"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."
After I quoted this news release on my blog, one of Childers's backers sent me a scan of a "letter of support" that SPLA Lt. Gen. Obuto Mamur Mete purportedly sent Childers. That letter simply states that Childers runs an orphanage in Nimule and is authorized to possess a pistol and rifle for personal security -- a far cry from stocking an arsenal and running armed raids to kill Kony. Then last month, the Daily Mail quoted the same Lt. Gen. Mete as telling the Sunday Times, "Sam Childers was responsible for an orphanage in southern Sudan; that was all. His claims to have fought alongside us are a lie. He has never even seen the LRA."
There are pictures of Childers on his website, guns in hand, with current or former SPLA forces. And perhaps he did indeed take a handful of irregulars on these ill-planned missions. It's also possible that the SPLA's disavowal of Childers is part of attempts to be seen as more legitimate, especially now that it is the official military of the world's newest country, South Sudan. (Last year, the SPLA announced it would demobilize all of its own child soldiers.)
Or these inconsistencies may be just the tip of the iceberg. After I initially wrote about Childers, I spoke with him by phone, hoping to clarify some prior public statements. Various interviews have described him showing off his cache of pistols, machine guns, grenades, and RPGs. In a must-read Vanity Fair profile, Childers claimed to have sold weapons to "factions in Rwanda and Congo." I wanted to know more about his weapons -- from where he got them and to whom he sold them. But in our conversation, Childers denied having ever sold weapons to anyone in Africa.
It has been only a few months since another memoir of an American saving children in a war-torn country -- Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea -- was revealed to be a massive fraud. When the story broke, many people close to Mortenson said that they had quietly expressed doubts for years about his tales and the management of his charity. Perhaps they feared rocking the boat, upsetting the cult of personality that had grown around him -- and wasn't Mortensen's heart in the right place, anyway, even if there were some worrying inconsistencies in his story? Didn't he do some good too?
But let's put aside the question of whether every word of Childers's book and his recent interviews is true. It's his narcissistic model of armed humanitarianism that we should be worried about. In his book, Childers describes a scene in which he and his gang of SPLA soldiers drive toward a group of LRA militiamen, firing indiscriminately -- at God's urging, of course. It may look cool on the big screen, but this crosses a line from humanitarianism to misguided vigilantism. Childers's underlying assumption seems to be that the region's conflicts would end if the good guys could just kill enough bad guys. This assumes not only that the good guy can magically discern who the bad guys are, but that killing -- from attacking the LRA to selling weapons -- doesn't fuel future conflict.
Childers justifies his tactics with a shop-worn thought experiment. "Just for one moment imagine if [that child] was yours and I could go stop it," he asks.
But by conflating humanitarian work with Wild West-style vigilantism, Childers makes the world more dangerous for the many aid workers risking their lives to do good in places like South Sudan. The anonymous aid worker who writes the widely read blog Tales from the Hood makes this point: "We [aid workers] very often go into insecure places where our presence and the associated suspicion that we may have ulterior motives puts not only us, but our local colleagues and those we're trying to help at greater risk, too.... Every time [Childers] puts up another video of himself jumping into his white SUV with an AK47 across his lap, he increases the likelihood that I or someone I care about is going to get shot."
Hollywood loves a hero. And now that the silver screen has its Rambo-preacher-orphan-saver, there may be no stopping the Machine Gun Preacher. Even if many American Christians skip the movie because of its R rating, his Angels of East Africa charity will likely reap donations galore.
What's next for Sam Childers? He said he wants to set up operations in Somalia (no way that could go wrong). In the end, perhaps it's Childers himself who says it best. "Who on earth would give money to some pistol-packing ex-biker dude who might be as crazy as the rebel leader he was after?" he writes. Alas, too many already have.