It’s the incredible biography of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), whom we first meet when he’s getting out of prison (we’re never told why he’s incarcerated, which is one of the irritants of the way the story’s told). He’s met at the prison door by his pretty young wife, Lynn (Michelle Monaghan), they stop along the way for some postponed recreation in a parked car, and when they drive home to their trailer he greets their little daughter Paige. But that’s all the family bliss we get. Soon Sam is cussing out Lynn about quitting her job at the topless bar because she “found Jesus.” When Sam’s mother Daisy (Kathy Baker) tries to intervene, he cusses her out also, then roars off on his motorcycle to go get drunk and do drugs with his “bad boy buddy” Donnie (Michael Shannon). Their binge includes a gun-toting robbery of a drug dealer, followed by a severe beating of a hitchhiker who dared to cross them, and it’s a wonder Sam isn’t back in prison already.
But he wakes up one morning tired of his own self. He goes to church with his wife and his daughter and his mom, and when the (fundamentalist, revivalist) preacher gives the altar call, Sam comes forward and is baptized and saved.
Except it isn’t all that easy. He does straighten up and work a construction job, and soon he has his own crew and has started his own company. He’s started his own church, too, and when the guest preacher didn’t show up the first day, he just began preaching himself. He advertises his congregation as a place where even the biggest sinners could feel like they belonged. But Sam really finds his passion when he hears a visiting missionary talk about Africa. He feels compelled to go there, with his family’s blessing. And when he arrives, he is horrified by what he sees.
Southern Sudan and northern Uganda are embroiled in the ugliest of civil wars, where “death squads” come by stealth in the night and attack helpless villages, setting huts on fire and killing all the men and raping and beating all the women and then kidnapping the children and using them either as sex slaves or as military recruits. It’s truly horrifying to watch, and Sam Childers decides he’s not going to sit idly by and watch it happen, especially when they come one night to burn his church and orphanage, and kidnap the children he’s been trying to protect. Sam Childers picks up a machine gun and shoots back, along with the government soldiers assigned to protect him. He becomes so adept at this that he develops the reputation as someone who is invincible when the bullets start flying, which of course attracts even more orphaned children to take care of.
Sam is warned by medical missionaries that fighting violence with violence does not further the cause of peace, but Sam is determined that nobody’s going to take away what he has worked so hard to build up. He even organizes pre-emptive raids when he hears that some rebel troops are venturing across the border toward him. He takes the attack to them.
When he returns to the States, Sam is an invigorated fundraiser, to the point of badgering people with pictures of starving children with disfigured faces. He can’t stand to be spending the money to rent a limo for his daughter’s prom because that money could have fed the helpless children in his African orphanage for a week. Yes, Sam backslides into anger and even self-loathing, even a time or two on the drinking binge, but his commitment to the African orphans never wavers.
His methods, of course, raise all kind of questions, for both those who consider themselves seriously religious and for those who don’t. When is self-defense justified? Is it ethical to defend an orphanage with weapons? Is there a “just war” where violence can only be stopped with violence? Love him or hate him, Sam Childers will get under your skin.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.