In one of the opening shots of Machine Gun Preacher, a member of warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) kneels a mother down before her child. He hands the child a club and screams something at him in his native language. The child, terrified, flinches every time the soldier screams at him, and keeps glancing at his mother who, with a quivering lip, nods at her child, eyes brimming with tears. The child looks back at the soldier, who lifts a gun to the child’s head and barks at him again. The child slowly lifts the club over his head, and looks for one last time into the eyes of his mother. He winds up and brings the club down with all his might. The screen goes black.
Later in the movie, viewers learn this child was ordered by the LRA soldier to either kill his mother or be killed along with his brother. I knew immediately that the child in that opening sequence faced a decision that’s unfathomable to me and my comfortable reality, where even my biggest “problem” smacks of privilege: I’m out of college and unemployed.
Machine Gun Preacher is the biopic of the real-life Sam Childers, a former drug addict/violent biker gang member who, after being brought to church by his wife, experiences a religious conversion and turns his life around. Moviegoers see Childers, played by Gerard Butler of “300” fame, being inspired to visit Africa to see some of the work his church is doing in Sudan. There he witnesses firsthand the horrific plight of the Sudanese children at the hand of the LRA, and that inspires him to action: Childers builds an orphanage in Sudan that will eventually house more than 300 children.
You should go see the movie. I’d recommend it because it stirred something inside of me. Before I went, my editor gave me an indirect heads-up of what about this film caught her attention: seeing “machine gun” and “preacher” together. And I thought I’d caught her drift: In the Christian message of peace and love, there’s no room for violence. And then I watched the movie, and realized that I’d better watch closely, because there was no way I could respond to something like Machine Gun Preacher with a black and white statement.
What makes for peace in a culture of violence?
Footage of the real-life Sam Childers posing a question rolled during the credits: If these were our kids, our siblings, our loved ones, he asked, “Does it matter how I bring them home?” Does it matter if he quite literally saves them with or without a machine gun? And I knew right then that I could wax poetic about pacifism all I wanted, but when it came down to it, if my loved ones were on the line, I’d buy the weapons for Childers myself. I’ll probably never be in that situation, though, and that’s because peace, safety, and security are all too often first-world commodities. It’s easy for me to preach peace when I can lock my doors at night, when the police force in San Diego isn’t irreparably marred by corruption, when my neighborhood isn’t raided by people whose brutal mentality doesn’t stop them from making a boy choose between his own life and his mother’s.
So where does peace come in, then? It’s not my place to tell Childers that he shouldn’t fire back when the children in his care are being fired upon — it’s not constructive to be preachy when these children are born into a culture of violence. Consider the fact that the real-life Childers said in an interview that this movie isn’t “amped up too much,” and that the movie’s screenwriter, Jason Keller, said in the same interview that had Machine Gun Preacher portrayed the reality as it truly is, it would “frankly be an X-rating.”
Living in Sudan and facing the horrors perpetrated by the LRA, Childers figures it’s OK to go to any lengths necessary to defend the kids in his care. After what he’s seen — like a woman whose lips were cut off by LRA rebels for talking back — that’s understandable. And it’s even understandable that in the movie, Childers reaches a breaking point when a little girl, injured by an LRA firefight, dies on a makeshift operating table, asking Childers, “What did I do wrong?” That the Machine Gun Preacher storms out immediately afterward, looking for LRA blood — and finding it — is only human. But the violence that’s fueled only by rage and not protective instinct no longer sits in a grey area. That’s what we must rise above.
The movie portrays Childers as a man driven to go far beyond mere good intentions. But that takes its toll. The movie does a masterful job of conveying the hard reality of giving: One person can only do so much. And when that takes precedence over one’s self, over one’s family, over one’s loved ones, that giving has become less a function of generosity and more a product of a machine-like mentality to fulfill an obligation. Service is to give of oneself, and to be able to do that, a person can’t be consumed by serving. As one child tells Childers at a crucial point of the movie: “We must not let them take our hearts.” That is, we must have our heart planted firmly in what gives us life — whether that’s God, family, friendship, passion, or some combination of those — before we make it vulnerable to the world.
That’s what I took from Machine Gun Preacher. Sam Childers’ heart is planted firmly in bringing hope to Sudan — and other parts of Africa, too — and if that’s true and if that’s what compels him to fire back when his kids’ lives are on the line, I can’t argue. Because I know that, if that were my reality, and if I were brave enough, I’d do the same.