"The Lord I serve is the living Lord Jesus. And to show you he's alive, I'm going to send you to meet him right now!" — from Another Man's War, by Sam Childers
As a blockbuster plot, it's hard to beat: The Rev. Sam Childers was on a mission from God. In an effort to escape the demons of a misspent life of petty crime and violence, he left his bad-boy biker ways behind and dove headfirst into one of the world's bloodiest civil wars, armed to the teeth, personally rescuing child soldiers from the grasp of a brutal African militia. Childers then sold his worldly possessions to build an orphanage to house the rescued children and is now going after the man responsible for their suffering -- and by the grace of God he will, with great vengeance and furious anger, kill him. Personally.
That's how Sam Childers tells his life story. He's also the hero of Machine Gun Preacher, Hollywood's latest take on the "white man saves Africa" theme. The movie stars Gerard Butler of 300 fame as Childers and was directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Quantum of Solace); it opens throughout the United States on Friday, Sept. 23. But as is often the case with Hollywood movies based on supposedly true stories, the whole truth is more complicated. Blockbuster movies turn rough situations into smooth narratives where the good guys know what needs to be done -- and do it, damn the consequences. In the real world, though, actions ripple out and even the best-intentioned amateur humanitarian can make a bad situation worse.
The movie is based on Childers's 2009 memoir, Another Man's War. He tells his life story in a rambling, disjointed mishmash of personal redemption and righteous African crusade. Childers starts at the beginning: He was a biker gang member who loved to fight and always had a sawed-off shotgun within reach; he used and sold drugs and once stabbed a hitchhiker. Then he found Jesus Christ. He kicked the drug habit, turned his life around, and went on a mission trip to Sudan.
Childers first went to southern Sudan in 1998, when the area was being ravaged by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal guerrilla group led by Joseph Kony that was infamous for abducting children, forcing the boys to fight and the girls to become sex slaves. There are no doubts that Kony is a callous, despicable theocratic thug -- and likely a madman -- responsible for taking thousands of innocent lives but Childers's account of his intersection with the man is troubling.
In his memoir, Childers tells the story of building an orphanage in Nimule, a small town near the Sudan-Uganda border. Between constant appeals for donations, Childers expounds shallowly on Sudan's recent history, rails against radical Muslims, brags about his guns, and offers pointers for conducting armed rescue missions (tip: tape two AK-47 clips together to speed reloading.) Childers says he started leading a heavily armed posse of Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers to rescue Kony's child soldiers by force. And, apparently, he set out to track and kill Kony himself.
It would take a miracle for all of Childers's claims to be completely true, starting with the SPLA story. In his book he describes leading a group of SPLA soldiers who call him their commander. The SPLA begs to differ: As Childers was touring the United States to promote his book and raise money for his charity, an SPLA spokesman released a statement saying, "The SPLA does not know Sam Childers ... the SPLA is appealing to those who are concerned to take legal measures against Sam for ... misusing the name of an organization which is not associated with him."