“It costs to be a saviour. Ask Jesus” — Cottonmouth, Luke Cage, Episode 5
Marvel’s partnership with Netflix has produced some of the best and most thought-provoking television of the last two years. When I say this what I really mean is that this partnership has continued the trajectory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in modernising the Epic genre, and that they’ve perhaps been the TV series most deliberately and overtly engaged with Christianity. What I mean is that my thinking has been provoked, because they’re exactly the sort of storytelling I’ve spent tens of thousands of words playing with over the last year… whether in the series exploring how superheroes might help re-enchant our view of the world, or my review of Daredevil Season 2.
Few cultural artefacts have excited my inner-overthinker more than the series released through this partnership: Daredevil (1 & 2), Jessica Jones, and now Luke Cage. Luke Cage has been out for over a week, and I’ve been wanting to write about it for days and days now… so here’s the obligatory spoiler warning.
Luke Cage is the story of the eponymous hero; an indestructible, hoodied, black man in the New York neighbourhood of Harlem.
Luke Cage differs from Daredevil’s Matt Murdock in certain key ways that play out in their respective Netflix storylines, but that are worth teasing out a little (mostly for funsies).
Murdock is very destructible; so destructible that his cuts and bruises reflect the struggles of his neighbourhood and are the price he pays for his heroism, while bullets bounce of Cage such that he becomes an inspiration for his neighbours in his adopted kingdom. There’s a great point in the season where the people of Harlem start wearing bullet-hole riddled hoodies as a sign of solidarity with Cage; a powerful statement in the #blacklivesmatter era.
Murdock is at home in Hell’s Kitchen, while Cage is an outsider; drawn to Harlem in part by circumstance, but increasingly both because of his mission and his love for what Harlem represents as a beacon for Black culture, and those he seeks to save.
Daredevil’s powers are the result of an accident that left him partly disabled (blind, but hyper-sensitive), Cage’s powers are the result of a scientific experiment that left him super-human.
Daredevil is masked, while Cage is open about his identity (with the exception of his hoodie, which does not so much hide him but identify him with those he protects).
Daredevil’s costume is bulletproof (because his skin isn’t), Cage’s hoodie is bullet riddled (because his skin isn’t).
Cage is black, Murdock is white. This, in itself, is the most significant feature of the series and the one that makes it the most compelling piece of media produced in an America coming face to face with race issues in a time where black men are seemingly routinely shot because of what, to an outsider, looks like deep systemic issues, but as a white Aussie I’m certainly not qualified to write about that stuff, so it’ll only come up tangentially in this post, but I’d highly recommend reading black voices on this stuff because the idea that Luke Cage is racist because its hero, and most of its characters, are black is frankly ridiculous (perhaps even more patently so given that the trajectory of this series is The Defenders where Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage team up).
But, paradoxically, it’s the similarities between the heroes, not the differences, that provide some of the most interesting contrasts. Both are going up against devilish villains hell-bent on the destruction of their idealised visions of their neighbourhood homes, idyllic visions of their place, and thus the sort of heroism required to get there, that they, in a real sense, embody. Daredevil is to Hell’s Kitchen what Cage is to Harlem. Both are trying to bring light to a dark place. Perhaps most profoundly, both are deeply influenced by Christianity. Murdock is a practicing Catholic who routinely spends time in confession and who sees himself as the Good Samaritan, and sees his mission in parallel with the crucifixion of Jesus. Cage is the son of a ‘celebrity’ (at a local level) preacher from a black church in Georgia who draws on Black Liberation Theology’s favourite passage in Luke 4 when choosing his name after his resurrection.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” — Luke 4:18-19
Daredevil paints arch-villain, and Murdock’s arch-rival, Wilson Fisk, as the embodiment of the ‘ill intent’ in the parable of the Good Samaritan, while Luke Cage presents serpentine arch-villains Diamondback and Cottonmouth as personifications of the Devil (with Shades as their Screwtape-esque demon helper who ultimately seems to decide that Mariah is a better devil than both of them).
