Why supporting Sam Childers, aka the Machine Gun Preacher, is a very bad idea
UPDATE: This is part one of a three part series. Links to the other two articles are at the bottom. Please read all three before you comment
So, I first heard about Sam Childers back at the beginning of August. I thought about writing a blog post about him, but then decided against it, because I thought it was just a dumb fringe thing that no one would ever hear about or support. I mean, seriously, he calls himself the Machine Gun Preacher for crying out loud. I was wrong. Not only is there a movie coming out about him and “the work” he does, but apparently he spoke at a church in Nashville yesterday and I saw a few friends on facebook talking about looking forward to going to hear him.
I can no longer stay silent on this issue.
Just because someone claims to be “saving the children” does not mean that you should just support them. You need to do your homework and make sure that 1) what they are claiming to do, they are actually doing, 2) they are not doing more harm than good, and 3) that they understand the issues. Sadly, this needs to be said as well: you should not just give to them or support them just because they claim to be doing “God’s work.” Sam Childers is no different.
UPDATE: It has become clear I need to clarify a few things. The Vanity Fair article was written by Ian Urbina after interviewing Mr. Childers and spending time with him, in Sudan, seeing the work he engages in. Brett Keller’s post was based off of that article and other research that he did on Mr. Childers. My post is based off of Brett’s research, the Vanity Fair article, and others who have written about Mr. Childers. So, everything that either Brett or I discuss about Mr. Childers or the work he does comes straight from what he said about himself and his work.
Brett did such an amazing job researching this topic that I am just going to quote from his piece and add my thoughts to it.
The short version of his coming-to-the-big-screen-soon story is this: Childers used to be a drug-dealing gang member who loved motorcycles almost as much as he craved women, drugs, and violence – especially violence. He fell in love with his wife after they met through a drug deal, and she convinced him to turn his life around. Sam found Jesus, got involved with the church, and went to Africa. There he encountered the Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and it use of child soldiers. He found his calling leading armed rescue missions to free enslaved children in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. Now that his life story is being made into a movie — a goal Childers has long sought — his ministry will only grow stronger and save more children.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? This story has everything. No wonder so many Christians have rallied to his cause. The only problem is that there is far more to this story and it none of it is good.
I mean, just look at how he describes himself in this banner image that is front and center on the main page of his website:
Preacher. Missionary. Soldier. Mercenary.
Yeah, those are just the words that a humanitarian should use to describe their life. And if that wasn’t enough, here is a video from his website describing his work:
Brett goes on to state
From there the story gets more elaborate. According to Vanity Fair, Childers claims to be feeding and supplying the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a southern Sudanese armed group whose political wing has more recently become a major component of independent South Sudan’s government. Childers said that he “made his home in Uganda available to the rebels for a radio-relay station.”
Childers said he gets his weapons from Russians, but only legally. He eventually got frustrated with Urbina’s questions about his arms dealing, but he already admitted a lot. Childers is stockpiling arms, including heavy weapons like RPGs that seem excessive for the needs of an orphanage’s self-protection. He’s storing these weapons in a church at his orphanage (which presumably might make it a target) and he sells weapons to the SPLA, which is not a squeaky clean group. While better than the LRA, the SPLA also has been known to use child soldiers during the period Childers sold them arms. Worse is Childers’ mention of selling weapons to “factions in Rwanda and Congo,” all of which are involved in a convoluted series of conflicts in which all parties have committed terrible crimes. If Childers is truly trying to bring an end to conflict in the region, he should start by recognizing that pumping more small arms into the area isn’t going to help.
Let me get this straight. He stockpiled weapons inside churches and orphanages and then supplied some of the rebel groups in the region with some of these weapons? So, you are going to bring peace to the region by supplying groups with arms? Why do I have a feeling that is not going to work?
In addition to selling arms, Childers claims that his “rescue missions” have also led to his personal engagement in combat. When asked how many LRA members he personally killed, “[Childers] reluctantly admits to ‘more than 10.’” In another long profile – from April 9, 2011 in The Times of London (which I unfortunately can’t find online) Childers appears to say he’s only killed in self-defense, though it’s hard to deem armed expeditions to find the LRA “self-defense.”
I’m not sure how you can mount armed rescue missions and then call killing “self-defense.” How can Christians support a man who has no qualms, and even boasts, about killing people to accomplish his task? I’m pretty sure Jesus has a problem with this and we should too. Christians should be on the front lines denouncing this man and his actions. He may have a great heart and desire to really help people, but that is no excuse for how he is going about it. No Christian, or anyone in general, should support this man. Sadly, many Christians have connected with his violent streak and will pour more and more money into his projects.
Brett sums it all up with six reasons why supporting Mr. Childers is a very bad idea:
- Violence. By his own claims Childers has personally killed people – in the double digits. He is not a man of peace, and it’s hard to see how his claimed tactics bring the situation closer to that. Even if he were the best option for getting Kony (highly doubtful), it doesn’t seem to me that the use of child soldiers in the region would disappear with Kony’s demise. Also, since many of Kony’s troops are themselves soldiers, how does Childers avoid killing them?
- Weapons. Again by his own claims, Childers has sold weapons to armed groups in Sudan, Rwanda, and the Congo. There are no happy-go-lucky bands of nice Christian warriors in the area; every group I’ve read about has been accused of terrible crimes at some point. Feeding more weapons into the conflict will only make things worse, and end up hurting the children Childers purports to help. His solutions are woefully shortsighted.
- Lies. Childers claimed to be a “white commander” in the SPLA, but the SPLA has publicly denounced him and called for legal action. This apparent falsehood casts some doubt on whether Childers really does the things he claims – the violence and weapons described above – so we’re left choosing between whether he is dishonest or dangerous. Or both.
- Disrespect. Much of what Childers’ trafficks in – weapons aside – is poverty porn of the worst sort. By only emphasizing the worst aspects of any situation Childers may drive up his donations, but he demeans those he seeks to serve. He goes even further in his report on South Darfur, prompting a commenter who worked in the region to call him out.
- The White Man’s burden. Childers’ story is only the latest in a long history of “Whites in Shining Armour” narratives that emphasize the heroics of white Americans and Europeans while downplaying the agency of the people of Sudan and elsewhere in Africa.
- It’s a bad model to begin with. Saundra S of the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough has written extensively on why donors should be wary of orphanages.
If all this isn’t enough to make you rethink supporting this man and his organization, J, over at Tales From the Hood, does a really good job of explaining how Mr. Childer’s actions effect humanitarian aid workers everywhere:
…when Sam Childers puts this on YouTube, it puts me and my team in danger.
How? Because every time he fires off a few rounds (you know, for the children), he further cements in the minds of insurgent groups around the world that humanitarian workers are also mercenaries.
Every time another famous “humanitarian” poses with an AK47 for a family Christmas card or some wannabe famous humanitarians brandish weapons in the name of “raising awareness”it puts the real aid workers at even greater risk.
…But thanks to the Machine Gun Preacher, next time I’m stopped and questioned at a checkpoint, it will be even harder for me to make the case that I’m really there (wherever ‘there’ is) for strictly humanitarian purposes.
And so every time the inarticulate Machine Gun Preacher packs heat into South Sudan he makes the entire world more dangerous for me and my friends and innumerable real aid worker colleagues. Every time he 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.
We need to be much more careful of the people and organizations we support, advocate for, and hold as heros. We have a responsibility to understand the issues and not let “good stories” blind us to reality of a situation or person. As Christians, we cannot stand for people using the name of Jesus to engage in actions that are completely and utterly contrary to Jesus and the Bible, regardless of what they are trying to do and who they are trying to help. This does no one any good, least of all those this man claims to be trying to save.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, I will not be seeing the movie.
UPDATE: For those who apparently do not know, Ad hominem are attacks that “can take the form of overtly attacking somebody, or more subtly casting doubt on their character or personal attributes. The desired result of an ad hom attack is to undermine one’s opponent without actually having to engage with their argument or present a compelling argument of one’s own.” If your comment attacks my or another’s character as a way to deflect from the argument being made, I will not post it.
COMMENT POLICY: I welcome feedback, but for the sake of keeping some standard of quality here to encourage others to read the discussion, I will delete comments that have a) gratuitous profanity or other NSFW (not safe for work) material or c) nothing but ad hominems that don’t add to the discussion.