The recent blockbuster movie, American Sniper, has already earned more than $253 million around the world since its release just a few weeks ago. The movie tells the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper, who is considered to be the most deadly sniper in U.S. history. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, is graphic in its depiction of the violence of war, but it also sheds light on the struggles of the man who became known as “Legend” on the battlefield.
Given its massive success at the box office, it comes as no surprise that American Sniper has generated quite a bit of controversy as well. What struck me as interesting (and saddening) was a recent back-and-forth between producer Michael Moore and Fox News commentator Todd Starnes, both of whom invoked the name of Jesus to defend their respective positions.
Michael Moore has openly opposed the film and stated via Twitter:
In these tweets, Moore implies that Chris Kyle participated in sinful, unbiblical, and un-Christian behavior by serving as a sniper in the American military during his four tours in Iraq. For those of you who recognize Moore’s work, such statements are probably expected in light of his political views.
On the other side of the spectrum, Todd Starnes responded to Moore’s tweets by focusing one of his “American Dispatch” commentaries on Moore’s views. In the middle of his commentary (starting at the 48 second mark), Starnes invoked the name of Jesus as well as he stated:
Well, I’m not theologian, but I suspect Jesus would tell that God-fearing, red-blooded American sniper, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant for dispatching another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire.’ But then again, I’m no theologian.
In stark contrast to the thoughts of Moore, Starnes concludes that Jesus would actually applaud Kyle for his work in the war and welcome him to heaven on the basis that he had personally ensured Islamic jihadists would end up in hell.
From a political perspective, I’d really have to hunt for a while to find much of anything to agree with Moore about. I’m probably going to line up with Starnes about 80–85% politically (although I often have problems with his rhetoric). However, in this case I think they both missed the point about Jesus.
I think Moore is asking the wrong questions for the most part. Would Jesus have participated in a war during his 30+ years on earth? Probably not. We have no record that he did and no reason to even speculate about it. However, Moore should be asking whether or not a legitimate government has the biblical authority to participate in war. On that question, the text of Scripture speaks fairly clearly. In Romans 13:1–4, Paul writes:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
This passage has typically been interpreted to include a government’s right to take up arms and defend its citizens and the innocent. This authority is granted to the government by God. In Chris Kyle’s situation, he was acting as an agent of the government in an official capacity as a soldier. From the best we know, he only engaged enemy combatants in his role as a sniper. Thus, his actions seem to fall within the scope of the authority granted to government in Romans 13.
In his attempt to rush to Kyle’s defense, Starnes crosses the line by declaring that God is pleased with the fact that Kyle ushered unbelievers into a fiery judgment. The problem is that Starnes missed the point of the passage he quoted. Invoking the praise of the master from Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30), Starnes states that Kyle must have received a hero’s welcome in heaven upon his untimely death.
The problem here is that God does not rejoice in the death and judgment of those who do not trust in him. In 2 Peter 3:9 we read, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” God does not rejoice in the condemnation of “another Godless jihadist to the lake of fire.” Instead, he is grieved that such a one never came to faith in Christ alone for salvation.
The fact of the matter is that war is a tragic consequence of the fall of mankind. War should never be pursued for its own sake. It should always be a last resort and a tragic necessity for the sake of restoring peace. Even though I believe waging just war is within the authority of the government, we should long for the day when there will be no more war. We learn about that day in Micah 4:3 where the prophet describes the last days as a time when “they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they train for war.” This is an eschatological reality, but it will only be realized after Christ returns. Until then, war will continue to be a part of this fallen world.
Finally, I want to address a point that Starnes made twice—he said he is not a theologian. By academic and professional standards, I guess you could say that I am a theologian. But so are you, and so is Mr. Starnes, and so is Mr. Moore. We are all theologians in one sense. When we approach the text of Scripture or declare what we believe (or don’t believe) about God, we are doing theology. Mr. Starnes may not have formally studied theology, and his theology in this particular commentary is weak in my opinion, but it is still theology.
Therefore, I would like to encourage us all to be careful when we apply the thoughts, words, or actions of Jesus to a particular situation. We need to make sure our theology is sound before we proclaim what Jesus would do or say.