“Machine Gun Preacher”
It’s hard to know what to make of
“Machine Gun Preacher.” It’s the
incredible biography of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), whom we first meet when
he’s getting out of prison (we’re never told why he’s incarcerated,
which is one of the irritations of the way the story’s told).
He’s met at the prison door by his pretty young wife, Lynn (Michelle
Monaghan), they stop along the way for some postponed recreation in a parked
car, and when they drive home to their trailer he greets their little daughter
Paige. But that’s all the family
bliss we get. Soon Sam is cussing out
about quitting her job at the topless bar because she “found Jesus.”
When Sam’s mother Daisy (Kathy Baker) tries to intervene, he cusses
her out, also, then roars off on his motorcycle to go get drunk and do drugs
with his “bad boy buddy” Donnie (Michael Shannon).
Their binge includes a gun-toting robbery of a drug dealer, followed by
a severe beating of a hitchhiker who dared to cross them, and it’s a wonder
Sam isn’t back in prison already.
But he wakes up one morning tired of his
own self. He goes to church with his
wife and his daughter and his Mom, and when the (fundamentalist, revivalist)
preacher gives the altar call, Sam comes forward and is baptized and saved.
Except it isn’t all that easy.
He does straighten up and work a construction job, and soon he has his
own crew and has started his own company. He’s
started his own church, too, and when the guest preacher didn’t show up the
first day, he just began preaching himself. He
advertised his congregation as a place where even the biggest sinners could
feel like they belonged. But Sam really
finds his passion when he hears a visiting missionary talk about
. He feels compelled to go there, with
his family’s blessing. And when he
arrives, he is horrified by what he sees.
Southern Sudan and northern Uganda are
embroiled in the ugliest of civil wars, where “death squads” come by
stealth in the night and attack helpless villages, setting huts on fire and
killing all the men and raping and beating all the women and then kidnapping
the children and using them either as sex slaves or as military recruits.
It’s truly horrifying to watch, and Sam Childers decides he’s not
going to sit idly by and watch it happen, especially when they come one night
to burn his church and orphanage, and kidnap the children he’s been trying
to protect. Sam Childers picks up a
machine gun and shoots back, along with the government soldiers assigned to
protect him. He becomes so adept at
this that he develops the reputation as someone who is invincible when the
bullets start flying, which of course attracts even more orphaned children to
take care of.
Sam is warned by medical missionaries
that fighting violence with violence does not further the cause of peace, but
Sam is determined that nobody’s going to take away what he has worked so
hard to build up. He even organizes
pre-emptive raids when he hears that some rebel troops are venturing across
the border toward him. He takes the
attack to them.
When he returns to the States, Sam is an
invigorated fund-raiser, to the point of badgering people with pictures of
starving children with disfigured faces. He
can’t stand to be spending the money to rent a limo for his daughter’s
prom because that money could have fed the helpless children in his African
orphanage for a week. Yes, Sam
backslides into anger and even self-loathing, even a time or two on the
drinking binge, but his commitment to the African orphans never wavers.
His methods, of course, raise all kind
of questions, for both those who consider themselves seriously religious and
for those who don’t. When is
self-defense justified? Is it ethical
to defend an orphanage with weapons? Is
there a “just war” where violence can only be stopped with violence?
Love him or hate him, Sam Childers will get under your skin.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor,
St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church,