Daredevil and Luke Cage as images and imitations of Jesus
There’s an expression, the ‘Jesus Juke’ that gets used for jumping to Jesus from cultural texts where it seems tenuous, but these shows make the connection overtly. It doesn’t feel tenuous to look at these heroes and assess them against the mission and heroism of Jesus. In Cage and Murdock’s slightly different presentation of the heroic, ‘messianic,’ incarnate mission to save their people; the neighbours dwelling in the place they are called to serve; we see two elements of the real mission of the real Jesus. In Daredevil we meet the suffering servant who, in an echo of Jesus setting himself towards Jerusalem, deliberately steps in to take, and absorb, the punishment being thrown at his people. In Cage we meet the (mostly) indestructible resurrected saviour, a liberator who feels the call to free his people from the yoke of oppression, then doesn’t just absorb bullets, but turns them aside, and (mostly) crushes the head of the serpent.
Daredevil is, in a sense, the embodiment of two views of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ where Jesus substitutes in to take the punishment those he saves deserve, and the exemplary view of the atonement (Christus Exemplar), where the life and death of Jesus are a moral example for his followers. Cage is almost purely a picture of the victory of Jesus; the victory he proclaims arrives with his kingdom in Luke 4 (Christus Victor).
But these heroes aren’t just Jesus figures; they’re presented as Jesus followers; imitators of the sort of Jesus they seem to follow. This is, in a sense, what separates these stories from others in the Marvel or DC universes. Daredevil’s heroic imitation of Jesus is consistent with the Catholic view of his mission and its implications for those he saves; the Catholic view of the atonement involves penal substitution, but also in the words of Pope John Paul II, acts of reparation, that continue to echo the crucifixion of Jesus: “the unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified“… this is Daredevil’s understanding of his own mission; a mission deeply informed by his Catholicism. His mission to both be the good samaritan, but also to step in and take the blows aimed at the victim the good samaritan helps. His mission matures between season 1 and 2 from samaritan to martyr. He becomes one who is prepared to lay down his life for his city in order to defeat darkness. This is what motivates Daredevil to keep heading out into the bruising darkness; such that his body is broken time and time again for the sake of those he seeks to save. Being indestructible would actually be antithetical, in some sense, to his view of heroism; it would turn him into an entirely different sort of hero, one imagines, embodying an entirely different sort of Jesus.
The sort of Jesus we see in Luke Cage…
The Christus Victor view of the atonement is what drives the sort of Black Liberation Theology Cage apparently adheres to; we have hints of this both in the view of Jesus he subscribes to as he adopts the name ‘Luke Cage’ and the way he conceives of his liberating mission in Harlem. His name is derived from the reference for his favourite passage, and its depiction of a cage being removed. His imperishable resurrected body provides him with the strength and ability to bring about his vision of shalom; the peace and liberation Jesus came to bring to the poor and oppressed.
Cage’s liberation theology represents a softer form of Black Liberation Theology than that advocated by the theologian who founded the movement, James Cone, though it certainly draws from it.
“The task of Black Theology then is to analyze the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the light of oppressed black people – so they will see the gospel as inseparable from their humiliated condition, bestowing on them the necessary power to break the chains of oppression.” — James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
Cone’s theology has been deeply influential in the Liberation Theology movement, but perhaps in a way mirrored by the writers of Luke Cage refusing to make the villains just white, or just the system, modern liberation theologians have rejected some of his more radical views of the white church and how it should be treated. It is interesting that Luke Cage faces up to ‘anti-Christ’ type figures who are also black; who ultimately side with the oppressive system out of self-interest, or simply motivated by baser desires like the desire for vengeance.
“Theology is always identified with a particular community. It is either identified with those who inflict oppression or with those who are its victims. A theology of the latter is authentic Christian theology, and a theology of the former is the theology of the anti-Christ.” — James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
This makes the ‘theology’ of Cage’s friend-turned-brother-turned-nemesis, Diamondback, particularly interesting. Diamondback has a snake-like ability to twist the words of God and use them to his own ends. He is the personification of the Genesis 3 serpent (both Diamondbacks and Cottonmouths are types of snake). He is an anti-Christ in precisely the manner Cone describes, but also because he is the enemy of the Christlike figure in the narrative… And he’s the ultimate opponent of Luke Cage not just directly but in his willingness to prop up a corrupt system opposed to the oppressed people Cage has come to liberate; simply because he is hell-bent on the destruction of Cage; and the death of hope.
He’s not particularly interested in the fate of Harlem, he promises Mariah Dillard that he’ll disappear when Cage is finished, but it turns out that Dillard isn’t really interested in a renaissance for Harlem, not in any meaningful sense. She is interested in being in control of Harlem and its citizens. She wants to be its oppressor — another anti-christ — and we see this in her decision to join the existing oppressors and to arm them with Cage-destroying weaponry; carrying the aptly named ‘Judas’ bullets.
