Friday, August 17, 2012

Machine Gun Preacher: A Lesson In Pragmatism

I recently heard about this movie called "Machine Gun Preacher."  What caught my attention immediately was the provocative title, and I was even more curious when I heard that the movie was based on a true story about a lay-minister named Sam Childers who went to Africa to start an orphanage for endangered Sudanese children under threat from the now infamous Joseph Kony.  What can I say, my curiosity was piqued.  I put the movie in my Blockbuster online queue (which is empty most of the time), and waited for it to arrive.  Turns out the seemingly oxymoronic title gives the viewer a good clue about what he is about to see.

The movie, and the story that it is inspired by, while interesting, provide little to no redeeming qualities to be admired.  Childers starts out life as a convicted felon and continuing criminal.  While away in prison, his wife reveals that she "found Jesus," and has subsequently quit her job as a topless dancer.  Childers' life continues to spiral downward until he finally asks his wife for help, for which she points him to the church.  The film shows him attending church with his family until one day he undergoes the waters of baptism.  This process is portrayed incredibly poorly in the film.  Whether or not it accurately portrays Childers' actual alleged conversion experience is unknown to me, but if it does portray it accurately, it would certainly explain his lapse of faith later in life - more on that in a minute.  Childers' professed conversion leads him to clean his life up, love his family, and begin attending church regularly.

After some time, a missionary from Sudan visits the church and talks about the ministry happening there.  Childers is inspired and commits to a short term missions trip to the area.  While there he witnesses several of the brutal realities of life in Sudan, especially those atrocities committed by the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, against children and their families.  Childers returns from his trip, inspired to return to Sudan and build an orphanage, and the film documents this process.

As time goes on, however, Childers is increasingly obsessed with the orphanage and pours every waking moment of his life into it, and every penny he owns, most times at the expense of his wife and child.  He berates his friends, family members, and fellow church members with guilt trips and even vitriol for their supposed lack of dedication to the cause of Christ, mostly because they don't share his ever increasing devotion to the cause of the children of Sudan.

While in Sudan, he becomes increasingly militant and even goes on offensive strikes against LRA soldiers in order to rescue children from their grasp.  By the end of the movie, he has renounced his faith, parted ways with his family, and dedicated himself to the militant task of saving children in Sudan.

Being that movies are never absolutely true to actual stories, I'm not sure how much of Childers' story as portrayed in this film to believe as fact and how much to acknowledge as being included for entertainment purposes.  The movie is replete with over top profanity and blasphemy, even from the "regenerated" Childers, and quite a bit of sensuality, which is presumably why the movie received an "R" rating.  The conveying of the story in the film would not have suffered without all the bad language and sensuality.  Although, if that's how Childers really speaks and acts, there's no point in painting him in a better light.  Childers has released an autobiography.  No doubt that would be a better place to get firm facts regarding his story.  

If the movie has accurately portrayed Childers' story (and I can only assume that it has, at least in large measure, considering that Childers promotes it on his website and even went on a North American tour promoting the movie), there is absolutely nothing biblical or Christian about Childers and his violently obsessive war against the LRA.  While the man's own insistence that he is "done with the Lord," should be enough of a clue that he never was a genuine believer, there were several other clues that screamed out the reality that Childers has never truly understood the gospel.  He cannot forgive, he continues in wanton sin, he manipulates and coerces people to get his way, he resorts to violence at the drop of a hat, and so on and so forth.

At the end of the movie, however, during the credits, there is a clip of Childers - the real Childers - speaking to the camera, and he offers this scenario: "If your child or brother or sister were abducted, and I told you I could get them back, would it matter how I did it?"

The resounding answer to this question is "Yes.  Yes it does matter how you do it."  And the answer resounds so loudly and is seemingly so obvious, that it's a wonder that Childers hasn't thought through it for half a second to realize the error in his thinking.

What Childers offers is pragmatism, plain and simple.  In other words, he is asserting that the ends justify the means - that it doesn't matter what must be done in order to achieve X result, as long as X result is indeed achieved.  Or, put another way, it is right that it doesn't matter what must be done to get an abducted child back as long as the child is indeed brought back.  You don't need to run this type of thinking through too many hypothetical scenarios before you see how this logic is fallacious.  For example, Childers' scenario suggests that it doesn't matter how he rescues a child as long as the child is rescued.  But, what if, in order to rescue a child, Childers must kill 10 other children.  Does it matter then?  Of course it does, and even he should be able to see the error in this thinking.

This pragmatic way of thinking shows how Childers erred in his faith and in the rest of his dealings with people and in life in general.  If, for him, the ends justified the means, then he is perfectly justified for mistreating his family in order to "save children."  According to his thinking, being abusive to and abandoning his family is worth it, as long as it saves a child (to be fair, Childers has reconciled with his wife and daughter).

This way of thinking also reveals the error in Childers' dealings with faith and scripture.  In a sense, Childers' professed faith was the means by which he achieved his end: saving children.  As the film portrays it, however, there are significant times in Childers' life when his faith doesn't "work;" in other words, his faith doesn't achieve the ends he wants.  In the pragmatic way of thinking, if a certain means doesn't achieve the desired goal, then it needs to be abandoned and a more effective means of achieving the goal needs to be discovered.  It's no wonder, then, that Childers' abandons his faith as a means of achieving his end, and seeks out another, supposedly more effective means.  For Childers, this means is violence.  He takes up violence as a means of achieving his desired results.  I have no idea what Childers' current spiritual status is.  His website is devoid of any spiritual content, save for a small link in the upper right hand corner that leads you to this frustratingly difficult to navigate website.

To top it all off, a quick Google search reveals that there are many (including several Sudanese Christian and military groups) who believe that Childers is doing significantly more harm than good in Sudan and other parts of Africa where children are being abducted and murdered (see here and here for just a couple examples).

Much more could be said about Childers and the movie, but in the end, I think it's at least safe to say that the words "machine gun" and "preacher" should never go together.

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