Machine Gun Preacher [Guest post by: Brian Godawa]

Posted: September 29, 2011 by jperritt in Drama
Tags: , , , ,

Machine Gun Preacher: A Pissed Off Christian Freedom Fighter

Review by Brian Godawa

Relativity Media

Directed by Marc Forster

Written by Jason Keller

(WARNING: Due to the graphic nature of this film, and the raw honesty of Godawa’s writing, the following post has been rated PG-13)

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.

Moral Honesty

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 he 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.

(Post 2)

Brian Godawa is the screenwriter for the award-winning feature film, To End All Wars, starring Kiefer Sutherland and the newly released, Alleged, starring Brian Dennehy as Clarence Darrow and Fred Thompson and William Jennings Bryan. He previously adapted to film the best-selling supernatural thriller novel The Visitation by author Frank Peretti for Ralph Winter (X-Men, Wolverine). He has traveled around the United States teaching on movies, worldviews, and culture to colleges, churches and community groups. His book, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment has been released in a revised edition from InterVarsity Press. Go to his website to get free articles and watch videos of his work.

  1. […] Yesterday, Brian Godawa discussed the moral honesty in the film, Machine Gun Preacher.  Today is the continuation of that post. […]

  2. Henderson says:

    Hi ,
    good review! I had some questions after watching this movie, but this post answered some of them,
    for example, if the bible permit such violence in order to rescue that children.
    observation: When the film ends, – on credits- the main actor asked: if any your child or parent was kidnapped, would you mind how I would rescue them?

  3. Henderson says:

    Hi again.

    I still have a question about this film:
    there was a moment that Sam put the mission in Africa above his own family…it looked like the priority of his life was the rescue. It is not right, right?

  4. Brian Godawa says:

    Henderson, the purpose of the film was to raise that question for us all to discuss. Sam has made the decision that killing evil murderers and rapists and slavers is righteous. But it also shows that there is a price to be paid upon the psyche. Is it worth it to us? I think so.
    And yes, the film shows that he made the mission more important than his family. I think this is a very common problem with all people devoted to “a cause.” they often end up caring more about other people than their own right next to them. I think the movie shows that this is destructive and I agree. But is it avoidable? I don’t know. I hope so.

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