“God works through me, the same as you.” —T’Challa / Black Panther (Black Panther #4, 2005).
I am, on the whole, an enthusiastic proponent of the age-old human inclination towards religious behavior. I am also not blind to the many problems that can and do arise out of religion. On the contrary, I am acutely aware of them and constantly ponder the nature of these problems as well as possible solutions. But I vehemently disagree with Richard Dawkins’ proclamation that religion is an outdated form of human behavior that our species should “outgrow.” I contend that it is one of the most quintessential of our behaviors, that there is a reason it goes back for as long as human beings have been around, that there is a reason it has survived all this time, and that we should not and will not be discarding it anytime soon. Even if we all agreed that we should get rid of religion, we could not get rid of the deep psychological needs that underpin religions and that they were formed to satisfy. And if we forced people to stop all religious behavior, it would simply evolve into something else that would be used to satisfy the aforementioned needs. Barring some remarkable evolutionary leap in human consciousness, this new manifestation of religion would then likely exhibit the same problems as before. It would be better, instead, to cultivate the kind of religious thought and leadership that produces religions that are healthier, less harmful, and more beneficial for everyone.
I wanted to begin this article this way to dispel any assumptions that I’m about to go on an anti-religious tirade. Far from it. I came very close, after all, to accepting a full-tuition scholarship for a Master of Divinity program in interfaith theology (why I ultimately decided not to go is a different story for another time). I will always defend the inherent beauty and nobility of religion at its best, and it is precisely because I love religion that I am deeply invested in thinking about what the best ways to engage with it are. And some of what I’ve been seeing during the COVID-19 crisis has led me to feel it may be worth coming back to an old topic: that of approaching prayer with proper expectations, particularly in the face of crisis and adversity.
Google Trends data shows that keyword searches for “prayer” have skyrocketed worldwide. Trump declared March 15 a National Day of Prayer because “[w]e are a country that, throughout our history, has looked to God for protection and strength in times like these.” The Pew Research Center recently found that half of Americans are asking God to end the COVID-19 pandemic, even those who don’t normally pray. And then there are the truly problematic things such as claims from religious leaders that they can cure COVID-19 through prayer, that the coronavirus is an act of God and we should therefore pray more to appease him, or other outlandish claims and exhortations.
I understand the need to turn to prayer during times of adversity like the one we are in and, from the looks of it, will likely remain in for some time. I even feel that one of the potential positives of this terrible period may be that the important role of religion in people’s lives becomes newly recognized and appreciated. However, some of what we’re seeing right now is symptomatic of a more generalized and frustratingly persistent problem: that of thinking that prayers in themselves will ever solve our problems.
There are many who don’t need to hear this either because they never pray to begin with or because their religious practice is already highly engaged with the failings and injustices of society. But what I’ve been seeing tells me that this is a topic that still needs to be talked about, and it needs to be talked about in ways that are compassionate and understanding, not abrasive and scathing. I will try to do so, and I will also try to make the topic interesting and fun by pairing it with something nerdy as I always try to do here in the Hero Wisdom column. Black Panther will serve as our nerdy inspiration for today, and appropriately so because I propose that the character is a model of an ideal balance between prayer, religious study, and contemplation, on one hand, and compassionate action on the other.
The appeal of prayer in a time of perceived powerlessness
I believe in prayer (and when I say “prayer” here I’m including meditation, chanting, and similar religious behaviors that are performed with an intended effect). I believe that prayer can provide us with the strength, solace, and inspiration to be resilient in the face of crises, both individually and collectively, and even to potentially solve them, be it the current COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic downturn, or simply the desperate need to pay this month’s rent. But prayer by itself will neither protect us from harm nor make the problem go away. And if you pray for others, it might give them some comfort if you tell them you are doing so (or it might annoy them), but the prayers will not remove the objective causes of their suffering.
