We Americans like our comic books, and Captain America is the quintessential hero. Standing up for what is right and good against all that is evil in the world, Captain America remains pure and faithful. Like many cultural stories, Captain America both reflects and shapes our worldview. He has a clear notion of right and wrong, and he is always in the right. But this is not the only — or even the best — way to be a hero. In fact, such a binary notion of good and evil upholds systems of oppression and stifles humanity.
“Either/or” thinking is identified as a characteristic of white supremacy culture. Note that when I say “white supremacy culture,” I don’t mean overt expressions of white supremacy like the KKK. I mean the ways in which white supremacy has been internalized by many aspects of American culture, such that we don’t even recognize it. In this particular instance, white folks in the U.S. tend to perceive that things must be either good or bad, right or wrong, with us or against us. This is closely linked to another characteristic of white supremacy culture, perfectionism. When we see the world in a binary of good and bad, we are afraid of making mistakes and becoming one of the “bad ones.” We work hard to stay pure, or at least keep up the pretense of purity.
Captain America’s own “either/or” thinking gets him into trouble. In the Civil War comic book storyline (related to but different from the Captain America: Civil War movie), superheroes are polarized by government attempts to monitor them. Captain America, believing in his own ability to self-monitor, leads a resistance movement. The ensuing civil war results in the deaths of several superheroes, including Captain America himself.
Fortunately, Captain America is not the only hero we have in our cultural narrative. Heroes of the Bible are much more complex, their stories laden with failures and missteps. King David is lauded as a hero, but he still does questionable things. He commits adultery (probably rape) with Bathsheba, and then has Bathsheba’s husband killed to cover it up. When his eldest son rapes his daughter, he ignores her pleas for justice. He even fought for Israel’s enemies, the Philistines, for a while. Despite all this, he is referred to as “a person after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22). The biblical narrative opens up David’s internal life; we see him wrestle with his actions and repent when his first child with Bathsheba becomes ill. David is a human in all his complexity, striving for an ideal of holiness but continually missing the mark.
Complexity could have saved Captain America. In the sequel comic book “What If the Civil War Ended Differently?,” it is revealed that compromise was possible. In an alternate universe, Iron Man (leading the governmental forces) reveals his doubts about the government’s plan to Captain America rather than trying to justify his position and threaten the Captain. This allows both superheroes to consider the nuance of the situation, joining together to defeat a common threat and then collaborating on future policy.
I am not suggesting that we overlook David’s immoral actions. On the contrary: doing so brings us right back to the problematic binary of good and evil. Oftentimes, David’s story gets whitewashed. The harm he causes is re-cast as “mistakes” or “lapses in judgement” at worst, and he is still labeled a “good person.” We do not wrestle with the reality that someone can cause real harm, can do frankly terrible things, and yet be a key part of the story. It’s this same resistance to nuance that fuels conversations about the United States’ founding. Early presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who owned other humans as slaves are absolved with a comment that they “struggled with the institution of slavery and spoke frequently of [their] desire to end the practice,” while the trauma they inflicted on those enslaved people is concealed with euphemisms. The 1776 Report, from the Trump administration, reveals this tendency on a larger scale. The people (usually white, usually men) who stood up for the “right” against the “wrong” need to have their reputations protected, for when one piece of their story is called into question, the whole system they helped to create is at risk. With “either/or” thinking, if one part is suspect, nothing is safe.
On a personal and community level, the binary of good and bad creates tension. We are resistant to acknowledge our own mistakes, for fear of being labeled a “racist” or a “bad person.” The current trend of “cancel culture” threatens to ostracize anyone whose missteps are publicized. As a consequence, we overlook the harm we cause to others, and the harm others have done to us. A lack of honesty, with self or others, blocks communication.
Our heroes need nuance and humanity, just like we do. Captain America cannot hide behind his red-white-and-blue shield forever. It’s time for him to strip off his armor and dance, like David did to celebrate a spiritual victory (2 Samuel 6), comfortable in vulnerability and complexity.