‘Machine Gun Preacher’ Poses Tough Questions

A major new film presents an unsanitized portrayal of Christian conversion, but it also poses challenging questions about “redemptive violence.”
"Machine Gun Preacher" Sam-Childers

RADICAL MISSIONARY: Sam Childers at the New York premiere of 'Machine Gun Preacher,' which is based on his action-packed life story.

Machine Gun Preacher, a new film starring Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan, poses challenging questions about just how far a Christian should go in the pursuit of justice for the world’s most vulnerable members, in this case children who were kidnapped in Sudan by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, also known as the LRA.

The biopic is about Sam Childers, a Pennsylvania drug dealer whose radicalism was redeemed by Christ and redirected toward preaching the gospel and saving orphans in East Africa. In the process of rescuing those orphans, Childers engages in gun battles with LRA soldiers, but he also manages to pull hundreds of children from either death or the murderous grip of the LRA.

The movie is a cross between The Blind Side and Rambo. For a faith-based film, it certainly doesn’t shy away from Rambo-style action. But The Blind Side might be the even more apt comparison, since both it and Machine Gun Preacher are based on true stories that navigate tricky racial issues. In fact, The Blind Side, just like this summer’s The Help, reignited the ongoing debate about films featuring benevolent white heroes who come along to help needy black victims. When I spoke to Childers at Machine Gun Preacher’s New York premiere, he insisted he was no “white savior” going into an African nation to save black children.

“If anything the children saved me,” Childers told me. “The children gave me a purpose. I wasn’t always a good person in life. I believe probably the only good thing that I ever done and stuck to doing was helping the children of Sudan.”

Machine Gun Preacher is a unique faith film in that it is R-rated and its main character is not sanitized either before or after his conversion. Its realism in this regard is its greatest strength. Too often our heroes are portrayed as one-dimensional converts who go from bad to good in one fell swoop. In Machine Gun Preacher, the converted Childers character has a crisis of faith and takes it out on everyone around him as he struggles to raise funds for a ministry that eventually threatens to consume him. Its strength may also be its greatest weakness, because it fails to adequately address the questions it raises.

When I interviewed Childers, he said his son “was killed” a number of years ago, but there is no mention of a son in the film. Instead a friend dies of a drug overdose and this too fuels his rage. At the after-party, Childers said his son had died from heroin.

Michelle-Monaghan-and-Gerard-Butler

ON THE RED CARPET: Michelle Monaghan and Gerard Butler at the 'Machine Gun Preacher' premiere. Butler and Monaghan portray Sam and Lynn Childers.

The intensity of the character is well served by Gerard Butler’s bold performance. When I spoke to Butler, he said he was raised Catholic, but that he had tapped into his Scottish heritage more than any religious faith to bring Childers to life on the big screen.

Michelle Monaghan, who plays Childers’ ex-stripper wife, Lynn, was also raised Catholic, and described herself as “a very spiritual person” when I inquired about her faith.

“I definitely think there’s someone out there greater than me,” she said.

Machine Gun Preacher is Monaghan’s first faith-based movie, she said, and she is “incredibly proud of it.”

“It’s faith based, but I think it’s something everyone can really identify with. … I don’t think anybody can see this movie and not be impacted by it in a positive way.”

Monaghan spent time with Lynn Childers and sought to honor her in her portrayal.

“I consider her the quiet giant of this relationship. Without her strength, I don’t know if Sam would be able to pursue the things that he does on a daily basis,” Monaghan said. “I wanted to understand who she was as a person, and what I’ve realized is, still to this day, her faith is what guides her. She really believes that he’s doing God’s work.”

Monaghan used her interviews on the red carpet to encourage the public to support the Childers’ Angels of East Africa Foundation. As the film was introduced and again as guests exited the theatre, they were encouraged to support the ministry.

Angels of East Africa took in close to $878,000 in 2009, according to its IRS tax form 990. The filing says that the organization runs one of the largest orphanages in South Sudan, serves 1,800 meals a day in Africa, runs a medical clinic, and has reunited over 1,500 orphans from displacement camps with their families.

The ministry is an outgrowth of Shekinah Fellowship, the church the Childers founded in Central City, Pennsylvania. Although the church website lists Sam as its pastor, he said Lynn is now the pastor. Their daughter Paige Wirick accompanied Sam to the premiere and said at the after-party that she works in the children’s ministry and that her husband Justin is the church’s youth pastor.

Although the film portrays the strain Sam Childers’ devotion to Sudanese orphans put on the family, Wirick said she supports the work.

“Every young girl eventually goes through where she needs her dad, but I don’t hold any grudges,” said Wirick. “I think everything I went through has made me who I am today, and I completely back my parents on everything that they do. I even want to run the ministry along side of them. I don’t take anything to heart where it pushed me away.”

She was born after her father’s conversion, she said, not before, as the film suggests.

And that’s not the only instance of artistic license that the filmmakers take with the story. The film version of Sam Childers’ life “amped up” the violence, he said. And while he doesn’t condone violence, Childers asked me what I would want him to do if the child he was trying to save were mine?

I posed a similar question to Christian peace activist Shane Claiborne when I interviewed him before he co-hosted the anti-war Jesus, Bombs, & Ice Cream variety show in Philadelphia on September 10. To hear what Claiborne had to say about the appropriate use of “redemptive violence,” listen here.

Childers’ question is a good one. Another is: how does a lone American citizen engage in armed conflict in another nation and continue traveling freely into and out of that country? Is it ever appropriate for a Christian to do so?

Tell us what you think. Is there a place for “redemptive violence” in the life of a Christian? Do you plan to see Machine Gun Preacher when it opens this weekend? If so, please come back and share your thoughts.

UPDATE: Christianity Today reports that Sam Childers is accused of neglecting children at the orphanage he founded in Sudan.

“Witnesses have said that the children at Shekinah Fellowship Children’s Village are malnourished, unhealthy, and unhappy. Several locals — including pastors, government officials, and a high-ranking member of the military — tell Christianity Today that Childers has exaggerated or outright lied about his work in the African nation,” the article said.

Childers denied the accusations, saying they ultimately stem from an employee he fired for corruption and theft.

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.
  1. I absolutely will see this movie.
    In your column, you complained about movies that show the “benevolent white man” helping “needy black” people.
    No one is trying to say that’s the only hope they have, although in this case, that appears to be the case. No one else was helping them. So why is it that when it is a TRUE story about one white man who cared that much about innocent little black children, as to put himself into harm’s way to help them, that we have to fuss about giving a white man his due credit? I suppose any black person who wanted to help could have. Don’t slap down the man who did something about these atrocities, just because he happens to be white. Talk about racism…

  2. Thanks for your comment Dorothy. I didn’t complain about giving a white man his due. I asked an appropriate question and was not alone among journalists in doing so.

    Unfortunately I began interviewing Mr. Childers before the videographer was ready and the question appears abrupt in the video interview. The first quesiton I asked was about the movie’s tagline: “Hope is the greatest weapon of all.” That question made Childers smile, but I did not sufficiently recall his answer to include it.

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  4. Sam Childers calling from God was to go to Africa not yours or mine .God knew he was the only man for the job. How many people whether white or black, green or yellow would stand up when God calls them to a war ravaged land.The movie like he said “amped up” the violence. The lesson is on faith, on the God who called you to stand when it seems everything has fallen apart and he rewards the just who move by faith in what the son of God Jesus died for. That is why the movie is out there because God blesses, so he can continue his ministry. These are children’s lives, let us not forget, they are being raped and killed and made to murder. May God bless Sam Childers.