But Cage cannot be killed so easily. Cage won’t let the oppressors win. Cage is not afraid of Death, and not even a Judas can ultimately get rid of him. In Liberation Theology generally, but Cone’s Black Liberation Theology specifically, the resurrection is not just a conceptual thing but a paradigm for how to live when staring at oppression in the present; and this, perhaps, serves as something of a description for Luke Cage’s modus operandi.
“[Jesus’] resurrection is the disclosure that God is not defeated by oppression but transforms it into the possibility of freedom. For men and women who live in an oppressive society this means they do not have to behave as if death were the ultimate. God in Christ has set us free from death, and we can now live without fear of social ostracism, economic insecurity, or political tyranny.”— James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
There are no doubt some problems with Black Liberation Theology, especially as Cone conceived of it many years ago, but this is, in a sense, a description of Luke Cage. Freed from death and physical pain, after his resurrection, Luke Cage is able to tackle oppression in Harlem fearlessly. Mostly. His mission isn’t resolved after one season, nor is the job complete, but he is the liberator; and ultimately there’s little doubt that he’ll be the victor (that’s not even a spoiler).
There’s obviously a lot more going on in the series — figures like Shades and Mariah Dillard are complex personifications of different sorts of evil, temptation, and the cyclical, self-perpetuating nature of brokenness and sin. Diamondback is both Satan and Cain, and Cage both Jesus and Abel — which gets a little confusing, though it works quite nicely if you think of both Abel and Jesus as descendants of Adam who don’t act like sinful Adam, and Cage and Diamondback as brothers who both have to decide how they’re shaped by the sin of their forebear.
There’s also something interesting about the character Claire Temple, the Night Nurse, who features in all three Netflix/Marvel franchises as a willing helper of the hero who doesn’t just patch them up when they fall, but pushes them towards their divine calling. If Cage and Daredevil are different visions of Jesus, Claire Temple is their ‘paraclete,’ their Holy Spirit, who keeps them focused on the mission and picks them up when they fall, she’s also a voice who calls other characters to buy into the ‘messianic’ vision of the hero. There’s an interesting contrast that seems to suggest that Claire is more bought into Cage’s ability to save, the victor model, than the suffering servant model of heroism; not simply evident in her romantic entanglement with Cage being far deeper than her involvement with Murdock, but because where she keeps pushing Cage towards the fight, she tries to convince Murdock, at one point, to abandon it lest it cost him those he is trying to save.
“Maybe you need to start thinking about climbing down from that cross of yours and spending some time with us normal people for a change…” — Claire Temple to Daredevil, Daredevil, Season 2
It’s Claire who calls our heroes to stay on mission and to keep their feet firmly planted amongst those they’ve come to save; to find the happy medium and avoid the temptation that threatens to derail their messianic calling. This is another fundamental similarity and difference between Cage and Daredevil. Cage’s temptation is always to disconnect from the people at the heart of his mission by leaving the fight, though he is indestructible, to not take up the call to heroism, so Claire calls him back to it; Daredevil’s temptation is to so embrace the fight, though he is destructible, such that he disconnects from his people who have to witness his destruction and is destroyed without truly being able to save them; Claire calls him back to these people he’s meant to be fighting for, to keep him from losing himself and becoming the darkness he fights.
Luke Cage and Daredevil live in, and fight for, the same city; coming from neighbourhoods separated physically by Central Park, and both confronted by devils and demons who they’ll continue to battle in future seasons (ultimately they’ll join forces in The Defenders); they’re both living in a world scarred by the sort of ‘heroism’ behind ‘the incident’ (the destruction of New York as the Avengers saved the planet). They’re both counter-examples to the sort of heroes who are detached from the suburban reality of life; the ‘hero from above’ — and in this there’s an implicit criticism of the type of leaders in our world who want to be the saviour without any connection to the cost of salvation; both Daredevil and Cage show that true heroism requires skin (even bulletproof) skin in the game; that it requires going head to head with darkness and seeking to bring light, and in this they’re commendable examples.
Why Jesus is still better than Daredevil and Luke Cage
I love these series; I get suckered in to both the binge watching “I must finish this series in less than a week” and the overthinking “I must write thousands of words about this” parts of the experience. I love the visions of heroism on offer here and the rich exploration of different traditions of Christianity they supply in order to help people think about living heroically in the modern world. As viewers we’re not really called to pick a favourite between Cage and Daredevil, but to appreciate both, and I think that is a valuable exercise for us Christians.
