Culture At Large

Captain America and Believing the Dream

Joe George

Before the July 2018 release of the newest Captain America comic-book series, Ta-Nehisi Coates published an essay in The Atlantic titled “Why I’m Writing Captain America.”

In a way, this was unnecessary. Scores of people have written the character since his 1941 debut and, to my knowledge, none of them needed to explain themselves. Furthermore, in addition to his position as a political columnist and the author of the National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, Coates is an unabashed comic nerd, one who penned an ode to Spider-Man’s marriage and wrote many acclaimed issues of Black Panther for Marvel Comics.

On the other hand, Coates is one of the foremost diagnosticians of American white supremacy; he’s cogently argued for reparations and identified the racist sentiments that played a role in the last presidential election. Coates’ incisive critiques make him an unlikely choice to tackle a character draped in red, white, and blue.

But as Coates explains in his essay, that tension is exactly what draws him to Captain America. Despite his star-spangled super-suit, Cap is “a dissident . . . not so much tied to America as it is, but to an America of the imagined past.” Coates cites a scene from 1986’s Daredevil #233 in which Cap defies an American military leader who invokes loyalty as a way to silence the hero. “I’m loyal to nothing, general,” Captain America declares, “except the Dream.”

Coates reuses that line in a splash page in 2018’s Captain America #1, which features Captain America coming to rescue civilians from a group of armed terrorists in Washington, D.C. Drawn with kinetic energy by Leinil Yu, the scene is inspirational heroism at its best. Cap first tries to talk the terrorists down before physically pacifying them. When a child worries for his wounded father, Captain America assures him that his father will survive and asks him to be brave for his dad and for his country. After the fighting, he joins firefighters and EMTs in clearing debris and aiding survivors.

But Coates shades the scene with darker elements. Cap’s attempts to talk down the terrorists fail. He doesn’t kill anyone himself, but he does order his partner Bucky to take out several with a sniper rifle. His speech inspires the young boy, whose father survives, but it means nothing to those who lost family members in the attack.

Moments such as these recur throughout Coates’ run, which recently released its 20th issue. Captain America tries to remain loyal to the Dream, but he’s losing sight of what that Dream means. To make matters worse, the Power Elite, a Russian-backed organization with ties to Captain America’s greatest nemesis, has infiltrated the country’s police force, news media, and even its churches. The Power Elite promises a Dream of liberty and security, and many Americans accept it—despite the harm that will be inflicted on others. The supervillains didn’t conquer America, Cap observes. “We conquered ourselves.”

Over the course of Coates’ three main story arcs, Captain America becomes a fugitive, surrenders his superhero identity, and operates under his civilian name, Steve Rogers. He teams with everyone from a group of supervillains to a secret society of female superheroes, working to root the Power Elites’ influence from the U.S. To do so, Cap works to defend the country not as it is, but as it should be, as it appears in the Dream.

TC Podcast: God Bless America? (Hamilton on Disney Plus, Captain America by Ta-Nehisi Coates)

As Christians, we too must improve our world, but not for the sake of any nationalist ideal. We are tied not to an imagined past, but to a prophesied present that affirms each person as God’s handiwork, regardless of their status or citizenship. But like Cap, we can find ourselves discouraged by the resistance of a world that tells us some lives matter more than others, that money and power are of ultimate value, and that safety comes only by destroying our enemies.

Jesus anticipated this struggle in his final prayer before his crucifixion, as recorded in John 17. “I have given them your word and the world has hated them,” Jesus says of his disciples, “for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.” Even so, he asks God not to remove them, but to strengthen them, to help them continue following Christ’s example: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” Is Cap in a somewhat similar position?

In his Atlantic essay, Coates admits that Cap’s optimism “poses a direct question for me: why would anyone believe in The Dream?” No issue in Coates’ run answers that question better than Captain America #13, in which Steve joins other heroes to defend migrant workers from a super-powered militia. Steve initially expresses reservations about helping people break the law. But after a rebuke from the Latinx hero White Tiger, Steve leaps into action and sees in the migrants the embodiment of the Dream he adores. Over action sequences from artists Jason Masters, Sean Izaakse, and Matt Milla, Coates’ narration recalls both Pauline theology and the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. “The Law could never redeem,” Steve thinks. “Redemption could only come from the people. From the tired. The poor. The wretched. These huddled masses . . . the refuse of teeming shores, yearning to breathe free.”

In that moment, Steve learns that the American law, which punishes those seeking a better life, runs contrary to the Dream. To the readers of Paul’s epistle, religious laws punish those seeking freedom from guilt, a guilt that only Christ, in his wretchedness on the cross, can take away. In the same way that Captain America remains loyal to the former dream, Christians must remember the “sin offering” made in the person of Jesus. And in response, we must extend the grace of God to others, even while living in a graceless world.

Topics: Culture At Large