Why Liberal Christians Need to See “American Sniper”

“I am writing on my own behalf, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.” 

The movie “American Sniper” has become a box-office hit, passing $200 million dollars this past weekend in just a little over a week.  Yet, the movie is also an explosively controversial topic.  Many hail it as a tail of “American Hero”, Navy SEAL,  and sniper Chris Kyle.

There are also many who share a sharply different sentiment. A friend of mine shared this article from Salon.com titled, “American Sniper’s” Biggest Lie.”  That’s sums up the other side of the coin on the Chris Kyle/American Sniper story – the whole thing’s fabricated, manipulated to meet certain political and social agendas, namely, a Conservative, Republican one.  The movie portrays Chris Kyle as a gun-toting, courageous defender of freedom and democracy, a “real American Hero”.  The movie suggests that the Iraqi War was solely the result of the events of 9/11.  Then there’s that whole painting Iraqis and Muslims as “the manifestation of evil.”

As a veteran of active duty Navy service and currently serving in the Navy Reserves, I have a favorable view of military service and those people who choose to serve.  However, I’m not going to sit here and defend Chris Kyle; I’m not going to glorify and justify what he did.  He’s a known liar. Then there’s that whole Iraqi War thing….which debate shows I don’t think we’re over it yet.

So based on that whole premise, people are saying – and yes, they are the more liberal voices – we should simply ignore and dismiss the whole movie and the Chris Kyle story.

Let me recap that:

Because there are historical inaccuracies, the filmmakers had a bias or agenda in telling the story, and because the main character is morally and ethically flawed as best or at worst is morally bankrupt……we should simply dismiss that the “American Sniper” story holds any truth or meaning.  It’s one big, fat lie.

Now let’s apply that same principle to the Bible.

You know that book: the one a lot of Christians – yes, even liberal ones – hold on some degree as a source and norm for our religious and spiritual faith and life.  The Bible – with its historical inaccuracies, its writers telling stories with bias and an agenda, painting foreign people in an unfair light, and full of morally and ethically flawed, even bankrupt characters – should be completely disregarded as one big fat lie.  The Bible is a book that holds no meaning, is unworthy of any reflection on our part.  Chuck it; refuse to open it.  The Bible’s completely worthless….one big, fat lie.

I don’t think Christians, even the most radically liberal ones, are willing to go that far.  Yet we would with a movie that tells a story about a man, from his experience and perspective?  We would with a movie, one especially that I think says a lot about the human condition, the broken world we live in, and raises serious ethical issues I think bear reflection?

I think if you take the time to watch American Sniper, you can look at Chris Kyle’s life (and the film) with a lens that seeks to ask “why?”.  Why would a man (and many soldiers) dehumanize their enemy, choosing such an extremely narrow view? Is it because they are satisfying an animalistic need to destroy, or to chase a dream of glory and greatness before the entire country?  Or is it perhaps to survive the horrors and dilemma of what they are doing? Is it to rationalize somehow (no matter how misguided that rationalization is) that our actions matter for something, that they have meaning, and to find some sense of honor in them?

There’s also another, larger ethical story going on here: Navy SEALs, as well as many special warfare soldiers, have long-held to a strict code of silence about their mission and what they do.  You don’t talk about it publicly – ever.  Yet here we have guys like Chris Kyle, Marcus Luttrell, and others bearing their (fabricated, yet true) stories to the world.  Why would they do that?  Is it narcissism or a sad, twisted belief that with every shot they’re defeating evil (as Chris Kyle believed)?  Is it because they want to cash in on their stories?  Or is it they are somehow grasping at need for validation in the wake of knowing something horribly questionable and tragic about what they’re doing?

You see that in the movie…the few moments he allows himself to humanize his enemy, the break from the persona of “American Badass”; and it almost breaks him. There are tons of others moments like this, ones that make you think – really think.  Personally, I loved the movie because I don’t think it romanticized war or soldiering as a profession. We can choose to believe even these moments are fabricated based on our constructed perception of Chris Kyle. Or, we can look at them as his story, a story of a man taking on an ideology in order to justify himself and his actions, providing a protective emotional barrier.  American Sniper portrays a man who struggles to keep that barrier intact as he sees it crumble before the horrors and realities of war that he is fully in the throes of.  We see a man who is stuck in a vicious cycle once he returns home……only to find redemption through connecting with his family and those who suffered the same tragedies of war.

Is Chris Kyle a hero? No. But he is human.  We could choose to fixate on the factual accuracy of the story, but that leaves us to either celebrate or vilify it.  American Sniper allows us to ask thoughtful questions about institutions and structures that throw people onto the heap of isolation, false bravado, and despair.  It opens our own hearts and minds to connect in empathy rather than coldly disconnect with others. If we’re really honest, we see that Chris Kyle is each and every one of us: tragically and beautifully flawed simultaneously.

I’m not condoning his actions…..ethically, they are a big mess. But I feel it’s worth looking past the argument of authenticity and fact to the more human, and perhaps theological one: does his flawed character and factual inaccuracy totally negate the story?  If we believe that, then we contradict the very things we say about the Bible and Christian faith concerning narrative truth and interpretation. If we refuse to engage and wrestle with the narrative of people’s lives the way we say we wrestle with the Bible – no matter how skewed we think the experience or perspective is – then perhaps we’ve lost all sense of God in our lives after all.

Go see American Sniper.  You might be glad you did.

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3 Comments

Filed under Culture & Social Issues/Ethics

3 responses to “Why Liberal Christians Need to See “American Sniper”

  1. Well said, Aaron. I like the parallels you draw to how we read Scripture. What is the *truth* of the story, regardless of the facts?

  2. Thank you for this piece. I’m actually fascinated by your point that in the movie Chris Kyle almost “needs” to keep this distinction between good and evil intact in order to survive the horrors of what he is doing. That really makes me rethink the film in some important ways.

    https://scratchpaperessays.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/our-perpetual-crusade/

    I would like to share my own essay dealing with the film with you. Because, I do think that some of American Sniper’s other themes are problematic and fit into a larger issue. However, you’ve given me something to ponder. Thanks again.

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