American Sniper: American Religion?

Here is how Chris Kyle introduces himself in the opening of his autobiography, American Sniper (2013). Many will come to know him as he is portrayed by Bradley Cooper in the blockbuster movie of the same name.

Every story has a beginning. Mine starts in north-central Texas. I grew up in small towns where I learned the importance of family and traditional values, like patriotism, self-reliance, and watching out for your family and neighbors. I’m proud to say that I still try to live my life according to those values. I have a strong sense of justice. It’s pretty much black-and-white. I don’t see too much gray. I think it’s important to protect others. I don’t mind hard work. At the same time, I like to have fun. Life’s too short not to.

Advertisement

I was raised with, and still believe in, the Christian faith. If I had to order my priorities, they would be God, Country, Family. There might be some debate on where those last two fall—these days I’ve come around to believing that Family, may, under some circumstances, outrank Country. But it’s a close race (7-8).

 

Kyle presumes, perhaps correctly, that the triumvirate of God, Country, and Family is no longer popular in the general population, but did he know how ancient the trio is? Not to know the long lineage linking the three results in a serious misreading of Jesus cleansing the Temple. It also blinds us to the goals of ISIS, the Islamic State.

Moderns are educated to split the sacred and the secular. It’s a product of the Enlightenment, a separation presumably needed to stifle wars of religion. The sacred pertains to the person, to the family. The secular controls the economy, the social weal. Sometimes, in order to safeguard those, it goes to war.

Splitting the sacred and the secular, a modern reader assumes that Jesus cleansed the temple because he resented religion being linked to economic concerns. “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (Jn 2:16). But that would have made Jesus a very odd Jew. Indeed it would have made him incomprehensible to anyone in the ancient world.

As the religious scholar Karen Armstrong points out in her superb Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014), one seriously misreads history in believing that, before the modern period, people went to war for religion. Wars date to the dawn of civilization, because they accompany the development of agriculture.

The hunter-gatherer societies, which preceded farming, were different in three ways. They were egalitarian, because everyone could hunt or gather. Because their violence was limited to the control of scarce resources, there was no military caste. If violence came, everyone fought. And religiously, hunter-gatherer societies were animists. They saw sprites where we see the forces of nature. They revered the spirits that animated their waters, their trees, even their prey.

Agriculture allowed humans to do more than subsist. It greatly increased populations, but, in doing so, it created societies based on control of the land. Most people would labor in the fields, and some, a very few, would organize that labor and fight to preserve and extend property, which had become the basis of all wealth. Religion also evolved. A landscape filled with spirits was replaced by a cosmos, an ordered society in which every person and every resource was fitted into a governing narrative. Most were serfs; some were nobles. This was the price of civilization. Every human advance of the ancient world depended upon the enslavement of the majority so that a leisured few could pursue progress.

Religion changed as well. It now came with stories. The gods had personalities. Every myth, every ritual reinforced the seamless unity of the divine, country, and family. Temples were repositories of wealth. Wars were “religious” because there was no separation of the sacred and the secular.

If asked about religiosity, Jews at the time of Jesus would have done the same as Romans, Greeks, or Egyptians. They would have pointed to a temple, where a professional class cared for the commonweal by coddling deities, and, when necessary, invoking their aid in the martial extension of an agricultural economy.

Animals and grains were sacrificed in the temple Jesus cleansed. As a Jew, he would not have been incensed by the practice or its preparatory needs. He wouldn’t have seen the secular invading the sacred. The two had never been sundered.

Something else is happening here, something which links Jesus to his adversaries the Pharisees, who, despite their differences, represent a similar strain in religious evolution. In the mind of Jesus, in the teaching of the Pharisees, a modern notion of religion is entering history. It’s still bound up with myth and ritual. It’s still a search for meaning, but it’s no longer essentially corporate. It’s becoming deeply personal.

The Pharisees taught their disciples to learn scripture, to pray, and to perform personal rituals. They didn’t bring religion into everyday life. It had always been there. They brought it to the individual, to the personal search for purpose.

In Jesus religion breaks free of the commonweal and becomes a way of self-completion. The Christ is animated by an absolute identification of his person and his God. He addresses the God of Israel as Father, not as patriarch of the people.

Until Constantine wed Christianity to the state, Christians were pacifists. They would not fight for God, Country, and Family. Those ties had been radically reordered by a deeply personal relationship with the Father of Jesus.

