What does the movie “American Sniper” have to do with Catholicism? As it turns out a recent criticism of this blockbuster Hollywood movie captures a particularly distorted, even pernicious understanding of Christianity that appears to be widely shared and this deserves some debunking. First a bit of background…
American Sniper is a film based on the autobiographical memoir of Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal trained as a military sniper who served multiple tours of duty in Iraq. He was heavily decorated being awarded 2 Silver Starts and 5 Bronze stars, and has been famously credited with the most kills of any American Sniper in history (160 officially recognized.) Sadly Chris Kyle was murdered after returning home to the United States by a troubled fellow veteran who he was trying to help. (Mr. Kyle was involved with helping Vets readjust to civilian life.) The film has been setting records in the box office, featuring highly regarded performances by actor Brad Cooper and Direction by Clint Eastwood, it has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards.
Enter former Catholic Seminarian and left wing film director Michael Moore. Moore has made a career hating George W. Bush and has been particularly critical of the Iraq war.
We do not wish to re-litigate the wisdom of the US war in Iraq in this space. At the time the responsible political authority, in the wake of 9/11 thought the actions of Saddam Hussein made him a sufficient threat to the international order and security of the United States that it sought and received authorization from Congress to use force against Iraq, ostensibly to enforce compliance with multiple UN resolutions and to eliminate Iraq stockpiles of “weapons of mass destruction”. In 2003 the invasion of Iraq commenced and of course the rest is history. No WMD were found, the war removed the Baathist regime of Sadaam Hussein from power, but led to an ongoing insurgency against the US forces in Iraq, and now as American troops left the war theater, a number of Jihadist groups, most notably ISIS are vying for control. Any way you slice it the Iraq war will be seen as a tragedy that failed to achieve the objectives for which it was fought, for multiple reasons. To some degree these objectives were not achievable, the post war occupation was mishandled, and no doubt also because The Obama administration pulled troops out of Iraq even as the country’s internal situation was improving, thus creating a vacuum that allowed terrorists groups like ISIS to regain a foothold. History will likely record tragic failures of judgement in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Nonetheless all of this is not germane to the soldier’s role in this conflict. In the tradition of the Catholic Church, soldiers are perfectly within their rights of presuming their government is acting in good faith, and engaged in a Just War unless there is clear and obvious evidence this is not the case. In most situations the responsible political authorities have much more knowledge about the threats posed and the antecedent conditions that might justify war. This is certainly true in the case of enlisted personnel and the mid-level officer corps, obviously among the military leadership there may be more information and therefore more responsibility in assessing whether or not the war is “just”. Nonetheless most of the time a soldier can serve in his country’s military, with a clear conscience, on the presumption that his country is fighting a “just” war. Certainly in the case of the Iraq war this was the case, regardless of the accuracy of the Bush justifications for the war.
This is a fair amount of background perhaps, but necessary to fully understand the utter stupidity of Michael Moore’s commentary on Chris Kyle.
Moore “tweeted” the following:
Tomorrow’s Sunday School, What Would Jesus Do? Oh, I know what he’d do — hide on top of a roof and shoot people in the back!”
Now a tweet from the likes of Michael Moore would not ordinarily merit comment, but the fact is this line or reasoning shows up in Catholic circles as well, for example, among the “Who would Jesus waterboard crowd?”. This whole thing comes from the whole “What would Jesus do” movement. Like many things with its roots in Evangelical Christianity it means well, but because it’s ultimately intellectually hollow it is susceptible to distortion and even mockery.
“WWJD” is not moral reasoning at all because it is designed to elicit an emotional response, based on creating a conflict between our natural images of Christ, which are based on knowledge of his particular role as Messiah and with the image of others acts that appear very incongruous. Since Jesus would not “do it”, then we should not do it either. The problem is this “logic” does not with stand a second of critical analysis.
One may as well ask well… who would Jesus marry? What Children would Jesus father? This makes no sense, because part of Jesus’ particular mission was to remain celibate, but this does not mean the rest of us should, and in fact marriage and parenthood are good things, so the fact Jesus refrained from them or even could not be readily pictured as doing them, does not mean the rest of us should not do them.
Just as we cannot picture Jesus married or engaged in the acts appropriate to married couples, we cannot readily picture Jesus engaged in acts proper to soldiers, which involves killing the enemy in a just war. Imagine if Christ was to see Jihadist terrorists with a bomb about to blow up a pizza parlor in Jerusalem? If he was a sniper would he shoot the terrorist? How about if he was a police sniper on a Swat team and some killer was holding a child hostage, would he shoot the killer?
The answers to these questions are obvious. A “good soldier” fighting in a just war is good when he fulfills the end of purpose of a soldier. That is done by rendering the enemy unable to continue battle, and indeed to kill the enemy or force them to surrender. If Jesus was a soldier, as a perfect human being he would have been a good one, and if a sniper would in fact have shot people. It’s that simple Mr. Moore.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Pope Leo XIII had this to say about Our Lady of the Rosaries intervention against the Jihadist hordes in the famous naval battle of Lepanto:
“Our Sovereign Lady did grant her aid; for in the naval battle by the Echinades Islands, the Christian fleet gained a magnificent victory, with no great loss to itself, in which the enemy was routed with great slaughter.”
What did the Pope mean by “great slaughter”? Well at Lepanto the Ottoman Turks had 25,000 killed or wounded sailors. The fact is killing the enemy in battle in a just war is not wrong, it is actually good. In fact those entrusted with the duty to protect the innocent are actually required to kill. This does not mean it is a good idea for everyone to be killing. In the mind of Aquinas priests should not kill in battle though it was perfectly compatible for them to exhort others to do so. Specifically he states:
Wherefore it is the duty of clerics to dispose and counsel other men to engage in just wars. For they are forbidden to take up arms, not as though it were a sin, but because such an occupation is unbecoming their personality. Although it is meritorious to wage a just war, nevertheless it is rendered unlawful for clerics, by reason of their being deputed to works more meritorious still. Thus the marriage act may be meritorious; and yet it becomes reprehensible in those who have vowed virginity, because they are bound to a yet greater good.
So bottom line just as a cleric is oriented to a different good, then soldiers, so too Jesus life and ministry were oriented to a different good then can be achieved by war, and thus we do not imagine him as being a sniper, but it’s perfectly possible for Jesus to exhort others to be snipers.
Finally one final point, Jesus depicts himself as doing an awful lot worse to evildoers than shooting them, see the following:
Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the pool of fire. (Rev 20:15)
It is difficult to imagine Jesus ok with condemning evildoers to hell, but having some issue with depriving them of a purely temporal good of far less value, that is life.
So perhaps we can be done with this “WWJD” approach to moral theology since it is not so much WWJD? But “what would Jesus have me do”.
In the meantime we ask the prayers of St. Michael the Archangel for us and particularly for those currently serving in the arm services. Remember also to pray for the soul of Chris Kyle:
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace.