I recently saw Mel Gibson’s new film, Hacksaw Ridge, which recounts the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist who served as a combat medic in World War II. What makes Doss particularly interesting is that, in addition to being assigned to a 1st Battalion rifle company and participating in the insanely bloody Battle of Okinawa, he was also a conscientious objector. In other words, Doss refused to use violence… at all… ever… even against enemies in the heat of battle.
And yet, Doss’ bravery on the battlefield was so profound as to earn him the Medal of Honor.1 I don’t think there is a person in the world who could learn about Doss’ experience in Okinawa (especially by watching the film’s graphic portrayal of it), and not come away believing this man had more courage in his little toe than most men have at their best moments. No doubt, Doss was a hero. Just ask the descendants of the roughly seventy-five infantrymen whose lives he saved. (Also, check out how remarkably accurate the film is here.)
What I find particularly interesting about Desmond Doss and the success of Hacksaw Ridge (which Rolling Stone called “the best war film since Saving Private Ryan“) is that the hype and interest surrounding it came just a couple years after the film American Sniper, which tells the story of Navy S.E.A.L. sniper Chris Kyle.
Both Doss and Kyle served their country by joining the U.S. military. Both Doss and Kyle went through more hell than I would wish on anyone. And both Doss and Kyle are hailed as heroes. But, on a very important level, Doss and Kyle are very different sort of figures — Doss is famed because he saved lives without ever taking one, Kyle is notorious because he took lives and happened to save many others in the process.
Here you go again, Rocky. Making a big deal out of nothing. Both men are heroes in different ways. Let’s just leave it at that.
And I would… really I would. It’s just that
many most of the people that I heard praising American Sniper were Christians (whereas, by contrast, most of the people praising Hacksaw Ridge seem to be just film critics). And I think it is weird that Christians can be so excited about a man whose fame is based on his talent for killing. Doss I get. Doss I can understand. He was more than willing to sacrifice his own life for the sake of others (Jn 15:13), he knew there was something to be gained by loving his enemies just as much as his friends (Mt 5:43-48; Lk 6:27-36), and no one could question his commitment to obey the teachings of Christ (Mt 28:20; esp. Jn 14:15). As far as Christian ethics go, Desmond Doss was a hero of the highest order.
But Kyle? Chris Kyle? He was an assassin. He killed people for a living. Sure, he did it because it was what his country asked of him. But if we aren’t too stringent on drawing a line between corporations and countries (believe me, its a fuzzy line to begin with), he starts to look remarkably like just a hitman.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Chris Kyle was definitely a hero — an American hero. He fought for our tribe, our village, our particular collection of individuals that happen to live within the boundaries of the imaginary lines we drew. He was our tribal warrior, and he was good at what he did. So, make no mistake, Chris Kyle was an American hero.
But not a Christian hero. He did not love his enemies. He killed them.
And here is where the fundamental difference between Christianity and America (or any country for that matter) should start to become really obvious. It’s the sort of difference that we are usually oblivious to in our day-to-day lives. But when you compare guys like Doss and Kyle, it becomes kind of hard to ignore. One guy conducted himself a lot like Jesus taught us to, the other guy… not so much.
I’m not saying that Chris Kyle was a terrible person. I’m sure he was a great guy by general social standards. He probably loved well, genuinely cared about his friends and family, and sought peace in the best way he knew how. I’m even still on the fence about whether or not he even enjoyed killing (there’s evidence both ways).
But we can’t say that Kyle was anything like an example of Christian (Christ-like) virtue. He simply wasn’t that, and it bothers me what the commendation toward him from Christians might mean about the health of the church in America.
1: In fact, Doss in one of only three conscientious objectors to ever receive this honor, and the only one to have received it while still alive.