Chris Kyle is widely regarded as a war hero in Stephenville, the Texas town where Eddie Ray Routh was recently convicted of murdering the most celebrated veteran of the Iraq war. Several jurors had recently seen American Sniper, a Clint Eastwood biopic featured in packed theaters as the trial unfolded. Kyle’s widow attended the Academy Awards (where American Sniper lost the best-picture competition to Birdman) short days before testifying in Routh’s trial.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott added to the hype by declaring Feb. 2 of this year “Chris Kyle Day.” Then, moments after the jury handed down a guilty verdict following a scant two hours of deliberation, Abbott fired off a celebratory tweet: “JUSTICE! Chris Kyle’s killer convicted of capital murder. Jury didn’t buy insanity defense.”
The governor wouldn’t exploit Kyle’s cult status if he didn’t believe a majority of Texans were with him. And he was certainly right. When Michael Moore and Seth Rogen appeared to (tentatively) question Kyle’s hero status, the vitriolic response was immediate. “Sickens me to see celebrities or anybody slam the very people who protect their right to talk s—,” country singer Blake Shelton tweeted. Those foolish enough to question Chris Kyle sanctity were met with some variation of Colonel Jessep’s screed in A Few Good Men:
“You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. … You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. … I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it.”
But even if, like me, you regard the Iraq war as a tragic mistake, Colonel Jessup’s argument is persuasive. If we take the fruits of American empire for granted while whining about the military-industrial complex, we can’t handle the truth. Empires need huge standing armies and a willingness to use them, and this is true even if the wars that broke the spirits of men like Kyle and Routh were unjustified and ill-conceived.
If America is to remain the world’s only superpower we need men like Chris Kyle standing on the wall. Cynics like Bill Maher may dismiss Kyle as a “psychopath” but he was nothing of the sort. Kyle’s brothers in arms called him “the legend” because he was precisely the sort of volunteer the American military was looking for: bold, brash, resilient and utterly ruthless.
It takes guts to face enemy fire and, especially in these days of an all-volunteer military, you’ve got to admire those who place their lives on the line to protect American interests. We should grieve with families who lose sons and brothers in battle; and we must work for the healing of soldiers, like Kyle and Routh, who return from the battlefield with damaged bodies, hearts and minds.
Nor should we dismiss Chris Kyle’s Christian faith out of hand. Can a man of war who boasted in his best-selling book that he despised the enemy be regarded as a Christian in good standing? It all depends on who gets to define the world “Christian.” As the word is generally defined in the American 21st century, and as the word has been defined since the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of empire in the early fourth century, Chris Kyle is a Christian soldier par excellence.
And this is true even though Jesus said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword (a tragic irony in Chris Kyle’s case). Nor does Jesus’ insistence that his followers must love their enemies and reject violence in all its forms disqualify self-described killers like Chris Kyle for Christian service.
For the first 300 years of Christian history, Christians were barred from serving in Caesar’s army; Jesus wasn’t subtle about this stuff. But when Constantine baptized his soldiers with the sign of the cross, the ban on Christian military service was gradually lifted. Eventually, you couldn’t serve in Caesar’s army unless you named Jesus as Lord and Savior.
While many lament this rapid retreat from the Master’s teaching, it was an unavoidable consequence of transforming Christianity into an imperial religion. Men like Constantine (and Barack Obama) don’t take their marching orders from the Sermon on the Mount. Theologians from Augustine to Niebuhr have signed off on this fact.
Here’s the truth we can’t handle: when Christianity moves to the center of public life, Jesus is driven to the margins. You can live by the standards of Christ’s non-violent kingdom, or you can wield political power, but you can’t do both.
As a consequence, we must reckon with Chris Kyle, a Christian hero who loves his country, hates his enemy, and believes he can justify his violent acts — sanctioned and unsanctioned — before the throne of Almighty God. You can’t blame Mr. Kyle for joining together what Jesus rent asunder. When you grow up in Texas, that’s what you learn in Sunday school.
Colonel Jessup and Governor Abbott are right — if we want the fruit of empire we must honor men like Chris Kyle.
Conversely, if we want to take Jesus seriously, we must join him on the margins of society where love is the only kind of power to be had. To renounce violence is to renounce dreams of empire.
Embrace the wisdom of Jesus and you will look like a fool. We might not like the way American Sniper mixes guns, guts and God, but American Empire demands precisely this kind of muddle. Whether or not we can handle it, that’s the truth.