Machine Gun Preacher tells the fascinating true-life story of Sam Childers, a former drug-dealing gang biker who converted to Christianity and devoted his life to protecting children in Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda from the vicious LRA. Childers (played by Gerard Butler in the film) founded the organization “Angels of East Africa” and opened an orphanage in Southern Sudan to protect the area’s vulnerable orphans.
The “machine gun” part of this story is that Childers doesn’t just rescue children from the evil clutches of the LRA. He fights back with violence and kills the villains. With machine guns and sniper rifles and other such things.
What the film raises is not a new question, but it’s certainly a timely one: Should we combat violence with more violence? When does the cycle of violence & revenge end?
Preacher adds the further layer of Christianity to the question. Sam Childers is a Christian, a preacher, a representative of Christ. He sleeps in a mosquito tent at the orphanage with a Bible in one hand and an AK47 in the other. Should he be protecting the innocent victims of the LRA by shooting back at the LRA? Is there any other way to do it?
The film doesn’t answer that question. Childers is represented as a very flawed hero and certainly isn’t portrayed as a man with a halo. There are serious questions about his methods, his vigilante persona, his role in the sometimes problematic tradition of “white man comes to save the day in Africa, recklessly and without much context.”
Still, it’s hard to point out his faults when the rest of us aren’t doing much to help the kids who are suffering every day under the brutal violence of the LRA: kids whose lips and noses have been cut off, kids forced to kill one another, 3-year-olds who’ve been raped… Childers argues that unless he and his fellow fighters arm themselves and go after the LRA, they would just continue victimizing the children and terrorizing the region.
Over the end credits of Preacher, the real Sam Childers poses a question: If you had a child who was kidnapped and I said I could bring them home to you, does it matter how I bring them home? It’s a provocative question to end on and one meant to spark discussion as audiences leave the theater.
At a time when the death penalty, the justness of war and other “is killing ever right?” issues are on the forefront of debate (both in Christian circles and beyond), a film like Preacher is helpful addition to the discourse. It’s not a perfect film and perhaps not as subtle as it could have been, but it makes very personal and humane the question of violence as a moral means to justice and liberation.