Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Machine Gun Preacher, my review

An Anthem to the Myth of Redemptive Violence

Gerard Butler stars in (and perhaps equally importantly Exec. Produces) the movie based upon the real life story of Pastor Sam Childers, a drug-addicted biker who finds sobriety and hope by putting his faith in Jesus. Childers, after a mission trip to Uganda where he witnesses some of the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army, becomes involved in fighting for the freedom and safety of orphans and freed child soldiers.

Sam Childers is a real man, but the comments I make here are about the Sam Childers portrayed in the film. I know very little of the story of the real Sam, and so I want to be clear that my response is to the movie, not the man or his ministry. If, however, the real and the realised Sams are one and the same, then, as we say here, if the cap fits...

So, a story about a terrible sinner who has a wonderful conversion, and who then develops a heart for church planting and mission, what’s not to like? Well, quite a lot. You see the gospel that Sam has grasped, that he preaches, and that he models, is no gospel at all. Yes, new life begins with Jesus, as he says, but it is clear that it continues with us alone. With our actions, our best ideas, our violence, yes violence, and lots of it. How does Sam save kids? By killing the bad guys, and the film makes it fairly clear that that’s a good thing. The one character in the film who challenges the notion of redemptive violence is portrayed later as being saved by it – not very subtle. The idea that the gospel might challenge the violence in Sam’s past seems totally absent, as is any sense of how the New Testament has shaped his thinking or action as a believer, a pastor, a missionary. This is a gospel of works, and one where we get to decide what’s best, no matter whose blood gets spilled.

There are positives. The cinematography is wonderful, the soundtrack spot on, and several performances - including Butler’s - are tremendous. There are several well-crafted, truly poignant scenes where the horrific realities of drug addiction, or life for a child in conflict-ridden parts of Africa are presented with a powerful emotional force. But on the whole the film lacks nuance, it lacks a questioning, and the few times that appears, the answers are soulless, and violent, instead of loving and life-affirming. And whereas there may have been some love and concern at the start of his mission, towards the end of this portrayal it has become about something else, about him, his mission, his ability, his guns, his willingness to kill.

I took a friend along with me to see this, who is also a pastor. We talked on the journey home about the lack of accountability, about the easy way Sam began the work on his own, and continued in a solitary way, of how the mission became more important that his own soul, or the children he had set out to help.

In his own words, at the very end of the film Sam asks “if a madman broke into your home and took your kids, and I told you I could get them back, would you really care how I did it?” I’d like to think I would care.  And so, what could have been the movie equivalent of a song of praise for the great acts of God, or a deeply moving outpouring of worship for the love of God that extends our concern beyond the borders of our own family, people and nation ultimately became an anthem, one dedicated to the myth that violence is the way to win peace.