Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last couple of weeks, you’ve either seen the movie American Sniper or heard something from someone who has. I have not seen it, yet I will not let that stop me from offering my unsolicited opinion. Why? Because I am a blogger. Offering unsolicited opinions on subjects about which I know nothing is what I do.
In some Christian communities it is just not possible to say anything that even remotely approaches too much good concerning this movie. It is a patriotic film which casts the war in Iraq in a positive light and presents the truth about the terrorist threat in the Middle East. It celebrates a positive example of Biblical manhood and puts our military and a war that evangelicals have unquestioningly supported for over a decade in a positive light. Owen Strachan, whose diatribe denouncing gay Christianity I linked earlier this week, has a review of American Sniper which falls into this category.
Yet other Christian communities don’t look nearly as favorably upon this movie. Many on the progressive side of the fence denounce American Sniper as a film which glorifies an unjust war and demonizes entire people groups in the Middle East. They see Chris Kyle, its hero, as glorifying a lifestyle completely contrary to the teaching and example of Jesus. Benjamin L. Corey of Formerly Fundie has a review which runs along these lines.
Some reviews offer a more thoughtful and nuanced analysis of the movie, such as this review at internetmonk.com which notes the similarities between American Sniper and any other old-school western. The movie depicts good and evil in stark, sharply contrasting clarity. Clint Eastwood directed this movie and so it is not surprising that it follows a trajectory identical to his other work: Evil is rampant and is perpetuated by sinister individuals with no conscience whatsoever who will stop at nothing to destroy all that is good. Good people are powerless to resist. Until one hero rises up or rides into town. With extraordinary courage and gravitas, the hero takes his stand. The forces of evil do their best to dissuade and deter, compromise or destroy him. But he is better and more skilled at dispensing violence, and thus the forces of evil are subdued. Said violence takes a heavy toll on the hero, but in the end he is able to come to terms with it.
I will not speak to the movie itself, as I have not seen it. What I wish to address instead is the underlying mindset out of which American Sniper arises.
(Understand that in what follows I am not addressing the movie specifically. Instead I am backing up and taking a 30,000-foot-high view of things, addressing broad currents in our culture which give rise to the movie and also to much of what we do in our Christian communities.)
It is a mindset which says that there are some people out there who are heroes. The vast majority of people out there are powerless to deal with evil in our world, but heroes can. (I guess these heroes would be something akin to Nietzche’s “Superman”.) The hero is able to take his stand and deal forcefully with evil because he himself has no evil on the inside. He only suffers or experiences evil because of the effects of evil upon him–all of which originated from outside of him. But again, there is no evil on the inside of him. To say nothing of the idea that there are wicked people out there in the world–and such people are categorically wicked, with no possibility of good except to further their wicked aims.
It is a mindset which allows me to distance myself from the evil which I know all too well lies within me. With such a mindset, I don’t have to watch the violence carried out in the movie by Islamic terrorists against innocent victims and then ask myself if I am capable of doing the same thing if given the opportunity. I don’t have to ask myself if I am already doing the same thing in my own relations with other people, even if I never touch a gun or any other weapon for as long as I live.
It is a mindset which allows us, as Christian communities, to distance ourselves from the evil of our world. To act as if it is all the fault of godless liberals who want to turn us all into a nation of queers, and then denounce said liberals and any inside the Church who sympathize with them in any way, in the most forceful manner possible.
It is a mindset which I cannot accept, because it ignores the reality that both good and evil dwell inside of me. Another post from internetmonk.com this week expresses that idea very poignantly. The post is a review of a book by a military chaplain who served in the Middle East. In the book he recounts a visit to the Sea of Galilee, a freshwater lake with a layer of salt water underneath, and expresses fascination with the idea of such a thing:
. . . We are all staying at a kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee. I am told it is a freshwater lake that sits atop another layer of saltwater, way down deep. This fascinates me, the salt below the fresh. The pressure of the massive amount of fresh water pushing down on the saltwater, holding it in its place. There are things I cannot know. All I know is that deep down , there is a salty darkness inside of me that is starting to mix with the fresh water on the surface. I have kept it down all my life and now the war has taken too much of the fresh and left me with too much of the bitter. I keep it down with my jokes, my smiles, and “I was only there for a year.” But I can feel it coming up. I have touched the rage that lies beneath the thin veneer of what we call civilization . I know what is down below, so I turn from the lake and go to bed.
I can relate to this. Like him, I see my own soul as a freshwater lake sitting atop a layer of salt water, with the massive pressure of the fresh water holding the salt water beneath in place. Yet sometimes the salt water leeches out and poisons my relations with other people, in ways I am not even aware of, let alone understand. (Not that I would want to know or to understand. The truth hurts sometimes, and this truth, I fear, would hurt too much.) I know what is down below, and I know the effect it can have on other people if it gets out of me. For this reason I sometimes feel it is my duty to withdraw from community and engagement with others, in order to protect those I care about the most from the darkness I know I carry around inside me. Yet at the same time, I want to be engaged, I want to be involved in relationship with other people, and I want, if possible, to be accepted and valued as I am, even with the darkness I know I carry around inside me. This is the battle I fight.
So I cannot embrace this mindset. I cannot accept the view of things prevalent in so many Christian communities–that we are good people called to resist the evil in our world, the evil people who would impose their godless ways upon us from without and the evil people in our midst who would capitulate in cowardice to their nefarious schemes. I know myself too well for that. I know what lies inside of me too well for that.
The bottom line is that in every age there will be things out there which we find offensive, things which we consider to be evil and nefarious threats to all that is good in the world. In every age our calling as Christian communities is to live in the midst of all that, humbly loving and serving all who come across our path. You see, the metaphor above applies to ALL of us, whether we are honest enough to admit it or not. We are all freshwater lakes with a poisonously salty layer underneath. And frequently the salt water leeches out and poisons our relationships, in different ways for different people. It is not cowardice to recognize this. It is not a failure of virtuous manhood. It is not pandering to the pleasing fictions of postmodernism in which there is no right or wrong, men and women are identical, and it is better to live in an amoral gray zone. It is not living as a snarky, self-promoting, self-absorbed, fearful boy-man who refuses to grow up. It is just being honest, recognizing the world as it is and recognizing ourselves as we are.
As Christians, we believe that all people are people for whom Christ died, and we are called to love and serve them as such. It is nearly impossible to do so when we believe that some of those people, because of their beliefs or lifestyle, represent something evil which is contrary to the good in our world–in other words, when we are living out of the mindset from which American Sniper proceeds.