racist violence and death.
And that is exactly what Killmonger is when he enters the spirit world – trapped. Trapped in the trauma of losing his father. This scene defines his character arc. He is controlled by his hurt and loss, driven to exact revenge and use the weapons of Wakanda to wage war against global white imperialism. In this moment, we see that all his strategizing and all his posturing comes out of his deepest wound.
Today is a day for deep wounds. Today, we read the story of Jesus, tortured and hung on a tree (according to Acts 10:39). The curtain in the temple is torn and the sky goes dark with the grief. God’s son is dead. Killed. Gone.
I don’t know about you, but this has been a hard winter for a lot of people. It seems like everyone has lost someone they love, or gone through a divorce or a breakup or a job loss or something that just tears at the fabric of who they are. If you haven’t felt this grief, someone you know has. The repeated winter blizzards have not helped.
When I trained to work with Christian Peacemaker Teams, I was introduced to a ritual for times like this. It draws on Jeremiah 19, where the prophet smashes a clay pot to symbolize what God will do to the nation that turns away from God and worships the false gods of violence and inequality. You can do this right now (but do it outside). Grab a cup or coffee mug, preferably one you don’t care about, and as you hold it, imagine it filling up with all the pain in your life. Everything you grieve and everything that hurts – imagine this pain filling up the cup right to the brim. Feel the cup get heavy in your hands. When you have emptied your heart into the cup, throw it as hard as you can into the ground. Smash it. It can help to yell.
Good Friday is a day for smashing mugs. For acknowledging that we can be overwhelmed by the pain in the world, and that we cannot carry it by ourselves.
But it’s Good Friday for a reason. Today, God lets us know that they will meet us right there in the pain. In fact, God’s always been there, grieving along with us, yelling and smashing mugs along with us. And our ancestors, spiritual and biological, are right there with us. Jesus and all our ancestors are grieving with us, but also holding us and reminding us that we are not alone in the pain. Just as others have made it through the pain, so can we.
For me, Holy Week has always been a “thin place,” a time when I feel God’s presence most intimately through the emotional rollercoaster of the story. God gets intimate with my pain, and I get intimate with God’s pain. But I don’t feel trapped there, stuck in a cycle of self-pity or depression. Instead, I feel held. The image I return to again and again in prayer is of being held in the palm of God’s hand. I know that I am not alone.
I know that sense of being held is easier for me as someone with all kinds of privilege. I have greater access to resources for my healing and well-being. So getting intimate with God’s pain helps me think beyond my own grief and connect with others’ pain (something that Beth Sutter shared about a few weeks ago).
When I watched Black Panther a few weeks ago, I felt that same connection when Killmonger entered the spirit world. I nearly yelled at the screen: “That’s it right there. That’s the pain.” I wanted to meet Killmonger there and offer him to walk with him through it. I’m not totally on his team (we have some disagreements over strategy), but I share a small piece of his anger at a world that renders black and brown bodies disposable. I wanted to gather all the ancestors to hold him. And I wanted the protagonists to stop for a moment and validate his trauma, which they had a role in creating.
I pray that wherever you are today, whatever is filling up your cup, you feel the presence of God and the great cloud of witnesses who hold the weight of the world with you. You are held in the palm of God’s hand, a God who is intimate with your pain. You are not alone.
Words by John Bergen.