The story behind "Machine Gun Preacher" is made for Hollywood. The film tells the (true) story of Sam Childers, a biker who becomes a Christian and then is deeply moved when he hears a missionary describe the plight of Sudanese orphans. So moved is he that he leaves his family, flies to Sudan, gets a gun, and begins defending those orphans.
There is something deeply satisfying about this basic premise. Whenever we hear of horrible stories like the plight of Sudanese orphans there is something in all of us that would like to grab a gun and start firing at the bad guys (or at least grab a lead pipe and start swinging). Nonetheless, after the initial crescendo of emotion subsides we are led to more reasonable and constructive solutions such as placing pressure on political leaders and foreign governments, letter writing campaigns, support for worthy NGOs, et cetera.
But more often when that initial moral rage subsides it is replaced by apathy. We shake our head in dismay in what must surely be the most minimal display of solidarity possible, and then begin flipping the channels again. I am reminded here of the unforgettable scene in "Hotel Rwanda" where hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) thanks a film crew for capturing footage of the unfolding genocide. Now, he thinks, the world will listen. But the stoic journalist knows better: " I think if people see this footage, they'll say Oh, my God, that's horrible. And then they'll go on eating their dinners."
Sadly that is true more often than not. Our initial moral outrage is more often replaced not by measured action but by amoral apathy. For this reason at least, we can admire the sustained moral outrage expressed by Childers.
Still, peer beneath the surface of his "Robin Hood" persona to encounter the man and the analysis becomes complex once again. To illustrate, picture a man filled with rage. Put him in a bar and he will channel that rage at an unsuspecting patron who was unlucky enough to glance in his direction. Put him on a street corner as witness to a mugging and he will channel it toward the hapless mugger. Does the fact that he happened to find himself on the street corner rather than in the bar suddenly make him a hero?
This is the question we face when contemplating the story of Sam Childers. It is meant to play as a moralistic tale of transformation and justice-seeking. But the reality seems to be much more complex. Roger Ebert put it like this in his review of the film:
The enigma at the heart of the film is the quality of [Childers'] actual spirituality. He's born again, yes, but he seems otherwise relatively unchanged. He still gives full vent to his drives and instincts, and still, if you get down to it, gives himself license to break the laws, such as they are, in Sudan. I learn from an article by Brett Keller in Foreign Policy magazine that as Childers was fund-raising in the United States, the Sudan People's Liberation Army issued a statement saying, "The SPLA does not know Sam Childers. We are appealing to those concerned to take legal measures against him for misusing the name of an organization which is not associated with him."
There's more, about "his narcissistic model of armed humanitarianism." That's what bothered me. He seems fueled more by anger and ego than spirituality and essentially abandons his family to play with his guns.
Ebert doesn't come out and say it, but one gets the underlying message that the film depicts a jerk before Jesus simply becoming a jerk for Jesus.
Unfortunately viewing Childers as a deeply flawed, violent and impulsive narcissist who simply adopted more "worthy" targets for his hostility acts like a bucket of water dumped on the fireworks of a potentially explosive, moralistic tale. The real challenge, at the end of the story, is for the viewer to reflect on how to avoid the twin errors of apathy and misbegotten violence. Perhaps the take away lesson from it all is this: Justice, like revenge is a dish best served cold.