Christ Under the Gun: Owen Strachan Is Wrong About American Sniper

In the opening moments of American Sniper, director Clint Eastwood makes some very deliberate choices. We see our hero, the titular sniper Chris Kyle, with one of his war buddies, on a rooftop. A convoy of military men moves through the street below, clearing blocks and houses one by one. Kyle spots a “military-aged man” on a roof on a cell phone, lines up a shot, and doesn’t take it. The man walks away unscathed, saved by nothing more than a feeling. 

Then, our real threat appears. A young boy, dressed in a traditional tunic, and his mother, dressed in a hijab, comes out of a house. The mother walks stiffly, concealing something in her robes. She then hands it to the boy, her son, and he takes off running. The object is a grenade. Kyle takes his shot.

But we don’t see the boy fall. Instead, the movie smash-cuts to a deer in a field, and a young boy is learning to hunt. The moment and the message is clear – shooting a young Iraqi boy is much like shooting a deer. All it requires is pulling the trigger. 

Owen Strachan is the president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. On Wednesday, he published a review of Eastwood’s new Oscar nominated movie. 

American Sniper is the story of Chris Kyle, a US Navy SEAL who was the most lethal sniper of the Iraq War. Kyle was discharged honorably in 2009 after serving four tours in Iraq. He published a memoir of his time – the memoir the movie is based on. Kyle was shot and killed in 2013 at a shooting range in Texas.

In that memoir, Kyle comments that he discovered after serving in wartime that killing was “no big deal.” He referred to the terrorists in Iraq as a “savage evil." Kyle writes in American Sniper: “I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives. Everyone I shot in Iraq was trying to harm Americans or Iraqis loyal to the new government.” Kyle was nicknamed “the Devil of Ramadi” for his lethality in the field.

This is the man this movie depicts. And this is the man Owen Strachan is writing about when he says the following: 

Kyle was no wilting flower. He was not a perfect man. He knew this. He was rough around the edges, he sometimes shot off his mouth, and he had a tough time with rules. In other words, he was a classically aggressive man. Our culture wants to anesthetize such men, to stick a tranquilizer in them and dose them up on medication to tame their natural aggression.
This is not what the church advocates, however. The church gives men a vocabulary for their aggression, their innate manliness. It funnels their God-given testosterone in the direction of Christlike self-sacrifice for the good of others (Eph. 5; 1 Tim. 3). It does not seek to tame men, or ask them to become half-men (or half-women). It asks them to channel all their energy and aggression and skill into the greatest cause of all: serving the kingdom of the crucified and risen Christ.

It’s worth noting two things here: one, this “gift of aggression” language is cribbed almost directly from a speech Kyle’s father gives within the first five minutes of the movie. The father discusses how there are three kinds of people – sheep, wolves, and sheep-dogs. The sheep-dogs are gifted with aggression, as a way to protect the flock from the wolves.

Second, the movie Strachan is praising here actually takes greater steps to demonize and dehumanize the Iraqis in this war. The mother and son at the beginning of the movie? Kyle actually sums up the scene:

As the Marines came in, a teenager, I’d guess about fifteen, sixteen, appeared on the street and squared up with an AK-47 to fire at them. I dropped him. A minute or two later, an Iraqi woman came running up, saw him on the ground, and tore off her clothes. She was obviously his mother. I’d see the families of the insurgents display their grief, tear off clothes, even rub the blood on themselves. If you loved them, I thought, you should have kept them away from the war. You should have kept them from joining the insurgency. You let them try and kill us—what did you think would happen to them?

Strachan here is praising not only a man who spoke callously about his own victims, but praising a depiction of a war that manages to dehumanize an entire people.

Kyle’s “aggression” is violence. It is violence against people of color, in their home country, angry after the United States destabilized the government and destroyed the economic system of their country. The bald truth of the Iraq War, that any war correspondent will tell you, is that we have left Iraq, as a country, broken and suffering. It is basic fact that al Qaeda did not exist in Iraq prior to our invasion of the country in 2003. ISIS formed to fill a vacuum of power we left. Civilians have died, journalists were killed, and the war has cost thousands of people their livelihoods.

It is not a black and white, good versus evil problem. Owen Strachan disparages the idea of gray areas and morally complex problems that we may face, contrasting it with a world based on truth and goodness.

But the truth of the matter is far more complex than either the movie or Strachan want it to be. The men we call terrorists consider themselves freedom fighters. To them, the US military are the terrorists. We are always someone else’s bad guys. 

Strachan ignores that entire context though, in praising a Hollywood image of a black and white masculinity, eschewing all gray areas. He openly praises the violence and aggression of the movie portrayal of Chris Kyle, invoking the lust of women as proof positive that America longs for men who are allowed to be aggressive and violent. And Strachan whitewashes this violence by invoking Christ.

In connecting this vision of masculinity back to Christ, Strachan talks of Christ as a conqueror, a man who was “not a pacifist.” Even if he can’t make Jesus’ life on earth fit his aggressive violent image, Strachan will rely on doctrinal precedent about Jesus the Victor to make his point. Strachan quite clearly sees a violent, colonialist, racist sniper as a Christ figure.

This should be deeply troubling for anyone who has an investment in the Christian faith. The connection of violence to masculinity is at once unbiblical and unholy – the praise of violence in the course of worshipping a man who commanded us to lay down our swords should give anyone pause. But that is precisely the problem with this particular flavor of “biblical” manhood and womanhood. This theology is less about allowing ourselves to be changed and challenged by a God who does not fit any of our expectations and more about making our image of God fit into cultural presuppositions about the masculine and feminine.

It truly doesn’t matter to the proponents of biblical, traditional masculinity that Christ was a man who submitted himself to state violence and died at their hands. It truly doesn’t make a difference that Jesus preached against the use of violent power and aggression common in his time. It doesn’t matter because such ideas can be safely ignored as “liberal pussyfooting.” What matters here is not the Christ we actually have – the liberating, grace-filled, forgiving man – but the Christ patriarchal expectations demand we see.

The Christ of violent masculinity is a Christ who cannot be trusted, a white devil who sees the poor and suffering as savage terrorists. This Christ bears no resemblance to the self-sacrificing rabbi who died to show the world that violence corrupts. Christ is not the man behind the rifle, but the mother in front of it, seeking to protect Her own.