When I was a lad, some neighborhood associates and I would often gather in the summer for war games. The battlefield consisted of a three acre field behind our house. The field was covered with large mounds of dirt and sand deposited by a dump truck from a nearby construction company. I had built a tree fort that overlooked the field from our backyard. At the other end of the field, my friends had built an opposing tree fort. We would divide into two teams and attack ear other’s base of operations in our tree forts. Our armaments included dirt clod hand grenades, sling shots, and Daisy BB guns. My mother, on many occasions, had warned me that we could shoot an eye out with such weaponry. Had my father caught me and the other kids shooting BBs at each other, well, let’s just say I’d rather lose an eye than face those repercussions. Be that as it may, it was exciting to sit in the tree fort during the heat of battle and listen to BBs ricochet off the branches and walls of the fort.
One day, the opposing insurgents mounted a full frontal assault. The firefight was intense. With rocks and BBs whizzing by our heads, my team and I blazed away with our BB guns and sling shots at the opposing forces, which were advancing from behind one mound to the next. As they approached the outer perimeter of our defenses, I took aim at an enemy soldier as he sprinted across a short patch of open ground. Leading my target just right, I fired. The BB struck the enemy in the finger. The result was astounding. His scream began low and rose in pitch to decibels almost beyond the range of human ears. I found his caterwauling and gesticulations that followed to be very disconcerting. Needless to say, the battle came to an abrupt end. The other kids vanished like a fart in the wind. Fortunately, I was able to staunch the bleeding and dress the enemy soldier’s swollen appendage. Even more fortunately, I convinced him not to spill his guts about the incident. (We didn’t call it bullying back then, it was just survival of the fittest.)That’s when I realized mom was right—you really could shoot an eye out with a BB gun. (Apparently I was a slow learner.)
When I turned 18, the Vietnam War had recently ended. Naturally, I had paid close attention to news about the war in Vietnam (before the draft ended), and like most young men entering adulthood I became aware that real war is not glorious, romantic or fun. Hence, when the movie American Sniper came out, I was a bit reluctant to see it. But I went. And I’m glad I did. As I suspected, the movie was tough to watch in some places, and heartbreaking. It reminded me that as a nation at war, we have a moral obligation to collectively grieve with the families of our soldiers killed and maimed for doing what our country asks them to do. The movie reminded me what it costs our soldiers, physically, psychologically, and relationally when the public and our political leaders send them off to fight. It’s too easy for us to say yes to war and go on with our lives without much inconvenience. I understand we, as a nation, did not have many options but to fight this war against terror and extremists, but we need to be keenly aware that war costs more than dollars. Hopefully, such knowledge about the human impact will help us demand that our leaders find broader solutions, or change tactics, or do what it takes to win, or end the fighting as soon as appropriate without allowing the military industrial machine to rule the day. War is a complicated mess.
At the beginning of the movie, the main character, Chris Kyle, is a young boy getting instructions about life from his father. His father tells him there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Sheep don’t know how to protect themselves when they get attacked. The wolves are predators that attack the sheep. But the sheepdogs represent people who protect the sheep. Sheepdogs have the gift of aggression and can execute focused aggression when needed to protect the sheep. In my opinion, this is a fairly accurate representation of humanity. Sure, it’s a generality, but it works. Chris Kyle was a sheepdog. When he grew up and entered the military, his primary focus as a lethal sniper was to protect his fellow soldiers. That is what drove him.
I’ve found that, as Christians, we tend to believe we are all sheep. We hear of ourselves referred to as sheep in the Bible and from the pulpit. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that “sheep” are a metaphor for our relationship as human beings with the Good Shepherd, Christ. But not all people are actual sheep in terms of disposition. Some, unfortunately, are wolves. And some are people who have the nature of the sheepdog. I am thankful for the sheepdogs among us. Perhaps the church should help train them to be excellent sheepdogs. By the way, do you believe that followers of God should never be confrontational or aggressive? If so, take a look at 1 Samuel 17:1-52 where young David (who ironically, is a shepherd) kills the giant warrior Goliath. David was a shepherd AND a lethal sniper with his sling. We all know the story of how David dropped Goliath with a single stone to the head. David was a sheepdog who knew how and when to aggressively overcome evil. By slaying Goliath, David brought the conflict to a conclusion and saved the lives of many of Israel’s soldiers.
