Joel Rainey leads the Engagement Team for Evangelism and Missions at the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network. He is on the adjunct faculty of two seminaries, and the author of three books. He blogs at Themelios, where this was originally posted.
“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” -Robert E. Lee
In its first 10 days in theaters, “American Sniper” grossed nearly $200 million. While many critics have scoffed at this film, it is obvious that the American populace is enamored with the story of the late Chris Kyle. This past week, I was one of that large number who sought a look inside the mind and heart of the man who has been called “the deadliest sniper in American history.”
On that front, American Sniper does not disappoint!
To be sure, the movie is graphically violent, and profane language abounds, so this film is certainly no place for small children, or those whose conscience is easily offended by such elements. But for those curious about the psyche, family life, personal struggles, and overall dedication of our men and women in uniform, no more accurate account could be told on celluloid. Clint Eastwood, who directed this film, has given us a masterful description of Chris Kyle and those like him. And, followers of Jesus who desire to think deeply about warfare and its consequences have an ideal case study in this movie.
Unfortunately, both supporters and critics of the movie have already gone off-point. War protesters want the movie canned. War supporters are glad its doing so well. Some left theaters with a “kill them all” attitude of hatred that is, quite frankly, antiChrist. And of course, there is Michael Moore, whose motives should be pretty easy to spot. When the pinnacle of your directing career is a low-budget, low-value documentary called “Sicko,” there are plenty of reasons to be jealous of Eastwood.
But in fairness to this film and its director, Islam, the political context of the Afghan and Iraqi military campaigns, and military tactics themselves are all beyond the scope of what is examined in “American Sniper.” It becomes clear from the plot that Eastwood’s focus is intentionally narrowed to the psyche of the American soldier. And that focus is what followers of Jesus should be paying attention to, because it gives us an avenue of ministry to those who serve, and a framework for speaking to our government when it comes to the issue of committing troops to a campaign.
1. The film gives us a blunt look at the raw reality of warfare. In the day of the world wide web, its easy to sit in the comforts provided by the west and advocate bombing essentially anything to your east. But as this film aptly demonstrates, real warfare is not a video game. Real lives–lives of people created in God’s very image and likeness–are taken on both sides of the lines of battle, sometimes in horrific and unspeakable ways. And even when those deaths can be justified, American soldiers who take those lives are forever affected by their actions.
Its easy to sit in Congress, or the halls of Academia, and wax eloquent about “minimizing civilian deaths.” But in a real war, sometimes its hard to know who the civilians are, and every time a war is declared, that sort of savage moral chaos becomes a reality. “American Sniper” gives us a picture of that raw reality that should encourage us to truly count the cost before throwing support behind any military solution to global conflict.
2. The film unabashedly presents the effects of war, not only on veterans, but their families. PTSD is real, and its prevalent among our servicemen and women who return from the battlefield. The effects of war are seen clearly in this film, not only on Chris Kyle, but on his family. Eventually, it was the effects of war on another that took Kyle’s life.
3. The film should make every Christ-follower think deeply about what is, and is not, “just” war. It is unfortunate that politicians have so twisted the concept of “just war” that virtually no one in the west knows what it means any longer. Fortunately, Christian theologians of old are still available to us through their writings. Augustine, the great 5th century African bishop, first stipulated the terms, and Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Catholic theologian stood on his shoulders and developed a Biblically-informed schematic so Christ-followers centuries after them would have a way of recognizing what is and is not an appropriate use of deadly force. Unlike some present-day pacifists, early Christians did believe that when evil rises to a certain point in our fallen world, only the use of deadly force can turn it back. Unlike too many neocons, warmongers and war-profiteers in our day, they also believed that whenever possible–for the sake of all involved–war should be avoided.
So they developed a list of seven questions: 1. Is it declared and fought by a legitimate authority? 2. Is it primarily defensive rather than offensive? 3. Is the cause a noble one? 4. Is the use of force proportional? 5. Are soldiers, not civilians, the intended target? 6. Does this effort ultimately save more lives than it takes? 7. Is it employed as a last resort?
For the sake of human life everywhere, including the military lives that will be permanently scarred as a result of war, Christians whose conscience doesn’t allow them to answer every single question above with an unqualified “yes” should think twice before throwing support behind using guns, tanks and bombs to solve a global problem.
4. The film clearly demonstrates the “de-humanizing” effect of war on both sides of the line of battle. Chris Kyle called his targets “savages.” But he was not the first soldier to employ appellatives for the enemy. General George Patton is probably most notorious for vilifying and dehumanizing every single person on the other side of the battle line. In every military engagement in human history, armies on both sides have sought to take away the “human element” from their enemy in order to make him easier to kill. Let that sink in, because every time we deploy our military, this is part of the cost of warfare.
5. The film demonstrates the difficulties in navigating all the moral complexities that occur on the battlefield. Thanks to a few impulsive and immature tweets from Michael Moore and Seth Rogen, much discussion has taken place regarding whether snipers are “heroes” or “cowards.” But for anyone who understands basic military strategy, and who wants to limit civilian deaths, snipers become an essential part of that strategy. If an army is going to strike in a more surgical fashion closer to the ground, snipers must be employed to “keep watch” over the guys on the ground and protect them from surprise attack, and this is perhaps the most clearly displayed concept in the movie. The only other alternatives are a broad-sword approach that results in hundreds of unnecessary deaths, or a large ordinance drop, which results in thousands of those deaths. In short, a strategy that employs snipers is a life-saving strategy.
But this discussion itself reveals the moral complexity that surrounds any military effort. “Kill these in order to save more of these” is an impossible position into which to put someone. War is ugly. War is hell. And though sometimes necessary, war is never a good thing.
I love and care deeply for those who serve in our nation’s military. My first pastorate was near a large Army base and I’ve spent a lot of time ministering to soldiers and their families. We should support all who volunteer to serve the country in this way. But “supporting the troops” is not synonymous with mindlessly advocating a war footing simply because some politician says we have to. Loving people well means we need to understand their world, and “American Sniper” is a vivid picture of that world. So the next time our nation faces the choice of whether to go to war, support those who will go by understanding what they will face, knowing the issues involved and whether they truly justify the use of force, and acting accordingly. Moreover, think about the human life on the other side of the battle lines–lives created in God’s image–and whether a situation has truly progressed to the point that our elimination of those lives is truly justified. The life of a Pakistani, Iranian, or Russian is worth no less than the life of an American to our Creator.
These people aren’t walking into a video game. Those of us who send them–especially Christians–need to think deeply, and Biblically about those realities.