Is America ready for a Christian Rambo? And does it make a difference if the story of this Rambo--as opposed to the Sylvester Stallone character from the 80s--is, in fact, true? Those are the questions posed by a remarkable new movie, “Machine Gun Preacher.” The film offers a peek into a once-dark, subsequently redeemed, human heart, even as it opens a window into an ongoing horror half a world away.
Ever since the days when Jesus walked the earth as a man, Christians have struggled with the question of how they themselves should live.
At different times, they have come up with different answers, In the 15th century, a Catholic monk, Thomas à Kempis, wrote Imitation of Christ, offering guidelines for a quiet and pious and life: “The pure, simple, and steadfast spirit is not distracted by many labors, for he does them all for the honor of God”; the Kempis book is said to be the most-read Christian book in history, second only to the Bible.
Meanwhile, Crusaders and Conquistadors, for their part, have had their own, far different take on Christian duty.
Today, many Americans wear the “What Would Jesus Do?” wristband, and yet they still come up with different answers.
And then there’s Sam Childers, the biker ex-con who found Jesus, and then founded a church in a gritty part of western Pennsylvania. In the film, we see Childers reaching out to his own kind: “God doesn’t call the good, he calls the sinner.” In one service, a girl sings “Amazing Grace”-- as the camera pans over a motley but salvation-minded crew of onetime strippers, drug-dealers, and other hard-lucksters.
But wait, there’s more. In the 90s, Childers felt the call to travel to Sudan, inspired to build an orphanage in that troubled African land. Sudan, of course, is one of the most blood-soaked nations on earth--although “nation” is hardly the right word for the place.
For nearly six decades the region, has been wracked by intermittent civil war, as well as by extreme poverty and that newer scourge, AIDS. The Muslim government in the capital of Khartoum has been accused of genocide on two fronts.
In the west, the regime fought against fellow Muslims in the province of Darfur--a fight that has caught the attention of George Clooney, Mia Farrow, and other Hollywood celebrities. Meanwhile, in the south, the government’s Muslim army fought for decades to suppress the mostly Christian south; that fight inspired an ecumenical relief effort of its own, led by humanitarians as diverse as evangelist Franklin Graham and Fox News’ own Ellen Ratner.
Interestingly, just this year, the Christian south won its independence from the Muslim north, and the new nation of South Sudan has been admitted to the U.N.
Sadly, fighting still rages in the area. Religion is one flashpoint, as are disputes over oil and precious minerals. Making the situation even worse, South Sudan and other neighboring countries such as Uganda have been terrorized by a shadowy group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, perhaps most easily described as an African version of the Khmer Rouge, the murderous Cambodian regime in the 70s. In fact, the movie’s “R” rating comes mostly from its graphic depiction of LRA atrocities.
So what should a Christian do when confronted with such evil? Turn the other cheek? Or, instead, fight back? Let others debate that question: We know Childers’ answer--he’s the "Machine Gun Preacher."
Movies always take liberties to make a better story, but if “Preacher” is even half-true--and there’s plenty of evidence that it is overwhelmingly true --it’s an astonishing and inspiring tale. And Childers, still very much alive, is not even 50 years old. Who knows what this self-described “hillbilly from Pennsylvania” will do next?
To help things along, Childers is portrayed in the film by the actor Gerard Butler, perhaps best known to audiences as the heroic--and bombastically Scots-accented--Spartan warrior-king in “300.” And so while the violent heroism of “Preacher” might remind some of “Rambo”--indeed, one character makes the analogy explicit--the new film is far more nuanced, far more aware of the cost of foreign adventure.
In fact, in its unsparing depiction of hard lives and in its bittersweet conclusion, “Preacher” hearkens back to another film that also begins in a little town near Pittsburgh and then shifts over to a far-away conflict. That was “The Deer Hunter,” set during and after the Vietnam War, a film that won five Academy Awards back in 1978, including best picture.
Indeed, “Preacher” has some of the same whipsaw effect. At one moment, it’s working-class Americans battling their own demons on the homefront; the next moment, it’s an American engaging in horrific combat against demonic enemies in the African bush.
“Deer Hunter,” ultimately, is about the damage done to Americans in wartime; “Preacher” chronicles the same sort of pain and loss, even as it highlights the good that Americans can do in foreign fighting. As Childers says in Africa, “Helping you kids is about the only good thing I’ve done in this life.” Meanwhile, his own family, back in Pennsylvania, loyally bears with him.
So “Preacher” raises thought-provoking questions on three levels:
First, what should people of faith and goodwill be doing to help this war-torn part of Africa? We’ve sent billions of dollars in foreign aid to the area; what more, or what else, should we be doing?
Second, what is happening to the American heartland in the globalized 21st century? Not so long ago, western Pennsylvania was the steelmaking heart of industrial America. Yet, as “Preacher” reminds us, today the working class has been eroded not only by the economic ravages of outsourcing and unemployment, but also by the moral ravages of drugs and dissolving families. Is this our future? Is this bleak vision what we have to look forward to? Or will some new Great Awakening move the soul of our nation and help restore hard-working virtue?
And third, what is the nature of redemption? How are believers changed as a result of their faith and their faith-driven deeds? “Preacher” is endlessly challenging on that score--Childers is no saint; he is moody and temperamental to the end, clearly forsaking his family as he goes off to save a distant part of the world. And yet at the same time, Christians should never expect to have it easy because of their faith.
As Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And while Childers is still alive, he has repeatedly and bravely risked his life to save the lives of others--and that’s about as Christian as it gets.
James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.