American Christian: Allegiance, Militarism and the Kingdom of God

I don't walk out on movies. Honest, it's just not my MO. For perspective, I sat through to the end of Rock of Ages. I finished Bruno in the theater. I do not walk out on movies.

That is, until Friday before last, when I encountered a film I could not in good conscience finish, prompting me to leave my group of friends and walk out of the theater. I made it through about two thirds of the thing, but at that point was so profoundly disturbed I had to walk out of American Sniper. 

Before we go any further allow me to clear something up: American Sniper is not a bad movie. As a matter of fact, from a technical standpoint it's damn near flawless (from what I saw). Gritty, poignant, emotionally gripping, smoothly directed, masterfully acted, full of action, suspense, and human drama; this film has it all.

But I had to leave, because AS surfaced in me a host of profoundly confusing, troubling issues, rendering the whole viewing experience alternately painful, numbing and infuriating.

For one thing I remember a moment early in the film where the titular sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) learns of a terrorist attack on a US embassy. In the next scene, or very nearly the next scene, we witness his utter devastation over the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers. His response to these events, some cocktail of deep betrayal and outrage, spurred him on to join the service. His loyalty to his (and my) country served as a catalyst for Kyle's narrative, jettisoning him into a life of war and trauma, isolation and eventually death. All for love of country and need to defend it.

Cooper played the moments beautifully, with a blend of raw intensity and vulnerability, but his passion in these scenes only served to highlight for me how ought of sync I am, not only with Kyle's experiences (growing up in hypermasculine cowboy culture) but also with his motivations. Whereas, at some point in my past I may have connected with his vehement, almost tribal sense of protectiveness, duty and loyalty to his country, such sympathy now eludes me entirely.

Now please, don't misunderstand me. 9/11 was a hugely formative experience for me, as for my whole generation, teaching us at once the fear and uncertainty of living in this world and the capacity for human goodness and solidarity in the midst of deep collective pain and confusion. I also believe the events of that day were unequivocally tragic, as the loss of three thousand lives would be under any circumstances. The only difference is, while I once believed these events to be especially cataclysmic because they happened in my country, to my people, I am now convinced that such tragedy is no more heartbreaking simply because it happens at home.

All life is sacred, American or otherwise.

I think too of how the fear, anguish and sense of fragility which have so shaped post-911 American consciousness are not at all uncommon in other parts of the world. They are, in fact, par for the course in so many nations, and for a little while we Americans knew some sliver of the pain experienced by God's precious children in war torn lands. Except while we in the US have largely managed to bounce back over the last thirteen years, they experience no reprieve. Their fear and anguish are constant.

So I cannot cheer when I watch a movie like American Sniper, which, at the face of it, seems to celebrate Chris Kyle for his ability to kill our "enemies" in Iraq. It's just... not that simple for me anymore.

In fact, as I've wrestled with God over the last few years I have realized I cannot square America's recent war efforts with my own Christian convictions. I cannot imagine God's sanctioning such violence.

But... they started it, right? They struck first!

I'm sorry, in light of Christ's witness and example, I simply cannot take that as justification, not anymore. 

Jesus never preached redemptive violence, no matter how desperately His followers begged for His endorsement of their violent rebellion against Rome. Instead, He bade them not to return violence with violence, nor to repay evil with evil but to be peacemakers, bringers of good news, and ambassadors of reconciliation.

He even modeled ultimate submission, nonviolence and radical, loving witness by refusing to strike back against those who would guide him to his own death. He rebuked His disciples, namely Peter, for attempting to defend His life with violence in the garden of Gethsemane. With word and deed Christ, our clearest picture of the character and heart of our creator God, communicated a singular, uncompromised message that violence is not the way of God, nor of His people.

Indeed, Christ won by losing, achieved life by dying, and calls His followers to do the same. Because according to this Jesus story, only love can heal the world's wounds. Violence has no place in the Kingdom of God.

Granted, this is hardly practical foreign policy, just as it is utterly unreasonable advice for the individual believer. Who in his/her right mind responds to violence with peace? hate with love? But I kind of think that's what Jesus had in mind. His Kingdom ways are mysterious, but ultimately lead to the sort of life God would have us living.

So when I feel this tension between my identity in Christ and my national heritage, it is hardly even a question where I'll land. I am a citizen not primarily of America, but of the Kingdom of God. I may tentatively claim dual citizenship, ride with a foot on each of two horses, but when their paths diverge, when these two identities conflict as they so often do, my allegiance is not first to the United States, but to my King's new world.

In spite of that all that, however, I cannot totally dismiss American Sniper as a malicious bit of propaganda. It is not as soaked in fist-pumping jingoism as certain famous detractors have claimed. From what I saw, Kyle's story is actually treated fairly even-handedly, with the horrors and heartbreaks of war on full display. You could even make the case AS is more about the trauma of war than its glory. Still, I couldn't stick it out. I could not cope with the dissonance within myself, with the dozen voices in my head competing for control.

