There is something truly rewarding about a film that grips the viewer with both intensity and philosophical thought, and it is not something easily done. It is within this vein of thought that I applaud the recent film Machine Gun Preacher.
In this film [based on true events], Gerard Butler plays the part of Sam Childers: a former drug dealing biker who finds God and changes his ways—at least, for a little while. For the first quarter of the film we see the gritty side of this man. Just after being released from prison, and upon finding out that his wife has given up her job as a stripper—because it’s not honoring to the Lord—Childers throws a grown man’s tantrum and hooks up with his old bar-buddies. We then see the worst of him: getting drunk, shooting up heroin and nearly murdering a transient by stabbing him multiple times (this scene is quite disturbing).
After wading through some of the unpleasant scenes portraying the “old” Childers, there comes the chilling “conversion” scene. Childers ends up in a church service with his wife and daughter one Sunday morning. The pastor gives a compelling message about the love and grace of God and then calls forward anyone who would like to be baptized and give their life to Jesus. The director knew what he was doing with this scene as Childers doesn’t immediately jump up and go running to the front. You can almost feel his nervousness as you watch and wait for him to respond. Finally he does. Later, when he rises out of the water from being submerged by the pastor, he is truly a new man.
We see the change immediately. Childers begins spending all his time with his wife and daughter, performing his duties as a father, and lands a steady job in construction, which in turn leads to starting his own company. Then one day during another service at church, the pastor presents a guest speaker from Sudan, who speaks to them about how to help with the efforts in Africa. Childers feels drawn to this opportunity to serve and decides to take a trip over for a couple months. While in Africa, Childers comes face to face with the reality of the conditions and the ongoing brutality inflicted on the Sudanese people by the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony).
Upon returning from his venture, Childers spends a whole night praying and planning. The next morning, he tells his wife that he has heard from God and that God wants him to build a church and an orphanage in Sudan. Due to his connections in the construction industry, he is able to successfully build and start his own church—of which he is a pastor of sorts—bearing a small congregation of steady attendees. It all looks great at the start.
He speaks boldly—yet tenderly—to his congregation, following a worship set for each service, with some simple, yet solid, biblical truth. He then returns to Africa to begin construction of the orphanage. All goes fairly well—aside from the locals telling him he’s crazy for wanting to build in the location he’s selected: basically in a war zone—until the orphanage is attacked by the LRA and burned to the ground. Childers becomes discouraged and wants to give up. On a powerful phone call with his wife however, she encourages him to get right back up again and rebuild it. He does, and with a better security perimeter.
Childers then teams up with the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army) to go on child rescue missions in the bush, following up on intel they’ve received about where to find children needing rescue. Although they are successful in bringing to safety many children, they encounter extreme difficulty. On one of these treks, which, turns out to be a trap, an LRA sniper takes out two of their own. And, on another, they find a large group of children, which cannot all fit into their trucks. They decide to take only the youngest and injured and return for the rest. When they return however, they find that the others have been brutally slaughtered. Childers, overtaken by fury and grief, begins taking matters into his own hands.
Reverting back to his past violent tendencies, he ambushes a caravan of the LRA on the road with an RPG. Rumors now spread among the Sudanese that he cannot be killed, that angels protect him. It is in these latter parts of the film that one’s own philosophical view of morality and theology is challenged most. We begin to tangle with questions like: “Does God endorse violence when done in [supposedly righteous] anger?” and “Would God approve of neglecting one’s own family for the sake of helping many in another land?”
With dramatic momentum, Childers becomes completely engrossed in his mission to save the Sudanese children—no matter what the cost. We see this most drastically on one of his trips back home to his family. He blows up at his daughter when she asks if they can rent a limo for prom. And when his friend—who actually had been undergoing a spiritual transformation because of Childers’ positive influence on him—tries to reason with him, Childers explodes and while spitting profanities, threatens and completely humiliates his friend in front of his wife and daughter, with no sign of remorse. This friend, now riddled with depression, returns to his vice of heroin, overdoses and dies. But it doesn’t stop there; further bad fruit of Childers rage emerges in his preaching at church. Shouting in fury at the congregation, he declares that “…the Lord doesn’t want sheep, He wants WOLVES!” Oh, I’m sure he meant well. But that doesn’t compensate for the fact that this stands in direct opposition to simple biblical truth. It is well known that Jesus refers to His followers as sheep—and even sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16)—but nowhere in Scripture do you find the kind of theology that Childers had stooped to teaching. It was not led by spiritual wisdom, but simply, by emotion. Specifically, anger.
To top it all off, shortly after this, there is a scene in which Childers is arguing with his wife after his friend’s funeral, and blatantly declares his disbelief in God. His main argument behind this being, “How could God let him die? How could God let these children die? There is no God!” This man, who had seen with his own eyes the radical transformation God had worked in his life; this man who had been compelled to start a church for God’s glory and give aid to the suffering people of Africa, had now denied the very existence of the proof he could so easily see before. He had essentially put his passionate emotion for the Sudanese children before his own family, his friends, his own integrity and worst of all, before God. And this is the sad state we find him in towards the end of the film: a man entrapped by a chaotic tangle between good intentioned Social Activism, and compromising all personal responsibility to God, family and friends.
Though the ending of the film seemed to wrap it all up into a nice packaged call to support this kind of effort, I did appreciate that the filmmaker kept it still closer to an unbiased accounting of events. That helps the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions about the story. Personally, I really liked the film. One thing I’ve learned about philosophy is that I can still learn from and greatly appreciate what is being communicated, even if I do not agree with the intended message. Truth is truth wherever it’s found. If the film does in fact have an “agenda”, which at times it subtly seems to, I do not conform to it.
On one hand, the film is a powerfully gripping call to action on behalf of people in great poverty and oppression. On the other hand however, it serves as a study of one man’s decisions, and the effect—both good and bad—those decisions have on others. Without stable understanding of God’s ways, which are clearly communicated in His Word, it is easy to be led merely by emotion. Slowly but surely, we return to our carnal mindset led by the tides of feeling, and ultimately throw heavenly wisdom to the breeze in exchange for what we call “love”. When in reality what we are doing is creating our own definition of love. The Bible says that God is love, thus, isn’t it plain to us that He would be able to tell us best what love should look like in our own lives? But alas, we often fabricate our own definition based upon what we feel, and then pin God’s name on it, assuming He approves.
Childers’ fiery passion to rescue Sudanese children from the hands of evil people is noble to be sure, and I would not at all be surprised at many people wanting to rise up and support this man and his mission. But the question must be asked: “At what cost?” Does God desire that we abandon our responsibility and ministry to friends and family, so we can ship off to other parts of the world in order to bring aid to others? This is what I see in the story of Sam Childers. I see the story of a man who was driven by compassion turned awry resulting in neglect of his own family, abuse of a friend who was in great need of his godly influence (and in so doing caused his friend to throw away his life as result); I see a man who let his anger run wild, leading others away from solid biblical truth; and a man who in the end, denied God, the very One who had rescued him from his past life of anger, alcohol abuse and drug addiction. I see the story of a man who was radically changed by the grace of God—a grace that, in the beginning, moved him to amazing feats—but who sacrificed it all on the alter of his own vengeance, ultimately replacing God with an idol of his own making.
The ending is bittersweet and not for those who prefer only happy ones. But, if you enjoy a film that is compelling, both in emotion and thought, and if you can handle the violence, language and drug content (and one scene of sexual implication), I would definitely suggest seeing this film at least once. Not only to watch it for entertainment, but to ponder these relevant questions of social responsibility and faith.