Here’s the thing: a sheepdog can serve in a role that is more suited to sheep, but the sheepdog will long to protect and serve in a more aggressive role and cause. Let’s encourage sheepdogs to use their skills and disposition in opposing evil in urgent problem areas such as human trafficking, abortion, poverty, hunger, domestic violence, homelessness, addiction, disease, government corruption … there are many causes that need sheepdogs helping out on the front line and advocating for the weak and vulnerable. Maybe our sheepdogs need to be police officers, or battlefield medics, or soldiers, or short-sale investors who root out and expose companies that have fraudulently manipulated their stock to an overvalued price (thinking outside the box). The opportunities are endless … as long as we don’t pigeon hole them into the role of sheep.
CAUTION: American Sniper contains plenty of f-bombs, some sexual innuendo (though no complete nudity), and fairly graphic wartime violence. Viewers with extreme sensitivity about violence towards children should probably not see this movie as there are a couple of scenes where children are harmed or killed.
Jack Gleeson, the actor who portrays King Joffrey, does an excellent job inspiring viewers of the series to despise him. His character is the opposite of what humanity hopes for in a leader. I admit it was with smug satisfaction when I saw the clip of King Joffrey’s death at his own wedding (oh the irony). Youtube has videos of peoples’ reaction to the end of King Joffrey’s reign. Suffice it to say, viewers cheered. I find it encouraging that many people, even today, can still recognize an obviously nefarious despot. Of course in real life not all leaders are so obvious in their wickedness. Modern players of the Game of Thrones have learned to be shrewd. How can we tell if a leader is good?
In Proverbs 31, King Lemuel’s mother taught him three pearls of wisdom for a king: (1) Don’t waste your strength on promiscuous women. (2) Kings should not crave beer and wine which clouds judgment. (3) Kings are supposed to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, and defend the rights of the poor. Proverbs 31 confirms that humanity has always had leaders who struggle with personal vices and misguided focus. When was the last time we saw a king or political leader who reflected all three of these pearls of wisdom? Power remains to this day a very addicting and toxic thing. Few have the wisdom and morality to wield it properly. Fortunately God has a hand in who rises to power, and who falls from power.
Game of Thrones is clearly not a representation of the positive and lighthearted side of monarchies and oligarchies (with the possible exception of Tyrion’s wit). The often abysmal real-life history of monarchies and oligarchies testifies to the exceptionalism of the rare unsullied leader who wields power solely to help the people. This is why Christ is so appealing to millions around the world. He is the ultimate king with unlimited power, and yet he only has our best interest at heart. Even democracies and republics can’t boast of producing many leaders who ALWAYS place the people first. Yes, human systems of government will always be subject to the schemes of corrupt individuals. This reality makes Christ and his Kingdom very precious, at least to those who choose to be part of his Kingdom.
On a side note, do I recommend Game of Thrones to new viewers? Nope. Why? Well, the acting is very good and the storyline draws you in like a good book, but the gore, coarse language, and explicit sexuality are necessary elements to the story. Such elements are not exactly conducive to Christianity’s imperative that we renew our minds. On the other hand, the show reminds us that some people remain honorable and good in the midst of darkness. Game of Thrones is not for the squeamish or those with delicate sensibilities. The ladies book club at church should probably pass on this one. I’m just saying.
The acting is very good though there are few redeeming qualities about Frank and Claire. The series prompted some uncomfortable questions for this viewer, such as: What is the allure of watching the schemes of someone in high office who makes immoral decisions solely for the sake of selfish ambition? Perhaps the allure is the open display of crossing boundaries of decency that society has traditionally held in high regard. Maybe it is simply that we are fascinated by people who appear good yet are utterly pernicious. I started out liking Underwood because I thought he was a flawed person who would eventually do something noble. But like a classic tragedy, his character digs himself into an ever deeper hole while leaving a growing pile of human wreckage behind. I don’t know if I can bear to watch any more episodes. Hopefully our real-life elected officials do not rise to the level of evil personified by Underwood, but some probably come close.
Perhaps the series provides viewers with an addictive feeling of moral superiority (if so, Underwood is terrible benchmark) or confirmation that what we have occasionally suspected about some of our leaders might contain grains of tantalizing truth. The latter is a disturbing thought. Whatever the allure, House of Cards will not improve the public’s perception of our real political leaders.
All stories have just a few possible outcomes, such as: Evil prevails, good prevails, evil partially prevails, good things happen despite the evil, or a greater evil overcomes the evil. I wonder which outcome the writers for House of Cards will choose.
If you are thinking about watching House of Cards, be aware that it contains rough language and strong sexual content. Maybe I will skip to the last episode to find out if good prevails. Or maybe it is better not to know.