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Religion in Black Lightning: A journey of rage, redemption, and righteousness
The usage of religion, specifically Christianity, in Black Lighting strikes a fascinating balance between the science-centered A.S.A. organization and the fantasy element of metahumans whose powers essentially make them gods among men. The show's episode titles are segmented like books of the Bible, with names like “The Resurrection,” “And Then the Devil Brought the Plague” and “Black Jesus,” and chapters about the alpha (beginning) and omega (end). The multi-episode chapters in the show's second season also detail certain themes that are heavily explored in many religious texts (and through the characters) like rebellion, blood, consequences, and redemption. It’s safe to say that religion is as integral to the Black Lightning TV series as superpowers and technologically advanced suits.
Black Lightning has firmly created its own lane by giving a realistic portrayal of how a Black American superhero family would face racism, police brutality, gun violence, and other prominent issues in our society. The Pierce family straddles the line between their “respectable” middle-class status and the ever-present issues that affect Jefferson’s beloved Garfield High School, Jennifer and Anissa’s Black peers, and the pod kids’ families. Respectability politics are tackled via Freeland’s resident hero family, whose socioeconomic status is not an all-encompassing protective shield from the ills and -isms of the world. The primary characters and community members tackle their personal and collective plights with bold protests, prayers, vigilante justice, and rogue missions, all of which are threaded together through overt and subtle religious references.
“The Resurrection” paralleled Black Lightning’s return to Jesus’ resurrection with the character appearing after being presumed dead and returning to give hope to his people in their utmost time of need. There are also hints of Moses in this arc in his initial reluctance to be the “chosen one” who can lead Freeland to freedom. He’s serenaded with "Amazing Grace" upon protecting a peaceful protest, and called upon in TV interviews as citizens cry for help. Black Lightning is a supernatural yet tangible force that likely feels more real than any higher being to people who have lost their faith in God.
Jefferson Pierce himself is a godlike figure, a pillar and savior in his community who has changed lives and created an aspirational blueprint for success while remaining keenly in tune with social issues. Garfield students and parents praise and look to him for answers, guidance, and comfort when tough situations arise, and often getting angry when he doesn't react as they wish. But, being a leader, hero, and, as Lynn once said, having powers that are a gift from God, come with an unenviable price. Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning has to navigate the constant balance between upholding righteousness with his underlying rage at the never-ending problems that plague his beloved school and city.
Black Lightning’s early episodes confirmed that the Pierces are members of a Methodist church led by Reverend Holt, a steadfast preacher who wants to take a stand against gang violence. His sermons are often interspersed with scenes that either complement or counteract a character’s current struggle with faith and making the right decisions. Holt is angry, frustrated, and encourages his followers to take back a community that, in his words, no one gives a damn about besides the good residents. His trust lies solely in the Lord because the law has continuously failed them, which isn’t a flawed perspective considering Freeland PD’s multiple failures to bring swift justice.
Holt believes that Black Lightning and Thunder are a partial answer to the church’s fervent prayers but he acknowledges that his congregation has to stand up for Freeland and not hide behind church walls. This religious leader is willing to be at the forefront, take action (because faith without works is dead) and die for the cause, because, with God by his side, he fears no man.
In reality, reverends have generally had a contentious place in the Black community, with followers looking to them for hope, comfort, and help while others see them as pulpit pimps, selling false hope in exchange for tithes and offerings. However, Black Lightning portrays Holt as a man with a sincere heart for his community who doesn’t believe in “praying it all away," a figure who doesn't ignore those outside his spiritual leadership. He encourages his congregation to put their trust and hope in the Lord, but he balances this out by encouraging them to stand tall in the face of evil.
Jefferson's point of view differs from Reverend Holt because he is examining the situation as a vigilante and protector. He knows the forces they are facing — specifically Tobias Whale and The 100 — and understands how quickly things can escalate to violence. His point was proven after a protest against The 100 wounded Holt and paralyzed future college track star Khalil. Holt and Jefferson find themselves at odds several times over the series because the former is heavily rooted in faith while the latter is primarily coming for a logical perspective. When people who aren’t superhuman decide to follow Black Lightning’s heroic lead and get hurt (or worse), it only makes Jefferson wonder if his powers are a heavy curse or truly ordained by a higher power.
