A Gathering Voices Post by Rev. Martin Otto Zimmann
The first few moments of American Sniper contain the Islamic adhan, or call to prayer. I wonder how many filmgoers know they are being invited to pray? After all, Allah is the same God that many Americans worship. Our Arab Christian brothers and sisters worship Allah and proclaim the divinity of Isa, the Son of God. It’s a matter of translation.
And perhaps this is a metaphor for how we as Christians need to decipher the meaning in American Sniper. There is much that is lost in translation here, because we are American (read, Western) folks looking voyeuristically at a Middle Eastern culture through the lens of this film. In the Middle East, traditions and folkways are shaped by different forces than our own, and the historical narrative is replete with spiraling tensions resulting from decades of Western Imperialism dating back to the end of the Ottoman Empire after the treaty of Versailles. Remember Lawrence of Arabia? The truth is more complicated.
Pundits, preachers, and politicians are all over the map regarding this movie. I posted articles of various opinions about the film on my Facebook and Twitter feeds and received very impassioned responses both pro and con. Two of my favorite Arab-American journalists, Dean Obedeillah and Amer Zahr, differ greatly in their reviews. You can read the pieces here and here, respectively. Conventional wisdom would dictate that they can’t both be right in framing the film, but perhaps they are, because interpretation is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.
For me, the most compelling narrative begins at the moment when the protagonist arrives home and struggles to rebuild his soul. Yet the film spends less than fifteen of its 135 minutes portraying this rehabilitation. If this film is supposedly a cautionary tale about the horrors of PTSD as some claim, then it is not much of a PSA. If anything, it sometimes reads like a recruitment tool for our armed forces, where the true hero never suffers a scratch while racking up 160 confirmed “kills” during his four tours.
During my brief time in the Middle East (I was pastor at a church in Jerusalem for 18 months), I was privileged to be invited to the home of a sheikh, and my family ate at the home of his youngest son. His English was limited and my Arabic was more so, but the prevailing mood was one of warmth and hospitality. I wish I could convey that warmth and hospitality to the same xenophobic beholders of the film, in hopes that it would tear down walls of fear and invite bridges of dialogue.
Similarly, during my life in America where I have served three different congregations over the course of fourteen years, I have come to know people of all kinds, including those who are not Christian, much less members of my parishes. Most Americans do not regard Arabs as “savages.” Some Americans possess a nuanced and passionate knowledge of Arab customs and folkways.
Millions of Americans love their nation enough to seek a better understanding of the larger world and how we can play a cooperative role for the betterment of humanity. The Iraq war did not succeed in winning hearts and minds to Western thinking and culture, and I shudder to think how this film will appear to Arab minds. I wish I could show my overseas Arab brothers and sisters the depth and breadth of compassion in this country, despite its inherent race and class issues, which are myriad.
In this film, the “other” on either end of the gun is painted with a brush a mile wide and one inch deep. This simplistic approach to good and evil betrays the true humanity of the figures caught up in events beyond their immediate control, where too much is lost in translation, and the call to prayer is drowned out by pulsing drumbeat of violence and fear. In short, the film does a disservice to both Arabs and Americans.
Paul’s words from Ephesians serve as a stark contrast: “For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Let us pray that this message will prevail in the world, despite our warring madness.
About the Author:
Pastor Martin Otto Zimmann holds a PhD in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He has taught at Siena Heights University in Adrian Michigan and Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio on a variety of topics, including Ethnic Studies, Literature and Composition, Climate Change and Sustainability, and Apocalypse Theology. His hobbies include sustainability and earth-conscious stewardship, including urban farming and goatherding. He is on the advisory board of the Interfaith Sustainability Center in the Middle East. For the past eighteen months, he served the English Congregation of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem.