Directed by Marc Forster
Written by Jason Keller
From the opening scene of a Sudanese village pillaged by LRA terrorists who force children to kill their parents to the closing credit monologue of the real life Sam Childers’ plea to rescue the kidnapped Sudanese orphans by any means necessary, Machine Gun Preacher packs a punch to the gut of our moral conscience. And it does so with a nuanced spiritual and moral reasoning that challenges our American couch potato activism that prides itself in political debates over moral action. Oh, and did I say it involves Jesus?
Machine Gun Preacher is based on the true story of Sam Childers, a drug addicted motorcycle riding criminal who gets saved by Jesus and goes to help rescue the orphans of Sudan from kidnapping, enslavement, torture and murder by rebel terrorists.
The story begins with an unrepentant Sam being released from prison, telling the Guards to go “F” themselves. What “poor” Sam learns is that his faithful wife has found Jesus and quit her stripping job to lead a respectable god fearing life raising their daughter. And now she wants him to come to church. Needless to say, that pisses Sam off big time and launches him on a self-destructive raging crime spree of drugs, robbery, and violence. But he is brought to the end of himself and believe it or not, gives his life to Jesus, being baptized and getting a respectable job in construction. This ain’t your low key Tender Mercies.
One day, Sam hears about the church mission project of building churches in Uganda and he takes off to go see how he can help. What he discovers on his trip is an evil world more wicked than he even realized. Joseph Kony’s terrorist group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), crosses from Uganda into Sudan and burns down villages, kills adults, tortures those who speak out, and forces children to become soldiers in their terrorist group. The result is myriads of orphans without much help from anyone to protect them.
Well, as you can guess, this pisses off Sam, and he gets a vision from God one day to build a church on his property for street people rejected by “proper” churchgoers, as well as an orphanage in the Sudan to help the children. Once, his new orphanage is burnt to the ground, he starts over, but this time with a new spirit – or rather, an old spirit redeemed with a new purpose. He joins the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a counterinsurgent militia that protects the oppressed children with lethal force. Thus the title Machine Gun Preacher. Sam clings to his God and his guns. And thus the tremendous moral tale that asks the questions worthy of the Good Book itself: “How far will you go to save helpless innocent human life?”; “How does God’s redemption apply in a violent world of evil run amok?”; “Is self defense morally justifiable in rescuing women and orphans?”
A Christian Movie?
I have to be honest, this movie contains in it what I usually criticize in a typical “Christian movie.” Big bad biker dude’s wife finds God, brings him to a corny red-bricked church and he accepts Jesus into his heart, “gets saved” and baptized, turns his life around, starts his own church, and helps the poor children, yada yada. Christian clichés and memes we are all too familiar with in the Christian world.
However, this movie is not a cliché Christian movie. It is a deeply moving honest portrayal of “muscular” Christian faith alive in the complex real world we live in that draws respect even from unbelievers. So why do I say that? What makes it different if it carries some of the very same elements of Christian movies?
Well, first off, let’s be honest that the most obvious major differences are good production values, good writing, good directing, and good acting, that is so absent from “Christian movies.” Now, I am not going to go on a Christian movie bashing binge. And I am not going to make digs at specifically named Christian movies (and you know who you are :-). As a matter of fact, I think in general, they are getting better in all these categories as the years press on. I have been a part of some mediocre movies as well, so I know how hard it is to make a good movie, period. But there are several things in the storytelling itself that I think make this film work where Christian movies approaching similar themes often do not. First, in its moral and spiritual honesty and second, in its portrayal of evil and redemption.
While the movie wrestles with the moral issue of how to rescue widows and orphans oppressed by murderers, it does not promote hero worship or give pat answers and it deals honestly with the moral ambiguity of violence as a means to an end that exists in the real world.
First off, the villains in the film are fairly represented. Though the bulk of the murdering done in Southern Sudan has been by Muslims against Christians, Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, claims to be a Christian. Now, this would be a perfect opportunity for the typical Hollywood politically correct spin to ignore the Muslim violence and paint it as a picture of “Christian” terrorism. But the movie does not do this. It tells us about the Muslim violence and then communicates that Kony claims to be a Christian, but is clearly not a Christian, but a wolf in wolf’s clothing, using the Christian God’s name in vain. The issues are just more complicated than knee jerk moral equivalency will allow.
The movie also struggles honestly with the issue of using violence to defend the innocent against violence. Rather than creating another left/right divide of the issue or pacifism versus warmongering, this story promotes action, yet questions itself with an ambiguous thoughtfulness. When Sam sees the evil of the LRA cutting off the lips of protestors or the mine field death of a little boy, he realizes that this kind of evil cannot be stopped except by force and draws upon his past violence to overcome it. But his past nature is redeemed by channeling it to do good. Other than unborn babies, can there be any more helpless victims in need of protection than these? Can a pacifist in good conscience actually choose to allow orphan children to be murdered instead of stopping their murder with lethal force? As the Bible says, killing in self-defense is morally justifiable (Exodus 22:2-3) and rescuing widows and orphans from the wicked is commanded (Jeremiah 22:3; Psalm 82:4; Proverbs 24:11).
But neither does the movie degenerate into a bloodfest of vicarious catharsis of violent joy. It raises the issue, through a U.N. peace worker, that the use of violence even in service of a good cause can turn heroes into villains. She claims Kony too started out as Sam did, trying to do good with his violence but ended evil. But rather than capitulate to this simplistic moral reductionism, the movie goes deeper. Sam gets to the point where be becomes so filled with hate for his enemies that he gives up on God in the face of all the evil and is driven to suicidal thoughts. But he finds a way out back to God and draws a line of distinction between righteous and unrighteous violence based on the motive of hatred. One can achieve justice rather than vengeance by not allowing the hatred of the enemy to grip our own hearts. According to this movie, there is righteous violence in service of the good. In fact, Sam ends up rescuing that U.N. worker with his guns, providing delicious irony that reminds one of how American soldiers provide the freedom and protection to protestors to hate and accuse America of denying freedom.
And that brings me to the spiritual honesty. While Sam becomes a hero, the movie does not white wash him nor whitewash his faith. His faith and sensitive conscious create a complex moral tension in his life that is not completely solved by the end of the story. Sam becomes so focused on his cause of rescuing people on the other side of the earth that he neglects his own family given by God. Sure, he sells what he owns to save the children, but that means what he owns is taken from providing for his family. This is a common problem with “full time” charity and ministry workers. Christian salvation does not always result in a balanced life. Christians often continue on as a mixed bag of good and bad qualities that God uses in spite of our flaws. Kinda like the Bible. But all too often unlike the Christian movie genre.
When Sam cannot get donations from the selfish rich people around him and he sees that the kids are not being helped, he has a crisis of faith and gets angry with God to the point of cussing him out along with his family. Oh my goodness! A Christian who cusses when he gets angry? Heresy! The film portrays Sam repenting from his suicidal hatred and coming back to a justice orientation, but it does not show a spiritual resolution. Maybe this is just part of that uneasy ambiguity of the tensions in our own lives. The reality is that while Sam remains married, he remains a scarred and imperfect man with a bad attitude, who still screws up. It is a messy situation and no one gets away clean or undamaged. There is redemption, but it is no fairy tale happy talk prosperity salvation.
At the end of the film, we see a video of the real Sam Childers telling us he is not capable of clearly delineating the right and wrong of what he does. But he asks us the question, “If it was your child who was kidnapped, and I could bring them back to you, would it matter how I got them back?” Making it personal challenges the self-righteous who would sacrifice the lives of other’s children on the altar of convenient arm-chair philosophizing. These are real people’s children being kidnapped, raped, enslaved and murdered, not abstractions for an argument. Talk is not enough. Action is required. Evil can only be stopped with violent force. And violent force, even in service to righteousness, is not without its negative effects on us. But the evil will not listen to talk. So your only choices are: Allow innocent children to be kidnapped, raped and murdered or kill the evil perpetrators? Which will you choose?
Portrayal of Evil and Redemption
Straight up, this is a hard R-rated film. Unlike “Christian movies,” It is full of the F-word, has a crude sex scene and is very violent. In other words, many Christians will be offended by it. In my book, Hollywood Worldviews (Read the Preface free along with unused chapters of the book at the URL link) I have a chapter on sex and violence in the movies and the Bible where I explain that in a story, the power of the redemption is only equal to the power of the sin depicted. If you do not portray evil Biblically as the seductive yet destructive reality that it is, your message of redemption will not be truthful or believable.
While I do not condone all portrayals of sin in movies (some of it can be exploitative. Read my book :-), in this case, the depth of the depravity is essential to the potency of the redemption. The problem with some Christian movies is that when they portray real world evil with a filtered “protective” sugar coating like some 1970’s television bad guys, they degrade their redemption story to an unrealistic anachronism that doesn’t ring true to human nature. If the real world they portray is not real, how can the redemption be real? The reason why Sam’s Old time Religion salvation in a corny quirky Evangelical church is not off putting to unbelievers is because it is depicted as a polar opposite of Sam’s equally extreme pre-Christian lifestyle. We understand and accept that it takes extreme measures to save an extreme sinner.
Christians often have a hard time with the F-word in movies. They will sometimes accept violent shootings, stabbings, or riddling bullets (as long as they don’t show too much blood), but for some contradictory reason, they just think that the F-word is too harsh for their holy ears. Look, I’ll agree that sometimes it can become excessive, but I’m sorry, if I see a biker dude in a Christian movie saying “friggin” or “dang” or whatever other substitute cuss word for how they really talk, I do not believe the reality of the character and subsequently do not believe the storytellers understand human nature because they are afraid to face it like the Bible does. Their fear of accuracy is a reflection of a lack of faith, reminiscent of hagiographic biographies of saints. Just too good to be true. The book of Judges depicts far worse than Machine Gun Preacher ever does.
When Sam has quicky car sex with his wife in the car by the side of the road, we are saddened by the dehumanized crudity, and that is Biblical (Don’t worry, wives and girlfriends, they don’t show any skin). That is Biblical because it portrays exactly the kind of dehumanization that has destroyed Sam and destroyed his ability to find intimacy with his own loving wife. Every aspect of this man – love, sexuality, relationships, human concern — is spiritually damaged almost beyond repair. Why, that is almost as bad as the Bible’s detailed description of dehumanizing sexuality in Ezekiel 16 and 23 (Read my book for a whole lot more).
And of course, when we see a person whose lips have been cut off because they talked back to the terrorists, or when we see a child whose legs have been blown off by a mine, or a child forced to murder his own mother, we are repulsed because we cannot imagine such evil. But rather than being “sensitive” to family audiences or avoiding “excessive violence”, this movie does what is morally right: It shows the evil so our consciences will be convicted and we will act (I betya parents don’t let their children read Ezekiel 16 or 23 either). If we never saw the grotesque images of the skeletal myriads of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, we would not have the moral growth necessary to “never again” let it happen. If we do not see what is happening to the innocents in Sudan and around the world, we will remain ignorant and spiritually and morally immature, preferring political arguments in our safely removed lives to actual moral actions.
I will conclude this analysis with a translation of a famous Tony Campolo charge that struck my heart and never left me years ago:
Rebel terrorists have murdered over 400,000 Sudanese, and enslaved over 40,000 children and many Christians just don’t give a shit. And the most tragic fact of all is that many Christians who just read that statement were more offended by my use of the word “shit” than by the fact that 400,000 Sudanese have been killed and 40,000 enslaved by terrorists.
God, forgive us of this sin.
Jesus, thank you for Machine Gun Preacher.