American Sniper, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Christian Faith

I want to say something about a movie I have not seen, American Sniper. In fact, I think my wife and I are among the handful of Christians in our church who have not seen the movie yet.

This latest film by Clint Eastwood, is about Chris Kyle, a sniper credited with some 160 kills during the Iraq War, a record in American military history. According to folks who have gone to see the film, and from this review by the Internetmonk, Kyle’s father gave his son advice when he was young: “there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Most people are sheep, they need protecting from the wolves that threaten them. The boy better not think of being anything but a sheepdog — strong, protective, using whatever means necessary to guarantee the safety of his own“.

Chris Kyle is called to be a sheepdog.

The film raises disturbing issues.

As it should.

On the one side are those who view Chris Kyle as the ultimate hero to be celebrated, representing the virtuous forces of good heaping judgment upon the forces of evil. On the other side are those who see in the rush among evangelical Christians to glorify Chris Kyle a horrific sense of betraying the very pacifist ethic of Jesus as taught within Scripture. I am torn about seeing the film because I wonder a lot about the deeper issues lurking behind the camera lens.

Partly, American Sniper is contentious because of some of the historical inconsistencies resulting from what Clint Eastwood portrays in this haunting, tragic story, or what he leaves out by omission. But the other part is that while the film thoughtfully raises crucial issues, I wonder if it really explores them in any rich, theological depth. According to one review at the Patheos Anxious Bench blog, Chris Kyle slips a Bible into his pocket early in his youth, and he carries this Bible with him throughout his life. But what function does this Bible have for Chris Kyle? Is it God’s Word to him imparting a theological vision of what it means to be called as a sheepdog, or is it merely a talisman, a type of “good luck” charm, carried with him as a form of protection and sign of God’s blessing?

If you saw the movie yourself, how would you answer this?

For anyone who understands the Bible’s claim to be the very Word of God, and if you are a student of these Holy Scriptures, you can not help but be drawn into questions about violence, justice, and peace within the Bible. How do you reckon that one of the great ten commandments, “thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) with God’s other commands to wipe out peoples such as the treacherous Amalekites?:

Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey (I Samuel 15:3 ESV).

We are called to love our neighbor on the one hand, but what are we to make of this uncompromising “kill man and woman, child and infant,” and all of their animals? This is pretty heavy stuff to consider indeed, but it is part of the matrix of questions for which the sacred writers want us to grapple. Is the message of the Bible one of peace and non-violence, or is it a message about justice where the use of deadly force is at times necessary, or a message that if left unfiltered condones genocide as many critics complain?

How do we reconcile the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies (Matthew 5:44) with the Apostle Paul’s admonition to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7), even if that requires some to serve in the military and kill other human beings?

These are age old questions. What is the right answer? Is it the “Just War Theory” of Saint Augustine, who instructed that there are times where the sniper must resort to acts of violence for the sake of some greater good? Or is the Christian to always pursue the path of non-violence, as articulated by the traditional Quakers and the Anabaptists? Different followers of Jesus have come to different, thoughtful conclusions to these matters.

I recently finished reading Eric Metaxas‘s biography of the 20th century German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who became a participant in the Resistance against the Nazis, entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. How was it that this pastor and academic Bible teacher able to at one time embrace a commitment to pacifism, following the path of non-violence inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, only to then become involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, discussed earlier on Veracity, did not see the Bible as a mere talisman.  Metaxas makes it clear that Bonhoeffer wrestled with what God says in His Word. Bonhoeffer saw himself as a patriotic German citizen in a supposedly “Christian nation,” ready to participate in military service as required for the defense of that country but he also knew that the Nazis were intent on wiping out the Jewish people, and yet the Jews had no defense against the German war machine. To borrow from American Sniper, the European Jews were the sheep, the Nazis were the wolves, but was Bonhoeffer really called to be a sheepdog?  As Bonhoeffer basically put it, if you see a madman driving a car down the road heading towards a group of children, you must throw a wrench into the wheel in order to slow down the car, even if it meant the eventual harm to the madman driver. But how can a follower of Jesus pick up that wrench himself as a weapon … without becoming sucked into the very web of evil that defined Hitler?

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

How about this, Veracity reader?

I will go see American Sniper if you promise to read Metaxas’ book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Do we have a deal?

One of the most perceptive comments about the American Sniper film came from one of my small group members who saw it. While it is very tempting to want to pick up a gun and blow away every suspected terrorist you can find, to wipe out those whom we perceive as standing in the way of God’s justice, we must be mindful that “there but for the grace of God go I.” Before we begin to demonize every “extremist” out there and wish for their death, we must be willing first to look deep inside ourselves and examine the demons within.

What really separates me from that evil person “over there?”

Here is another way of putting it: how does one imagine oneself as a sheepdog protecting the sheep, when you have the “wolves” living inside of you? We may debate the question of violence in the Bible and how the Christian is supposed to think about it, but hopefully the unequivocal message of the Scriptures is that the source of all violence comes from within the human heart: your heart and my heart.

It is what the Bible calls “sin.”

If you do not believe me, try reading Romans 3.

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)

Answering the questions raised by American Sniper and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are not easy, but grappling with our own sin, the demons within, those inner “wolves,” is the first place to start.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

3 responses to “American Sniper, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Christian Faith

  • John Paine

    Jim Davis has an interesting review of American Sniper on his blog at http://www.jimdavisbooks.com/american-sniper-we-like-it-because-it-doesnt-make-fun-of-us/.

    I’ve been studying Bonhoeffer (listening to The Cost of Discipleship on Audible)–wow what a thinker! He was clearly a deeply spiritual, convicted, and fully committed disciple of Jesus Christ.

    Like

  • Clarke Morledge

    Carl Medearis is someone I think has some thoughtful things to say, especially when it comes to ministry with Muslims.

    https://sharedveracity.net/2013/01/27/call-yourself-a-christian/

    He posted some thoughts on American Sniper, too, and oddly enough, he brought Dietrich Bonhoeffer into the discussion, just as I did, though Medearis has a more provocative angle on it.

    Readers may or may not agree with Medearis, but what he has to say is worth considering.

    http://carlmedearis.com/2015/01/can-a-sniper-be-a-hero/

    Like

  • dwwork

    Clark, I did see American Sniper and though it was a great movie. Far from glorifying war it showed how war took a toll on Chris Kyle. Eastwood does show the Bible in a scene but while I think Eastwood is a great director he too often focuses on violence and what it does to the person and leaves out the religious effect. Was Chris Kyle a hero? I think so. He did a horrible job, one few could do, but he did it to protect his fellow soldiers, his brothers. When we saw the movie after it was over no one spoke as they left the theater. The only sounds were the footsteps of the people leaving. From others who have seen the movie the reaction was the same. A very intense and powerful movie that show those of us stateside just how horrible war is. In the end it is a story of one man and how he was able to over come the ravages of war. David

    Like

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