Language is at the heart of the link between man and God. We image the communicating God we worship in the way we order the world. Naming the plants, the beasts of the field, and even his companion Image-bearer was at the heart of Adam’s task. Humanity’s first call was to rightly name the world as a way of representing the Sovereign Lord’s gracious kingship of creation. Language and naming, then, are a moral task. Taking responsibility for the naming of good and evil is integral to Christian speech.

Should Christian ethicists defend that language? Should they hold it up as heroic, clear-thinking, and worthy of emulation?

This insight is at the heart of Andrew Walker and Owen Strachan’s recent piece at The Federalist titled “Chris Kyle, ‘Savages,’ And Moral Language In A Terrorist Age.” In it they take up the task of defending “American Sniper” Chris Kyle’s language about his work shooting and killing hundreds of Iraqi enemy combatants.

Here is a sample of what he’s said:

The number is not important to me. I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives. Everyone I shot in Iraq was trying to harm Americans or Iraqis loyal to the new government.

Predictably, Kyle’s language has set off quite a bit of furor among critics which has provoked rousing defenses in response. My own thoughts are somewhat mixed. First, I’m compelled to admit that I have no comprehension of what men in war suffer. I have absolutely no doubt that Chris Kyle saw terrible things done. I actually have little doubt that were I exposed to such gross atrocities at the rate and for the prolonged amount of time that Kyle was, my own attitudes and language would not be pristine. They would be full of rage, anger, and not prone to circumspect, theological parsing. I don’t have a grid for what these men go through. For that reason, I am very willing to excuse the things men say in and after war. I certainly would want to try to understand them. Our servicemen and women deserve that much. I’m not one for the censoriousness of certain members of the comfortable commentariat who’ve never seen a day of actual combat in their lives.

But the question that concerns me is, “Should Christian ethicists defend that language? Should they hold it up as heroic, clear-thinking, and worthy of emulation?”

I am not a pacifist, nor the son of a pacifist. While I appreciate Walker and Strachan’s rousing defense of strong moral language — something sadly necessary in an age of anemic discourse — I’m not sure I can follow the whole of their argument. At least not with respect to Kyle’s particular utterances.
To begin with, I’m not sure I buy Walker and Strachan’s defense of the distinction between condemning a person’s actions versus their underlying ontology. They argue that Kyle’s language isn’t necessarily ontologically dehumanizing but is a comment on the utter savagery of the actions engaged in by his opponents. Now, though they do a fair bit of parsing, the plain fact of language is that the term “savage” refers to persons and “savagery” refers to actions. To condemn a person’s actions, “savagery” works quite well. Naming someone a “savage” goes a bit further and more easily shades into dehumanizing degradation. At least in the popular mind. It’s not entirely clear that Kyle was working with the careful categories Walker and Strachan are.

But say we granted that bit of the argument, especially in light of the saltier language of Scripture they point out. The bigger problem I have with their piece is that it conducts itself as if the events depicted in American Sniper and Chris Kyle’s statements occurred in a historical vacuum where that language doesn’t have a long trail of social history dragging behind it. In other words, there’s still a long social history of colonialism, racism, and cultural violence loaded in a term like “savage” that comes off differently when used by a heroic white man killing violent brown Muslims.

Please read the remainder here.