The hype around that upcoming movie the Machine Gun Preacher has me more than a little worried about the type of fanfare that is being generated for what is effectively a story about vigilante justice and which in actuality is almost entirely fallacious. The story centers around a man, who, after leading a rough life as a biker in the US, meets Jesus, is transformed and decides to go to northern Uganda and what is now South Sudan to take on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), rescuing children from the hands of terrible people. Sam Childers, aka the Machine Gun Preacher, is a self-styled hero who claims to be engaged in righting the wrongs that he claims everyone else is ignoring. His apparently unilateral actions against the LRA in northern Uganda and newly formed South Sudan are the subject of the upcoming film, starring Gerard Butler of 300 fame. The movie is based on Childers’ own book, Another Man’s War where he claims to be setting up an orphanage for children which he has rescued from the LRA. He claims to have been in several firefights with the LRA and rescued scores of children. The problem is that his claims are somewhat spurious. Well, not just somewhat, almost completely.
Apart from the establishment of the orphanage at Nimule, many of the claims presented in the book, and now captured in the cinema, are easy to dispute. For example, the MGP’s claim on his blog to have recently driven from Nimule to visit Darfur is highly suspect. A reminder to the readers that the only mention of any specific places in this trip are Turalei and Nimule, both located well within South Sudan. How did he cross the river dividing the North and South? Where did he stay in South Darfur? How did he enjoy Buram? Or the hospitality in Nyala? To claim that he went to Darfur is nearly impossible and certainly sheds doubt on many of the details of his claims. As an aid-worker working for a charity in Southern Sudan (during the war, pre-2005); Southern Kordofan (2006-2007) and South Darfur (2009 – 2010), I find many of the details of his stories inaccurate, and somewhat sensationalized. My doubts are certainly echoed by many other aid workers, journalists, the business community and even the SPLA whom he claims to have been working with. The SPLA have gone so far as to issue a full statement disavowing any involvement with Childers. Many of the areas he describes in his book have very active aid and development operations as well as bustling local economies. And yet he claims no one is there doing anything…
Admittedly, progress in addressing many of the systemic problems in what was Sudan and is now two countries, is slow and very frustrating. I certainly can attest to that. I can even identify with the feeling of wanting to pick up a gun and just shoot the “bad guys”. However, importantly, being able to compartmentalize that urge as an emotional response is critical, and a quality of rational people. Without that self-control, the reality of the impact of such an action would likely lead only to further complications and cycles of violence. That restraint is absolutely critical. Let me clarify, the LRA do abhorrent things and have been a scourge in this area of the world for many years. I am not saying that we shouldn’t be angered or moved by such things and that it shouldn’t make us want to find a way to bring justice to these children. But one of two things is happening here: Either 1) You have a man running around deciding who is and who is not LRA and killing them whenever he feels like it, or 2) a liar raising a lot of money in hopes that no one will challenge him on the veracity of his claims a la Greg Mortensen, but with an AK.
As disturbing as this sounds, it goes a step further. Regardless of whether or not his claims are spurious, he is being cheered, financed and encouraged by an ever-growing base of support. Most of these people claim to be evangelical Christians but I am not sure Jesus would have encouraged re-paying evil with evil…
Reading the comments on his blog, and looking at the reviews of his book, it would seem that a vocal segment of the population of the US is actually supportive of this type of unilateral, vigilante action. In fact, I feel that it reflects a much larger and disturbing belief about the rule of law, human rights, the role of religion and the role of Americans in our modern world. The train of thought must go something like this: “Well, we would never allow that in the US, but this is AFRICA and we don’t have to follow the rules because we are Americans and God gave us a vision to help these poor African kids. People need to see love and stuff and we will give them both.”
Is this our new view of how our foreign policy should be enacted? Is it ok to think that “at least he is doing something?” and it is ok because he believes God approves? I would vehemently oppose such statements.
This lack of respect for due process and the rule of law is disturbing when one person does it. But it is terrifying when an entire segment of the population support him without asking questions about his facts. Can you imagine if a Mexican crossed the border in to the States and decided that he would go after criminals indiscriminately with neither the support of the US law enforcement agencies nor the judicial system? In fact, looking at the comments on his blog, it would seem that people are encouraging people like Sam Childers simply because he feels God wants him to. Is that not the very definition religious radicalism? Indoctrination? Fanaticism?
In the newly formed country of South Sudan, upholding the democratic values that we espouse in the US is just as important as feeding programs and orphanages. Equally, upholding human rights and the rule of law is just as important in South Sudan as it is in Iowa, New York or anywhere else. In theory, one of the key components of the US system of democracy is the right to a fair trial, no matter how guilty any one of us thinks that the person is. A second important aspect is the enforcement of the rule of law for the betterment of society and progress, in a collective effort to avoid vigilantism. This interpretation of justice as one of the tenets for a stable society is a key role of our foreign policy and many millions of US taxpayers’ dollars are spent on in modeling this in the form of USAID funded programming, in places like South Sudan. Sure there are problems but it is a worthy goal, one worth protecting.
And yet our actions speak much louder than our words. In practice, we have been quick to assassinate people in foreign countries based on algorithms and patterns of movements interpreted by drones. We imprison people in Guantanamo for a decade without charge. Whatever happened to fair trial? Where is the rational man? Burden of proof? Facts? When we reduce guilt to the actions that any one of us interprets as threatening, wrong or sinful, we have eroded the very foundation of justice, let alone forgiveness, tolerance and peaceful coexistence. Sam Childers and his supporters seem to embody this growing belief that the end justifies the means and that all things are ok to do, as long as God told you to. I, for one, don’t believe that.
My message to Sam Childers is this: Time to come clean Sam. Whether you are truly a vigilante or just a liar, at least your followers as a group of Christians, would be compelled to forgive you.