Far from sacrilegious, this is part of the very theologies that underpin most of the world’s major theistic religions, where the concept of free will is an important one (the notion of original sin in Christianity is not possible without free will, for instance). Like it or not, free will comes with the price of responsibility—the responsibility to address suffering, much of it created by ourselves through our unjust social systems and structures, through our own action. Yes, if we’re going to get technical I know that prayer is a form of action so I’ll be more specific: I mean action built on human ideas, words, and physical movements, performed alone or in conjunction with other humans, specifically intended to mitigate human problems without relying on divine intervention.
In all of the major world religions still practiced today, prayer was originally never intended as solutions for problems in themselves. And in fairness, there are many religious denominations and teachers who preach the importance of combining prayer with action. But there are also many, still, that reinforce the idea that prayer is the most powerful and effective thing one can possibly do in the face of a problem, leading to the conscious or unconscious belief that prayer is sufficient. The idea that if we only pray enough or fervently enough, God(s) would stop the pandemic, ease our suffering, or protect us and our loved ones, is especially appealing right now at a time when so many of us may feel powerless. After all, if we’re being told to stay home, what else is there that we can do but pray?
There’s plenty we can do, especially if we liberate ourselves from the notion that small actions make no difference in the face of overwhelming adversity. But I’ll come back to that in a minute. First, I want to bring in Black Panther and talk about how he is an inspiring model of combining prayer with action (including very small actions). There are many real-life examples of people who are as well, but this is a blog about pop mythology after all. 🙂
T’Challa: A model of devout faith combined with intelligent pragmatism
The Black Panther is one of my absolute favorite comics characters for many reasons, many of which are beyond the scope of this article to discuss. But one of those reasons is the fact that he is one of the most profoundly religious and spiritual characters in the Marvel universe. But it is not only because he is religious. It is because he is also one of the most brilliant minds in the Marvel universe whose intelligence coexists harmoniously with his religiosity.
It always bothered me that popular Marvel superheroes who were geniuses (Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Bruce Banner) were usually atheists. It seemed to imply that intelligence was equated with atheism and vice versa. I have zero problems with atheism but I’ve always been of the opinion that being religious or not religious in itself has nothing to do with one’s intelligence (though the particular way one goes about one’s religion or lack of religion may have something to do with it). T’Challa, whose Super-Genius Intelligence level can hold its own against Stark, Richards, and Banner, is an example of how one can be religious, even devoutly so, and highly intelligent at the same time, and that there is no inherent contradiction or conflict between the two qualities unless one chooses to think and act in ways that create a conflict.
At one point I tried to read as many Black Panther comics as I possibly could to collect canonical evidence of T’Challa’s religiosity. While it would be tedious (not for me but probably for you!) to run down a blow-by-blow account of the many instances when T’Challa’s religious devotion becomes evident, I’ll cite a couple of them to illustrate the point.
One is a thrilling moment in Christopher Priest’s legendary run on Black Panther when T’Challa is fighting Mephisto in the latter’s own mystical realm, making it a spiritual battle that Panther for once cannot win using science or conventional combat (Black Panther #5, 1999). [Black Panther #5 spoiler starts here] Mephisto tries to consume T’Challa’s soul but in the process finds that he has bitten into more than he can chew for Panther has linked his soul to that of the Panther God which, in turn, is also linked to every Black Panther there ever was (“For my spirit has been forever joined to that of The Panther God!”). It is more soul than even Mephisto is able to consume and he is thus defeated. [Black Panther #5 spoiler ends here] The scene is a beautiful depiction of the idea that some kinds of problems, inner psychological or emotional ones, can indeed be solved or partially solved through religion.
Another example is the way in which T’Challa is repeatedly depicted as consulting with the ghosts of his dead forerunners, Black Panthers of time past. It is a ritual manifesting a religious idea from the Panther Cult doctrine, that the souls of all Black Panthers are intertwined with each other and, in turn, linked to the Panther God. Despite the accepted normality of supernatural events in the Marvel universe, the ontological realness of these private interactions between T’Challa and his ancestors is ambiguous. We never see other living characters witnessing them, for example. Could they be occurring in his imagination? Possibly. You could therefore say that in a sense that he is “praying” to his ancestors via a form of ancestral worship.