Conversely, Anissa “Thunder” Pierce knows her powers are from God and often says it is her divine will to effect change in her community. “Mary Don’t You Weep” plays triumphantly in the background as Thunder tries to hone her powers for the first time and she constantly reminds a reluctant Jennifer that they have a responsibility to use their gifts to bless others. Her character arc later introduced the concept of a trinity in Anissa Pierce, Thunder, and the Robin Hood-esque Blackbird. They are three distinct parts of one being, but each serves a different yet vital purpose.
Her brand of activism has always been more aggressive than the good Reverend’s and grew with intensity after her powers were activated. She bends the “thou shalt not steal” commandment to take from the criminals to aid community resources, and she isn’t afraid to bring a little physical pain to get results. And, no, she will not simply turn the other cheek when she’s seeing dire situations first hand as a medical professional.
Thankfully, the show doesn’t use religion to cast a negative light on Anissa’s sexuality. She is loved, accepted, and supported by her immediate family and there is no indication that she has been shunned from the church because she is a lesbian. In fact, she seems to lean deeper into her spirituality and sense of godly purpose than anyone else in her nuclear family, making her a powerful force and an unpredictable wild card.
Jennifer is just starting to come into her own as a hero, and like her big sister, she is ready to take an unconventional approach to get the answers she wants. It's not clear how much her faith in God has waned after going through her own difficult transition, learning how to accept and become comfortable with her powers, but hopefully this will be address in future seasons.
Black Lightning’s infusion of religion is also explored from the antagonist perspective, specifically through Tobias and Khalil/Painkiller. Tobias tends to talk about the Black community in widespread generalizations, stemming from his own negative experiences as a person with albinism, and his views on the church are based in that perspective.
“That’s why I hate these church-going Negroes… always praying and singing, singing and praying. They all wanna go to heaven but don’t none of them wanna die,” remarks Tobias right before he shoots into a crowd. He’s likely someone who was either betrayed by the institution of church in some way or perhaps never understood its importance to some people.
Tobias was bred out of abuse, corruption, violence, and revenge, so it’s not surprising that he is this show’s “Devil”, the man who tempts Khalil with the restoration of his spine in exchange for dark deeds. He dons black clothing and preys on those who have felt ostracized and wronged, tempting them with "forbidden fruits" of cash, women, respect, and notoriety. When it comes to Tobias, one thing is for sure — he’s certainly not worried about righteousness or redemption.
Khalil’s journey is perhaps the show’s greatest example of what happens when a person is delivered a soul-crushing blow that decimates their faith. He seemed to have it all — good looks, a promising future as a college track star, and a budding relationship with Jennifer. But, Khalil found himself in a dark mental and emotional space after losing the use of his legs, which were his ticket to a better life.
“I did everything right. I played by the rules. No drugs. No alcohol. Stayed out of jail and had no kids. Hell, I went to church every Sunday and God still took my legs.”
Khalil's feels betrayed by God, causing him to lash out at everyone, especially Jennifer, and reject offers of prayer and support. This isolation from his support system and faith shifted his trajectory towards a dangerous path as Painkiller. However, his moral foundation forced him back towards the light when he stood against evil and rejected an order to kill Reverend Holt. In the moments before his heartbreaking “death,” Khalil admitted that Jefferson was always there for him, even when he couldn’t see it, a clear allegory for faith even though it’s not a direct reference to God. Khalil completed a redemption arc but only time will tell if the person in the pod is still the same.
It will be interesting to see how Black Lightning’s ongoing religious vein will progress in Season 3 when the Markovians wreak havoc on the city. Jennifer is finally starting to come into her own and have faith in herself as a hero, but does it affect her faith in God? Will the community put more of their faith in God or their heroic metas? And, how will Anissa, Jennifer, and Jefferson continue to reconcile their brewing anger over injustice alongside their moral values that are intertwined with their belief system? The answers to those questions will surely explore grace, mercy, justice, suffering, and the potential of transformation in times of trouble.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.