American Sniper officially made it big at the box office this past weekend, and of course has generated quite a bit of controversy. There’s the fact that the late Chris Kyle was emphatic that he enjoyed killing his enemy and was quite black and white in his whole approach to killing: the Iraqis were evil and deserved to die because they were Muslims and the Americans were good because they were Christians. Such a view doesn’t allow for nuance or complications; part of that might be a defense mechanism for those in combat. After all, no one would want to think themselves responsible for unjustly killing another human being. Regardless, Chris Kyle did perform heroically in many situations (even in unjust wars, even on the wrong side of a war, men can still perform heroic acts) and he has passed on, thus his judgements are his own, drawn on his experiences.
What is inexcusable, however, are the reactions of those seeing the film and coming to the conclusion that “killing for your country automatically makes you a hero.” No war, not even WWII (possibly the most clear-cut case of a “good” vs. “evil” war in history), is ever about the good guys against the bad guys. The idea of a completely good army against a completely evil army only plays out in fiction; in real life, men on both sides of the gun more than likely have families waiting for them back home, have lives that would have been better if left uninterrupted by war, who have dreams and aspirations beyond warfare. Yes, many groups commit evil acts, but no individual is truly and fully evil. All individuals, even those who commit despicable acts, are still made in God’s image. In fact, we recognize their acts as evil because it not only harms another, but those acts are so contrary to who they are.
Thus, it must pain us when such a life is taken. I am not a full-blown pacifist, I do believe there is a time to kill, I think there are times to go to war, but such times should be solemn and we ought not celebrate the deaths of our enemies. Even David mourned the loss of Saul. Yet, in the name of patriotism we have a movie that essentially celebrates and glorifies (at least that’s how it’s been interpreted) the deaths of Arabs and we praise it and the man who killed them. That is not the sign of a healthy country.
There’s a fine line between patriotism and nationalism, but you can never tell that to the nationalist, for he always fancies himself a patriot. For a Christian, it’s okay to be a patriot, it’s okay to love one’s nation. After all, for better or worse, your nation is your broader community and has helped shape you into who you are. The problem, however, is when patriotism becomes nationalism. The biggest difference between a patriot and a nationalist is that to the patriot, his nation is always seeking after an ideal; to a nationalist, his nation is the ideal, and while the government may not represent his nation, his nation exists in perfection and can rise from the ashes of a fallen society.
A patriot in America looks to his nation’s past and sees a complex story. He sees the good things the US has done, but also sees where we moved away from our ideal. To the patriot, there’s still an “American Dream,” it’s just in an ideal that thus far is left unattained. The ideal for the patriot is one that will make his country better – not like it used to be – but better than it has ever been. He will condemn his government and his nation when it goes against the ideal, when it goes against human dignity and freedom, but not out of hatred, yet out of love. To condemn one’s country for it’s wrongs is no different than to condemn one’s parents for their wrongs; it is not indicative of hate, but of true love.
Nationalism, however, does away with the ideal and believes his nation is the ideal. Nationalism is always a dangerous utopia of exclusion. Sadly, every nationalist thinks he’s a patriot, that he’s supporting his nation and all those who do not goose-step along him are not only not patriots, but against his nation. Disagreement is not allowed and all who do disagree or question aren’t loyal to the nation. His country, right or wrong, is his country and he will follow it. For a nationalist, there was once a utopia in which his people lived free, but it was corrupted by the “Other,” by some people group who now stand between his people and attaining their former greatness.
Such nationalism easily co-ops Christianity, as it has in many other nations. One can think of the current conflict between the Ukraine and Russia, where “Orthodox” adherents on both sides claim God is on their side. Or we can look to German Lutherans in WWII and how quick they were to declare that Hitler’s Germany was God’s Will. Or even to our own history and how “manifest destiny” justified the genocide against Native Americans and the enslavement and brutalization of Africans. All of these horrible actions were done with the sanction of ministers and “good, God-fearing” people. The reason isn’t because Christianity actually allows for these things – it stands quite opposed to tarnishing God’s image – but because people wrapped the cross in their nation’s flag, because they filtered their faith through their ideology.
Which brings us back to the movie and the actions of Chris Kyle; killing is a necessity in war, but should we celebrate it? Shouldn’t we be somber that another human being was killed, justified or no? From a Christian perspective we are to seek peace in all situations. We are to constantly struggle towards peace and when that peace cannot be achieved, only then do we engage in war, but always with a heavy-heart. Or, if we follow the early Church’s example, Christians ought not engage in war at all. How do we go from forbidding Christians to engage in war to declaring a sniper a holy instrument of God? If we celebrate the idea that all Muslims are evil and that it’s okay that Chris Kyle enjoyed killing them, is not the next logical step to just kill them outright? What is it that prevents us from interning and systematically killing Muslims if we believe them to be so evil? What prevents it, or so I hope, is that even in our nationalistic passion the image of God still ignites within us to tell us that such desires are wrong and evil.
For the Christian, all human beings are made in the image of God and while some war is necessary, all killing is an atrocity and indicative of a fallen world, certainly not something worthy of celebration. We cannot let our love of country surpass or interfere with our love of God and our love of our fellow image-bearers. Perhaps Christians would be better served celebrating films that promote peace, such as Selma (outperformed by American Sniper, which is troublesome), than supporting nationalistic films that promote and celebrate the deaths of the “other.”