When ISIS solemnly declares the foundation of a new caliphate, it announces that God, Country, and Family are once again a triumvirate. There is no separation of the sacred and the secular. True believers should immigrate to caliphate’s territory and fight to preserve and extend it. It’s not a modern notion, but it has an ancient lineage.

Jesus was executed as an insurrectionist, as one who challenged Rome’s version of the same triumvirate. And had he been the sort of Messiah his people had expected, that would have been true. But his God is too deeply “Father” simply to stamp the status quo; his kingdom is not of this world; and he calls men and women to a relationship more foundational than family.

The way of Jesus is indeed narrow. It still demands difficult decisions. Modern economies have expanded beyond the agricultural, yet they haven’t left war behind. At times, it may still be a sad necessity. Especially if our adversaries think God desires violence.

Exodus 20: 1-17  1 Corinthians 1: 22-25  John 2: 13-25

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Timothy Vickery
2 years 7 months ago
Wars are not solely materialistically motivated. They definitely are not won solely on those grounds. 500 conquistadors conquered an empire facing an army of 100,000 solely because their religion made them anxious. And even if materialistically causes were the soul cause of winning wars, then the Soviet Union would have engulfed Europe totally, seeing as they had by far the largest army, population, resources and also the most militarily technically advanced nation the world had ever seen even when Hitler invaded. But they lost initially because of: i.) Bad strategic planning (they were entirely offensively orientated), ii.) Their personnel were trained and orientated toward looting and pillaging, not the difficult battle of fighting and protecting (without the reward of rape, loot and pillage) what was already theirs. Finally, and most importantly, iii.), They lacked internal coherency and trust (let alone motivation to fight). As a consequence, Hitler annihilated the Soviet Union's army and forced Stalin into a war of attrition. Regardless, people like "Chris Harris" are destroying America. I wanted to write a script called, "Iraqi Sniper" after I heard of this movie. I guess it takes coming from a country that was invaded out of America's most psychotic delusions to have the audacity to call out foolishness and hypocrisy and expose it. I will say this to my American friends (and I have ever been a happy outsider for being half-American): if it was your country being invaded, what would you do? Those men were ordered to kill men, women and children - who had no sin save for fighting for their country (or just happening to reside in it)- are heroes only insofar as they subjectively believed they were doing the right thing. Which is not praiseworthy. Even many Nazi soldiers did the same. But objectively they were not. And that is a real crime. In fact, it's law. Now my ancestors, being North American, died fighting Nazis. In fact, my family tradition was doing it long before any American joined the fight. We not only were the pilots fighting in the battle of Britain over the air, we trained them. We are, as a consequence, strange in the world. Unlike Britain or France, we do not ogle at America. We owe you nothing. Yet we see you scraping ever more desperately and pathetically at the spoils of war from the second world war. But we are not impressed. Nor intimidated, anymore than you would be. I have no sympathy for the modern, propaganda logic that America is great because America is America, which is a most romantic fallacy. The America I loved and admired knew exactly what made it great: People, ingenuity and the pursuit of happiness, which involved the right to dignity and liberty. It is not because you are special. You are not. That logic is exactly what facilitates the worst crimes against humanity. "American Sniper" glorifies a man who historically slaughtered people because he thought they were "savages." Try listening to speeches given by American World War II Generals(1) talking about disemboweling German soldiers in order to use them to "grease [their] tank tracks" and ask which side is the savage. It was meant to intimidate soldiers into following immoral orders, and every army outside the USA knows it. It was and is, as the American general said and a certain Australian philosophical dictionary has it, "bullshit." (1) http://wn.com/patton_s_speech_to_the_third_army

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

It is astonishing to think that God would choose to enter the world this way: as a fragile newborn who could not even hold up his own head without help.
Ginny Kubitz MoyerOctober 20, 2017
Protestors rally to support Temporary Protected Status near the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Around 200,000 Salvadorans and 57,000 Hondurans have been residing in the United States for more than 15 years under Temporary Protected Status. But that status is set to expire in early 2018.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 20, 2017
At the heart of Anne Frank’s life and witness is a hopeful faith in humanity.
Leo J. O'Donovan, S.J.October 20, 2017
Forensic police work on the main road in Bidnija, Malta, which leads to Daphne Caruana Galizias house, looking for evidence on the blast that killed the journalist as she was leaving her home, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. Caruana Galizia, a harsh critic of Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat, and who reported extensively on corruption on Malta, was killed by a car bomb on Monday. (AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud)
Rarely does the death of a private citizen elicit a formal letter of condolence from the Pope.