Machine Gun Preacher, a new film starring Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan, poses challenging questions about just how far a Christian should go in the pursuit of justice for the world’s most vulnerable members, in this case children who were kidnapped in Sudan by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, also known as the LRA.
The biopic is about Sam Childers, a Pennsylvania drug dealer whose radicalism was redeemed by Christ and redirected toward preaching the gospel and saving orphans in East Africa. In the process of rescuing those orphans, Childers engages in gun battles with LRA soldiers, but he also manages to pull hundreds of children from either death or the murderous grip of the LRA.
The movie is a cross between The Blind Side and Rambo. For a faith-based film, it certainly doesn’t shy away from Rambo-style action. But The Blind Side might be the even more apt comparison, since both it and Machine Gun Preacher are based on true stories that navigate tricky racial issues. In fact, The Blind Side, just like this summer’s The Help, reignited the ongoing debate about films featuring benevolent white heroes who come along to help needy black victims. When I spoke to Childers at Machine Gun Preacher’s New York premiere, he insisted he was no “white savior” going into an African nation to save black children.
“If anything the children saved me,” Childers told me. “The children gave me a purpose. I wasn’t always a good person in life. I believe probably the only good thing that I ever done and stuck to doing was helping the children of Sudan.”
Machine Gun Preacher is a unique faith film in that it is R-rated and its main character is not sanitized either before or after his conversion. Its realism in this regard is its greatest strength. Too often our heroes are portrayed as one-dimensional converts who go from bad to good in one fell swoop. In Machine Gun Preacher, the converted Childers character has a crisis of faith and takes it out on everyone around him as he struggles to raise funds for a ministry that eventually threatens to consume him. Its strength may also be its greatest weakness, because it fails to adequately address the questions it raises.
When I interviewed Childers, he said his son “was killed” a number of years ago, but there is no mention of a son in the film. Instead a friend dies of a drug overdose and this too fuels his rage. At the after-party, Childers said his son had died from heroin.
The intensity of the character is well served by Gerard Butler’s bold performance. When I spoke to Butler, he said he was raised Catholic, but that he had tapped into his Scottish heritage more than any religious faith to bring Childers to life on the big screen.
Michelle Monaghan, who plays Childers’ ex-stripper wife, Lynn, was also raised Catholic, and described herself as “a very spiritual person” when I inquired about her faith.
“I definitely think there’s someone out there greater than me,” she said.
Machine Gun Preacher is Monaghan’s first faith-based movie, she said, and she is “incredibly proud of it.”
“It’s faith based, but I think it’s something everyone can really identify with. … I don’t think anybody can see this movie and not be impacted by it in a positive way.”
Monaghan spent time with Lynn Childers and sought to honor her in her portrayal.
“I consider her the quiet giant of this relationship. Without her strength, I don’t know if Sam would be able to pursue the things that he does on a daily basis,” Monaghan said. “I wanted to understand who she was as a person, and what I’ve realized is, still to this day, her faith is what guides her. She really believes that he’s doing God’s work.”
Monaghan used her interviews on the red carpet to encourage the public to support the Childers’ Angels of East Africa Foundation. As the film was introduced and again as guests exited the theatre, they were encouraged to support the ministry.
Angels of East Africa took in close to $878,000 in 2009, according to its IRS tax form 990. The filing says that the organization runs one of the largest orphanages in South Sudan, serves 1,800 meals a day in Africa, runs a medical clinic, and has reunited over 1,500 orphans from displacement camps with their families.
The ministry is an outgrowth of Shekinah Fellowship, the church the Childers founded in Central City, Pennsylvania. Although the church website lists Sam as its pastor, he said Lynn is now the pastor. Their daughter Paige Wirick accompanied Sam to the premiere and said at the after-party that she works in the children’s ministry and that her husband Justin is the church’s youth pastor.
Although the film portrays the strain Sam Childers’ devotion to Sudanese orphans put on the family, Wirick said she supports the work.
“Every young girl eventually goes through where she needs her dad, but I don’t hold any grudges,” said Wirick. “I think everything I went through has made me who I am today, and I completely back my parents on everything that they do. I even want to run the ministry along side of them. I don’t take anything to heart where it pushed me away.”
She was born after her father’s conversion, she said, not before, as the film suggests.
And that’s not the only instance of artistic license that the filmmakers take with the story. The film version of Sam Childers’ life “amped up” the violence, he said. And while he doesn’t condone violence, Childers asked me what I would want him to do if the child he was trying to save were mine?
I posed a similar question to Christian peace activist Shane Claiborne when I interviewed him before he co-hosted the anti-war Jesus, Bombs, & Ice Cream variety show in Philadelphia on September 10. To hear what Claiborne had to say about the appropriate use of “redemptive violence,” listen here.
Childers’ question is a good one. Another is: how does a lone American citizen engage in armed conflict in another nation and continue traveling freely into and out of that country? Is it ever appropriate for a Christian to do so?
Tell us what you think. Is there a place for “redemptive violence” in the life of a Christian? Do you plan to see Machine Gun Preacher when it opens this weekend? If so, please come back and share your thoughts.
UPDATE: Christianity Today reports that Sam Childers is accused of neglecting children at the orphanage he founded in Sudan.
“Witnesses have said that the children at Shekinah Fellowship Children’s Village are malnourished, unhealthy, and unhappy. Several locals — including pastors, government officials, and a high-ranking member of the military — tell Christianity Today that Childers has exaggerated or outright lied about his work in the African nation,” the article said.
Childers denied the accusations, saying they ultimately stem from an employee he fired for corruption and theft.