Tag Archives: social justice

Machine Gun Preacher

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.

Have Missions Become Too “Deeds”-Centric?

I really enjoyed a column by Brad Greenberg (of The God Blog) a few weeks back in the Wall Street Journal‘s “Houses of Worship” column. The piece, entitled “How Missionaries Lost Their Chariots of Fire,” took a look at the trends in Christian missions in recent years–most notably the shift among younger evangelicals from proselytizing and preaching to doing more service and social justice oriented work as mission. A shift in focus from words to deeds.

Evangelical youth now hold the term “missionary” at arm’s length, afraid of the colonialist connotations of the word. They prefer being involved in “social justice” under the auspices of a more generalized Christian sense of charity rather than operating under anything resembling (groan) “soul winning.”

Greenberg cites such popular organizations as Invisible Children, an ostensibly Christian social justice organization whose media kit states that its founders “believe in Christ, but do NOT want to limit themselves in any way.”

Greenberg, who notes that “Christians today typically travel abroad to serve others, but not necessarily to spread the gospel,” ultimately concludes that as much as abandoning the colonialist undertones and “vacationary” short-term reputation of evangelical missions is a good thing, we have to remember that both actions AND words are necessary in missions.

He writes:

Spreading Christianity through deeds alone aligns with a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” But research suggests that non-Christians often miss the message without the words.

A 2006 study by Calvin College’s Kurt Ver Beek found “little or no difference” in the spiritual response between two groups of Hondurans—one which had its homes rebuilt by missionaries who did not proselytize and the other by local NGOs. Intuition would suggest as much. Unless foreigners explain that they are motivated to help by their religious beliefs, locals may be grateful for the new home but they should not be expected to connect dots that they may not even know exist.

The reality is the Church should be doing both: serving the needy and spreading the gospel. This is what makes the humanitarian work of Christians different than that of the American Red Cross. Both are motivated by the desire to help others, but Christians are spurred by that Jesus thing.

Props to Greenberg for highlighting this important point–that in our desire to move away from the ills of “old school” missions thinking we don’t throw the baby (preaching the gospel) out with the bathwater (colonialism, etc). Sadly, we  pendulum-prone evangelicals have a hard time with these both/and scenarios–always inclined to correct the ills of one thing by a wholesale replacement of it with something equally full of its own ills.

I’m all for social justice. I’m passionate about it. Christians have to be serving people and loving them not just in word but in deed. But man, if I hear another well-fed, Toms-wearing evangelical kid quote St. Francis (“preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words”) one more time as a justification for their unwillingness to utter a word to anyone about Christ as the one true hope, I don’t know what I’ll do.

It’s an ongoing debate in missiology: Should missionaries in foreign countries prioritize meeting physical needs (food, water, social justice, development) before they preach the gospel, or should evangelism always be given primacy?

To me, the debate is silly. Can’t we do both simultaneously? Can’t we serve others and meet their circumstantial needs while at the same time telling them about Jesus? Yes, we should be in Africa building water wells, or in Haiti building schools, but what’s the harm in mentioning along the way that we are Christians acting as the church, loving the world because God loved it?

I’m not sure missions could ever be too focused on deeds–unless it is at the expense of the equally important words of truth that people need to hear. I hope my generation figures out a way to emphasize both.