DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Freedom fighters or terrorists?

Written by: on June 20, 2018

In a recent LA Times article, Charles C Camosy, a professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University asks the question, was “the Star Wars Rebel Alliance freedom fighters or terrorists?”[1]After all, the “rebels” were a group of people who “were willing to kill innocent people to advance a political agenda.”[2]

As an ethicist, Camosy takes this as a serious question.  It seems that cheering for the “rebels” as the good guys of the galaxy only works, as long as their use of force and violence is deemed necessary or legitimate.  A similar question runs through the pages of Gene Luen Yang’s incredible dual graphic novel set Boxers & Saints.

Much has been made of the inventiveness and art of Yang’s work.  It is described as “marvelously crafted” and exhibiting, “bold, lucid artwork”.[3]  One reviewer calls out, “its bold and eye catching box design” and the “bright, rich colors, strong lines and vibrant shading.”[4]  Clearly this graphic novel is a work of art, as well as a creative approach to telling a largely unknown story (unknown at least in the United States).

The first novel is centered on Little Bao, who grows up in a time of foreign interference and domination in China.  He becomes the leader of a group called the Big Sword Society (later, the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist)[5], which develops supernatural fighting abilities. As they seek to right the wrongs of the foreign oppressors, this band of fighters also ends up committing atrocities while trying to defend their neighbors and communities. In one instance, Little Bao locks a congregation of women and children inside a church and burns them to death inside.[6]

Yang attempts to show evenhandedness in exposing the reasons behind the historical Boxer Rebellion, including the economic, political and religious subjugation of China in that time period.  However, Yang’s own biographical background may also be seen in how he treats some of his story. Yang grew up as the son of immigrant parents from Taiwan and as part of a local Chinese Catholic church.  In a 2013 interview, he reflects that, “the central tension in Boxers & Saints is very personal.  When I was little, because I grew up in that Chinese American Catholic church, Christianity and Chinese culture seemed to go hand-in-hand… As I got older, I began to realize this wasn’t always the case.  In China just over a hundred years ago, being a Chinese Christian was seen as a contradiction.”[7]

So, even as he works out these two parts of his own identity, Chinese and Christian, the story that he presents reflects those same questions.  In the end, were those involved in the Boxer Rebellion, freedom fighters who were throwing off the oppression of a foreign religion?  Or, did they also commit atrocities, and use terrorizing tactics in their struggle.  Yang presents them in sympathetic ways at times, but at others, lays bare the violence that occurred. He is comfortable with contradiction and challenges the reader to become that way as well.

The second book in this box set, Saints, is the flip side of the coin.  In the story, a young Chinese girl known as “Four Girl” becomes a Christian and takes the name Vibiana.  She is visited by visions of Joan of Arc, and represents the faith and devotion of a minority group of Chinese believers in that era.

In this sense, Four Girl seeks to explore what it means to be among the “true believers”, even in a setting where it leads toward conflict and even death.  The end of Saints had strong echoes of Endo’s novel Silence.  As in the missionary history in Japan, so too for Vibiana in China, she could recant her faith in order to save her life, but she refuses.  This recalls again the basic questions that these books seem to ask. What is it worth to follow what you believe?  How far would you go to defend your own way and to defeat your enemies?  And in particular, what is the relationship between being Chinese and being Christian?  Can the two ever be reconciled, or are they doomed to be in conflict.

I found my daughter in her room reading my copy of Saints at bedtime one night this week. I’m not sure if it is age appropriate for her, or not, but maybe the story of a young girl who is trying to find her way, and to follow her sense of faith even if it costs something, is a good message for her to read about.  In our own ways, we all struggle with a version of this same theme: with various identities available to us and that we take on in our lives, which one is the deepest, and how does it cause us to think, speak and act in the world.

These are questions that an ethicist can ask, that these novels seek to explore, and that Christians also must confront in their lives.  The artistic packaging and cartoon characters are just the medium that present a complex and important message.

[1]Charles Camosy, “’Star Wars’ Rebel Alliance: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-camosy-star-wars-terrorism-20151105-story.html.

[2]Charles Camosy, “’Star Wars’ Rebel Alliance: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2015, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-camosy-star-wars-terrorism-20151105-story.html.

[3]Douglas Wolk, “Boxers,” Washington Post, October 8, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/boxers-and-saints-gene-luen-yang/2013/10/08/6764060c-2b80-11e3-8ade-a1f23cda135e_story.html?utm_term=.c99a3ebb373c.

[4]Ay-leen Peacemaker, “a Divided Nation in Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers,” www.tor.com, August 26, 2013, https://www.tor.com/2013/08/26/graphic-novel-book-review-gene-luen-yang-boxers-saints/.

[5]Gene Luen Yang, Boxers (New York: First Second, 2013), 170.

[6]Gene Luen Yang, Boxers (New York: First Second, 2013), 249.

[7]J. Caleb Mozzocco, “Interview: Gene Luen Yang On Boxers,” School Library Journal, September 19, 2013, http://blogs.slj.com/goodcomicsforkids/2013/09/19/interview-gene-luen-yang-on-boxers-saints/.

About the Author

Dave Watermulder

2 responses to “Freedom fighters or terrorists?”

  1. Great post and very well written. You gave a beautiful summary of a very unique book and I loved your line at the end…”In our own ways, we all struggle with a version of this same theme: with various identities available to us and that we take on in our lives, which one is the deepest, and how does it cause us to think, speak and act in the world.” What a powerful question and a deep one to bring out of this book filled with difficult moral decisions.

  2. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Dave,

    Loved your opening with Star Wars. You had me from the start!

    And even more so, with your daughter’s story, of reading this while at the same time finding her way spiritually in a complicated world.

    We all think you are a great Dad! Keep shining for Jesus my Brother.

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