“Symbols are nothing without the men and women that give them meaning,” says Sam Wilson in the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. That thought is very close to being true, but he should have said, “Symbols are nothing without the men and women who willingly embrace and accurately represent their meaning.” Ideals and values transcend any single individual. That’s the point. They give us something to strive towards.
These are the themes of The Falcon and Winter Soldier and, man, we couldn’t ask for a more relevant story in 2021. Despite our incessant postmodern need to tear down symbolism, shows like this remind me that a strict materialism has not yet claimed victory over our cultural conscience. We need symbols and values, but embracing those ideals is not a clear-cut endeavor, it’s complicated and risky, as many Catholics know. In this story, it’s about the ideals represented by Captain America (courage, righteousness, and hope) and each of the characters’ relationship to that value set and imagery. Be it Sam Wilson and his struggles with the black experience in America, Bucky Barnes whose guilt prevents him from believing that he could ever be good enough, John Walker whose pain and ego creates scandal, or the Flagsmashers who want to tear it all down.
While there is so much to unpack in this story, I want to focus on the nature of scandal and the need to orient yourself to a higher good even in the face of it. Scandal happens when someone uses a symbol in a way that is contrary to the value set it represents. This is the crux of Sam’s dilemma: how can he, as a black man, embrace becoming the next Captain America knowing full well the disconnect between the American ideals and the American reality for many of its black citizens? Does he risk being blasé towards that scandal if he took up the shield? Could any self-respecting black man become the next Captain America? (as Isaiah Bradley questions him).
In John Walker’s case, he becomes the scandal when he makes “Captain America” about himself and not the values it represents. When I saw the episode culminating in his use of the shield for vengeful murder, I immediately thought of the Catholic Church and how it is still reeling from child abuse scandal that revealed a clerical subculture antithetical to her Creed. It is awful when anyone molests a child, but it’s catastrophic when a priest does it. Why? Because those actions are diametrically opposed to what the symbol of the priesthood represents. Similarly, it is awful when leaders cover up for the mistakes within their organization, but it is unconscionable when bishops cover up for and disregard the sins within their ranks. Why? Again, because the symbol of Bishop represents a direct link to the apostles of Christ. To even think for a second that the apostles would act in such a way is spiritual and mental dissonance of the highest proportions! Scandals have dire consequences, hence the custom-fitted millstones for anyone who leads a little one astray.
Yet, even in the face of great scandal, our freedom is intact, and we have choices to make. We can abandon the symbol altogether and lose our relationship with the values it represents or make the symbol a better representation of those qualities. Sam chooses the latter when he finally takes on the Captain America moniker. He sees all the scandal caused in the name and decides that the best option is to embrace the symbol and recommit to the values it represents. God give us the grace to do the same with the scandals we face!