Updated: Jun 16, 2022
When I heard that actor Chadwick Boseman (most famous for playing Black Panther) had died, I was as shocked as most people. Then, reading all the tributes from friends, colleagues, and fans, I was unexpectedly touched.
Of course we are all prone not to “speak ill of the dead” right after someone dies, but nothing has been brought forward that casts a shadow on his legacy. If anything, his life looks more remarkable now that we know he battled cancer for four years, even while filming several of his most iconic roles.
True, being public with his diagnosis could have scared off potential roles, so he might have kept it private for that reason. Yet doing so was also incredibly selfless. He didn’t ask for sympathy, but instead tried to set a precedent. He paved the way for others coming after him. He comforted children dying from cancer while knowing it might be his own fate.
Howard University President Wayne Frederick said of Boseman, “the most important thing about him was how well he treated each individual person, and I can’t overemphasize that.” I was moved to tears by this post, which sums up everything Boseman meant to Black people and why his death hits so hard.
Personally, I can’t imagine what besides faith in Jesus could have given him the strength to persevere through grueling treatments and grueling filming while still radiating love and joy. He grew up a Christian and never appeared to abandon his faith. Boseman reportedly said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything You gave me.’”
It struck me that he was a man who understood how to live with purpose. (He talks about purpose in the 2018 commencement speech he gave at Howard University, his alma mater. It’s long but well worth your time.) The Black Panther knew his time might be cut short, and he seemed to live all the more intensely because of it. In Christian parlance, you might say he was “living on mission.” Even former president Barack Obama recognized it, more eloquently than I could:
Chadwick came to the White House to work with kids when he was playing Jackie Robinson. You could tell right away that he was blessed. To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain—what a use of his years.
The similarity to someone else who lived with incredible purpose is striking. I thought of the Apostle Paul’s famous parting words to Timothy:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:6-7 NIV)
Though I’m now tempted to feel like I’m not doing nearly enough, I can’t compare my life with Boseman’s, or anyone else’s, because I can’t know everything that someone else is going through. But rest assured that each of us has our own purpose from God and our own struggles to overcome. They won’t look like others’ purpose and struggles. But we can learn from Boseman’s life.
It is our calling as Christians to love others, and his is an example we can all follow. If we fix our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) and seek his kingdom above our own desires (Matthew 6:33), then we can also look forward to hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21).