In retrospect, my larger problem has nothing to do with how American Sniper treats Kyle, but how my own subculture seems to have venerated not just him but the Christian warrior archetype in general. We Evangelicals love how Kyle was a Christian, and seem to take his behavior as example for how Christians ought to respond to evil in the world. One scene early in the film depicts Kyle's father explaining to a young Chris how the world is made of sheep (average folk, weak and defenseless), wolves ("evil" people, who prey on sheep) and sheepdogs (those who protect sheep by fighting the wolves). Kyle's father expects nothing less than for his boys to grow into sheepdogs. 

And I hear masculine church culture cheering. A moral justification for redemptive violence! Some have even incorporated the sheepdog analogy into certain ministry efforts.

Which is all well and good, except that it flies in the face of Christ's own words: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16).

We are the sheep. Shrewd as snakes, sure, but innocent as doves too, and I can't help but notice "sheepdog" is missing from the equation entirely. God calls us to be gentle, winsome and meek, even to our enemies. He does not impel us to fight those who do evil, but to combat the world's brokenness with radical love and service.

Unfortunately, however, this does not much resemble our larger culture's image of us as Evangelicals. In countless polls most young people associate Evangelical Christianity more with being pro-war and pro-gun (and anti-gay for that matter) than for advocating for the poor and oppressed. Which is, ya know, problematic. Why should we be the ones who most readily condone violence, when our Lord modeled sacrifice and martyrdom over retribution or retaliation? These two ethics simply do not gel. One is born of our particular religious subculture; the other is God's revealed will.

In the film, Kyle is very clear about his priorities: "God, country and family". And I celebrate his commitment to God first, but the fact that country ranks second, even before his family, I cannot relate to at all. While it is not my place to pass judgment on him or anyone so committed to patriotism and national loyalty, I authentically do not understand it, nor frankly do I believe these impulses are compatible with Kingdom priorities.

Look, I completely understand how this all becomes rather sticky on a policy level. Many believe our nation ought to use its military might for good, to protect the innocent or put an end to egregious injustices. And when it comes to political or governmental matters, I prayerfully genuflect to those who make such decisions. My larger point is, however, that I believe we Christians must in times of war and conflict remember our allegiance, not to American empire but to the Jesus way. We must actually, practically trust the God we worship to bring about His restorative justice as we advocate for peace and reconciliation.

Finally, lest anyone get the wrong idea, allow me to clarify that I hold no ill will against Chris Kyle, nor against any other individual in the armed forces. In fact, I have a few dear friends in the service and am so grateful for their hearts to protect and serve the rest of us. It would be truly shortsighted and unkind of me to dismiss wholesale their actions and intentions, especially while I know nothing of their experiences. I may not relate to or even agree with their motivations, but I am so grateful for them, as people, as neighbors, as beloved brothers and sisters. My love and prayers are with them always.

As I said, my major issue is not with them, but with a Christian culture which has so married America's own nationalistic impulses with the preaching of the Gospel.

Friends, God is not American. We US citizens are no more or less beloved or chosen simply because we hail from the "land of the free". And I do not expect God to condone our war efforts. In fact, I hear God calling us toward something better. In Scripture I see God goading and prodding His people toward a fully-embodied ethic of sacrifice, service, and submission. I cannot, try as I might, find room in God's purposes for even the most nobly violent intentions. Violence, coercion and militarism are simply outside of God's redemptive plan.

So as we approach the Oscars this year, let us consider what stand we are making with the films we endorse and celebrate. If you enjoyed American Sniper for its technical merit, or even for its relatively nuanced approach to war, then by all means cheer the film on come awards time. But I would caution you: think hard on what message we, as Christians, are sending. Are we propagating the idea that Jesus' people, who worship a non-violent God, are bloodthirsty? eager for revenge? Or are we taking a stand against empire, against any conflation of God's way and the world's violent way? 

These things really do matter. We cannot afford to get this wrong, or else we may, with our proud and stubborn hearts, turn off the rest of the world to the Gospel of Christ. 

My own hope and prayer is this: that we may be known for our love, and for our peacemaking, and for our passion for reconciliation. May the cross of Christ remind us to love a deep, long-suffering love, even to the point of death, and in so doing may we be a foretaste of God's beautiful Kingdom to this fallen world, thirsty for hope and truth. 

“We forget that when we see Christ dead upon the cross, we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. We forget all of this because the disturbing truth is this—it’s hard to believe in Jesus.” 
― Brian ZahndA Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor's Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace

"But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."
― Matthew 5:39


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