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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

What's a Christian to Think of the Killing in American Sniper?

The film American Sniper, which dramatizes the career of Chris Kyle, one of the deadliest snipers in U.S. military history, has smashed box office records. The movie is said to be well made and scenes like the one featured in the trailer highlight some of the impossible decisions snipers face.

However, given the nature of what a sniper's job description is, some Christians are wondering if it is appropriate to see the movie or how we as followers of Jesus should view such a position. One person was sincerely seeking an answer, noting the sixth commandment of "Thou shalt not kill," but also the larger teaching within Christianity of not taking vengeance into our own hands but allowing God to repay.

I haven't yet seen American Sniper, nor read the biography, so I cannot comment on the specific situations it portrays. However, I can comment on the general question of Christianity and the use of force, even in war situations.

The laws of the Old Testament can be a little confusing because some of them are applicable to individuals while others apply to a governing authority. It is important to remember that the Ten Commandments were give as a guideline for individuals to follow. Thus, the commandment not to kill in Exodus 20:13 loses a bit in certain English translations. The Hebrew word ratsach implies killing without proper justification. The command may be translated "thou shalt not murder" just as fairly; which is exactly how both the NASB and the ESV render it. It doesn't exclude things like capital punishment as the Levitical law calls for capital punishment in certain situations, including the concept of a kinsman redeemer to avenge a murder of a relative.

Another situation where this wouldn't apply is killing another in self-defense or to protect the life of a third party. Think of the 2012 San Antonio Theater incident where off duty officer Lisa Castellano shot a gunman who had entered the theater and began shooting randomly, injuring one patron. One would expect Castellano to protect others because of the fact that she was armed. In fact, if an attacker was threatening to kill a stranger and you were armed, it would be your moral obligation to shoot an attacker and stop him or her from killing an innocent victim.

Snipers and Just War Doctrine

Some may say the imminent harm of a shooter justifies deadly force, but a sniper hiding on a rooftop hundreds of yards away is different. I don't think it is. In the case of war, we have an extension of the attacker and the innocent victim. The sniper's job is simple; hew is to protect his fellow troops. If they would be threatened by a terrorist or enemy combatant, they are obligated to remove that person as a threat against their comrades. The difficulty comes, as the clip above shows, in recognizing who is a combatant and who isn't.

The role of the sniper is a small part of a much bigger discussion on Christians' involvement in the act of war. While some believe that Christians should be pacifists, the Bible doesn't teach this. Certainly God called Israel to fight on his behalf many times in the Old Testament. Even in the New Testament (Romans 13), Paul tells us that God gives the sword to the government for protection and punishing the wrongdoer. When one country threatens the population of another, it is like a man who threatens your family. Even third parties like the United States may be justified in stepping in to ensure that justice prevails. Of course, this power of the sword can be misused by evil men, but that makes it even more important that nations who care about justice step in to ensure abuse doesn't run amok.

In the history of Christianity, there has been a lot written about the concept of a Just War. Christian thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas thought carefully about both what justifies engaging in war and what it means to wage war in a just manner. These can be summarized as:
  1. Obey all international laws on weapons prohibition.
  2. Discrimination and Non-Combatant Immunity. That is soldiers are only entitled to use their (weapons to target those who are engaged in harm.
  3. Proportionality. Soldiers may only use force proportional to the end they seek.
  4. Benevolent quarantine for prisoners of war (POWs).
  5. No Means Mala in Se. Soldiers may not use weapons or methods which are "evil in themselves," such as mass rape campaigns; genocide or ethnic cleansing; using poison or treachery (like disguising soldiers to look like the Red Cross); forcing captured soldiers to fight against their own side; and using weapons whose effects cannot be controlled, like biological agents.
  6. No reprisals. A reprisal is when country A violates these precepts in a war with country B. Country B then retaliates with its own violation of the rules.1
If a sniper follows these basic principles, he is engaging in proper wartime activities. Much of the problem our troops face today is that many enemies do not follow a Just War doctrine. They target civilians, they enlist the help of civilians, and they disguise themselves as non-combatants in order to achieve their own ends.

For more on Christians and war, see this article on the Come Reason web site:


1. Orend, Brian. "War." Stanford University. Stanford University, 04 Feb. 2000. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Image courtesy MOD (Ministry of Defence) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. I agree with what you say Lenny, good analysis. The trailer wouldn't put me off at all. In war, freedom is defended and our liberty is preserved. Difficult decisions have to be made.

    However, another question, should a Christian watch this movie (I know that is not exactly your original question) - I would be hard pushed to answer "yes".

    I was looking for a movie to take my 15yr old son to, and I see this film is rated 15 in the UK, which is the highest rating I would watch anyway. I always read IMDB parental guide before watching anything myself, nevermind taking a kid. This is a snippet from IMDB's guide:

    "A man threatens to torture a young (probably around the age of five or six) boy with a power drill. He later does so by drilling holes through his hands (mostly off-screen, we see some blood). We hear the kid scream and cry for his father. The man then drills a hole through the kid's skull, and, as his father comes running towards his son, the man shoots his father."

    I am sorry, but there is no way I will watch that. Ps 101:3 says "I will not look with approval on anything that is vile. I hate what faithless people do; I will have no part in it."

    This scene on its own sounds vile. It sounds like something that may make me get up from the theatre and just leave. I know these things might happen in real life, but I don't need to watch them for entertainment.

    I wouldn't go to see the film and I would advise caution to others. Once you see something you can't un-see it.

    I'd be interested to hear the opinion of anyone who has actually seen the movie on what I've said.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Simon. I haven't heard of that scene and the Plugged In review ( doesn't mention it, either. I agree that such a scene sounds gratuitous.

    However, not every vile scene do I shelter from my kids. I recently watched Saving Private Ryan with my 14 and 18 year old because of it's accurate depiction of D-Day. There was foul language, but we talked about it and they understood what the stresses of war are. I guess you need to make your decision based on the individual film. As I said, I haven't heard about that scene, but I wouldn't be keen on seeing it myself.


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