We get the best version of Jesus from these two series; these two heroes; if we combine them.
So often our vision of the cross has been deeply framed by our own circumstances — this is true of the rampant individualism of the Protestant church (which tends to make penal substitution — the salvation of the individual — the core part of the Gospel), it’s true of the minds behind the Black Liberation Theology movement whose first hand experience of systemic oppression drives their reading of the Gospel, and it’s true of Catholicism where our morality, or Christlikeness (especially as it reflects the cross), is part of what saves us.
These two series have served us well by presenting us with multiple visions of heroism reflecting on Jesus, visions of heroism linked in the same world, ultimately featuring heroes who’re on the same team, and guided by the same voice (Temple). We’re presented with an interesting opportunity to consider that our relatively narrow and culturally shaped views of what’s happening at the Cross might indeed be too simplistic, and as a result might distort what’s actually going on.
The good news is that Jesus, the incarnate saviour, is a bit like the visions of heroism put forward by Marvel in both Daredevil and Luke Cage. The better news is that he’s a complete hero, while these visions offer different facets of heroism and show different aspects of his mission that come together to present a much more compelling picture for those of us who aren’t heroes. We are, in fact, villains by nature; people who too easily give in to temptation or seek to control our world.
In seeing both the strengths, and limitations, of these heroes built on one or two particular views of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus from different traditions, we’re invited to expand our picture of his heroism. Jesus is a suffering servant who took our punishment for us; the cost of sin is death and his death paid our debt and this heroism does save people. He’s also a moral exemplar both in his life and in his death and resurrection; he does call us to take up our cross and follow him. He knows the pain and suffering of the broken world and does not stand apart from it. Daredevil is like Jesus. Jesus also knows that we’re not, on our own, worthy of saving, and that we don’t take up our cross or act as ‘saviours’ on our own steam; that we’re all Fisks and Diamonbacks at heart, wanting to kill heroes who threaten to get in our way, and yet he lays down his life for us, and in this his heroism is greater than Daredevil’s, and Cage’s because he teaches us to love our enemies. This is part of the call to take up our cross, not to destroy our enemies but to lay down our lives for them… our crosses don’t save us, or others, and Jesus isn’t killed over and over again ad nauseam; we’re not called to make acts of reparation for he has made the ultimate heroic act.
Jesus is also victor and king (Christus Rex); he did come to bring peace, and will return to bring the sort of shalom that liberation theology seeks now (we should, as people following him, stand against oppression here and now too). But to limit that peace to human fault-lines like the white/black, good/evil, oppressor/oppressed fault lines is to see the fruit and miss the tree. Yes; God is fundamentally against oppression, but it’s also true that given the opportunity all of us are fundamentally oppressors, and the real freedom and peace Jesus came to bring was to bring us freedom from the bondage of sin and peace with God. It’s that freedom and that peace that’ll ultimately stop us enslaving and objectifying our fellow humans. Yes; we are called to live life now as though we have been raised with Christ, as people of his kingdom who desire liberation for all people, but the ultimate goal of this liberation can’t simply be social, economic, or political; we should desire that they too be liberated from death, to share with Jesus in his heroic victory over the enemies of God’s people: Satan, sin, and death.
Both Daredevil and Luke Cage show valuable glimpses of what it looks like to take up a facet of the sort of heroism we see in Jesus and imitate it for the sake of those around us.
In Daredevil we’re invited to see that really loving others requires pain and sacrifice; which is the sort of love, and the example, Jesus demonstrates at the Cross. Those of us who follow Jesus see this act as both what frees us to love others without feeling like we’re paying off our sin and earning our salvation, and also shows us what that love looks like.
In Luke Cage we’re invited to see that resurrection in an indestructible body frees us from fear; which is what happens for us because of the resurrection of Jesus, and his ultimate defeat of death and the devil. Those of us who follow Jesus believe we’re, in a sense, eternally bulletproof. So we’re free to stand up and fight against oppression for the sake of our neighbours when we see it now.
This doesn’t necessarily make Jesus true. Of course. But it does, at the very least, make him a better hero (in a better story) than Daredevil or Luke Cage, and maybe that alone should be enough reason for you to check out the stories of his heroism; the Gospels.
“It costs to be a saviour. Ask Jesus” — Cottonmouth, Luke Cage, Episode 5