There are many more examples, but in the interests of time I’ll stick with these two to make the point that T’Challa’s religiosity is an integral part of the character and associated mythology. I have come across highly detailed analyses of Black Panther that don’t even mention his faith at all, as if this were an uncomfortable or embarrassing trait that can be conveniently ignored even though T’Challa himself repeatedly and openly asserts it. He even sometimes goes so far as to see the lack of faith as a shortcoming in others as in Black Panther vs. Deadpool #2 when he denounces Deadpool by saying, “You believe in nothing! You have no country! You have no family! No legacy to uphold! No gods!”
What’s important is that Black Panther isn’t just devoutly religious and he isn’t just super intelligent either. He employs both qualities in the service of compassionate action and engagement with the problems of the world.
In Black Panther Psychology: Hidden Dimensions, I co-wrote a chapter with J. Scott Jordan (who has contributed an essay about the Spider-Verse to this blog) where we argue that T’Challa’s sincere religious devotion is partly what inspires his compassionate actions towards others in contrast to those who may be nominal followers of a faith but commit actions (or non-action) that go against their religious principles. Of course, in fairness, devotion alone isn’t the only factor as there are devout followers who go against the principles of their faith as well. But the point is that one can be devout and also understand that prayer has its limitations.
Compassionate action is manifested prayer in motion
Despite T’Challa’s piety, his approach to solving problems is firmly rooted in two things: (a) his own decision-making process and (b) concrete action. As already acknowledged, it’s one thing if the problem is a mental, emotional, or mystical one. In such cases T’Challa sometimes does use religion or prayer to solve the problem, just as he did when fighting Mephisto. And as also acknowledged, even when it comes to the physical world, religion and prayer can play an indirect role in solving problems to the degree that they provide us with the motivation and inspiration to take action.
This is true for T’Challa too. When faced with crises he will often pray to his ancestors or the Panther God. But he doesn’t rely on prayer to solve those crises. Rather, his prayers are a springboard for his actions which, sometimes, even go against the sacred will of his ancestors as in New Avengers #21 (2014). If he were a real person he would be praying right now, but he would be spending far more time taking action: setting up social aid programs, engaging in diplomacy, researching a scientific solution (even if it’s comic book science), or maybe just kicking a bad guy’s ass. Even if he weren’t a superhero and a king with vast resources but just a regular person with limited resources like you and me, he would still be doing small things within his ability.
There is a moment in Black Panther vs. Deadpool #3 (2018), one of those perennially popular “someone-versus-someone” crossovers, in which T’Challa says something that basically sums up his approach to problem-solving:
“I believe in reality.”
Reality, for T’Challa, includes mystical realms where normal physical rules don’t apply. But these realms are separate from the physical realm and they are often limited in their ability to influence the latter. In physical realms, physical rules apply. Even Mephisto, when he steps into our world, becomes susceptible to a well-landed punch in the face (Black Panther #4, 1999). T’Challa doesn’t pray for Mephisto to go away. T’Challa punches Mephisto in the face. Because T’Challa believes in reality.
So I am not saying we shouldn’t pray. By all means, let us pray. Let’s ask God(s) for help, even. But let’s not ask God(s) to solve our problems. That’s our own job. When our prayer or meditation is done, let us get up with renewed hope and be the conduit of God by taking action, no matter how small those actions may be. We do not all have to be the scientists or the medical, postal, or grocery store workers on the so-called front lines. What matters is we try to do things that are feasible and realistic for us where we are, with the resources we have, even if all we can do right now is properly observe social distancing (for even that alone is a challenge for many). From the big picture perspective, it will all make a difference for how this plays out because, as it is in the Panther religion, our souls are all entwined and interdependent.
As T’Challa says to a little boy in awe of his larger-than-life presence, “God works through me, the same as you.” (Black Panther #4, 2005). In the kind phone calls we make, the few dollars we donate, the groceries we drop off for an old person, the mask we sew for someone who doesn’t have one—whatever it may be, no matter how small, so long as it is an action that goes beyond prayer, God is working through us. Which means that far from being powerless, we are, each of us, far more powerful and far more able to make a difference than we give ourselves credit for.[kofi]