Church Vampires

For people my age manga is a new form of reading that is easily ignored. Although I’ve read a graphic novel or two, “comic books,” no matter how adult the theme, seem juvenile. Note that word “seem.” I do know some younger folks, and one of them insisted that I read Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. This particular friend is as interested in vampires as I am, and, knowing my history with religion, suggested this might down my alley. Dubious, I gave it a try. In this manga universe Hellsing is a Protestant organization for fighting vampires and ghouls (non-virgin vampire victims who come back as zombie-like creatures who are very hard to stop). Their activity is in England, but when they cross into Ireland they encounter a Catholic organization that kills all vampires, including the “secret weapon” of Hellsing, who is indeed a vampire.

What made reading this tale so interesting is that the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the Protestant sect. The Hellsing characters are engagingly drawn—handsome or beautiful, resilient, and naturally good fighters. The Catholic characters are ugly and maniacal. They kill all monsters, regardless of their “heart.” In this the direction from the movie Van Helsing is reversed. There Van Helsing is a hireling of the Catholic Church who won’t kill a monster unless it’s evil. The idea of the graphic novel is that religious rivalry runs deep between these two Christian organizations. Thinking about this, I wondered how Christianity might look to someone from Japan. In this context, it makes sense. Christian missionaries penetrated east Asia from both Protestant and Catholic evangelistic efforts. Although they worship the same deity, they are quite different religions. At least it must look so to anyone not raised in this strange milieu.

Colonialism, in all its forms, has forced peoples to make decisions about new religions in a somewhat violent way. Imagine someone confronting you with your way of life and warning you that you’re going to suffer never-ending torment unless you accept a faith of which you’ve likely never heard. Then you discover that there are two very different versions of that faith that mutually condemn each other. The natural result, if you acquiesce at all, would be to choose the one that either makes the most sense, or the one that got to you first. Hardly the way to gamble with eternal life. I’m not sure Hellsing is intended as commentary on the experience of the colonized. It seems reasonable to me. And if vampires are a problem, you’ll want to be sure to select the right belief system the first time around.

Alternate Reality

Recall a time when you did something bad. We have all done it now and again. Even the memory possesses the power to churn the stomach and lower the brow. I just finished reading Native Voices: American Indian Identity and Resistance, edited by Richard A. Grounds, George E. Tinker, and David E. Wilkins. The essays in this volume are about Native Americans by Native Americans. Many of us are taught to believe that the United States government had found some way to deal peacefully, after some bloody battles, with those hostile to the arrival of Europeans, but the truth is much sadder and more sordid. While some may say the essays in this book dismiss academic standards, I have been on the receiving end of academic standards enough to know that even highly educated people can sometimes only cower and the reality is how you feel. That is what comes through every page of this book: what it feels like to be misrepresented, demonized, caricatured, forgotten. European colonizers stole what they could in the name of Christianity and left a legacy of tears.

I nevertheless learned a great deal from this book. Here, I came to understand, not everyone agrees with the standards that Euro-Americans use to measure the world. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Native American critique of science. Those of us trained in this method feel a knee-jerk reaction when it is questioned, but those willing to consider, to ponder, will realize that a scientific worldview is a culturally conditioned form of interpretation. Other forms exist, although they have frequently been silenced. There is more than one way of knowing. In many Native American religious traditions the land itself is sacred. Being removed from tribal lands was tantamount to being separated from tribal divinity. We might be better able to dismiss it all as ancient history were it not for the fact that the oppression continues to this day.

Comparison with another oppressed religion came to mind. Ancient Israel is understood only imperfectly, but we know that the land was crucial to Israel’s sense of identity. We should, as heirs of the Judeo-Christian tradition, be sympathetic to Indigenous American sensitivity to the bond between land and religion. In the former case, the United States supported the re-formation of Israel in the 1940s. We still keep our own indigenous people out of sight and use their land with impunity. Reading Native Voices raises some very troubling specters indeed. The colonizing religion here was Christianity, a religion that says it is more blessed to give, but is more than willing to take. And to invent a tortured theological justification for the action; it’s manifest destiny—whatcha gonna do? It is time we confront what was done to the people who were here first. I have no solution, but reading Native Voices is an appropriate way to start the discussion.