HelloChristian spoke with Robert about this journey of faith from the cherished privilege of gun possession to the acknowledgment of its devastating consequences on the street. A pro-life activist who applied his pro-life conviction to the problem of gun control.
Anyone watching the documentary about your willingness to hear the call of conscience will be moved. There is almost a certain sadness as you gain new friends but lose old ones and are ostracized for standing up for the truth. Was it all worth it?
“I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that it depends on what day of the week it is. We all have courage but courage has its limits. So, yes, I sometimes wonder if it’s all worth it. But in the end I think it is. I take a lot of inspiration from my posthumous spiritual mentor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He left us over 10,000 pages of theology and ethics in which I find courage. And it goes without saying that his willingness to suffer imprisonment, torture, and death makes it more real.”
You started off being in favor of gun possession. You were deeply involved in the pro-life movement. The movie narrates how your views changed. How did that happen and what made you change?
“As I reflect on this I am aware that I carried doubt about the American infatuation with guns for a long time but I did not dare admit it myself because in my circle, it is considered a form of heresy, though in truth that heresy has only come about only in the last 30 or 40 years. I put the possession of firearms for personal defense in a different category than hunting because in personal defense you mean to kill another human being which has a completely different ethical weight.”
“I remember pondering these matters when an abortion doctor was shot during one of our pro-life demonstrations. A turning point came in September 2013 when there was a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard only a short distance from my apartment. I could see the event unfold as 12 people were killed. It jarred me out of my acceptance of the status quo. I had to ask myself: ‘Is it a consistently Christian ethic to make guns widely available to anyone under any circumstance for any purpose at all?’”
“Soon after that I was asked to participate in The Armor Of Light documentary and with it came the face-to-face encounter with Lucy Macbeth, an evangelical by her own definition, who lost her son, Jordan Davis, in a shooting incident. The 17-year old boy was shot and killed under completely inexcusable and unjustifiable circumstances. Jordan’s assailant was eventually convicted of murder and you see that in the film. It was her very personal story that brought me across the line to really fully take this issue on as a theological and moral crisis in the church.”
In the movie the encounter between Rob and Lucy is warm and friendly but intense. Lucy leaves all niceties behind when she cuts to the heart of the matter and addresses Rob Schenck with the words: “We have replaced God with our guns as the protector.” A deep silence results and we see Rob wrestle with his conscience and the potential consequences. In the movie we hear him say: “Lucy’s experience moved me beyond a point of inertia.” Realizing that if you want to be truly pro-life, there is no choice: “Gun violence and abortion… It’s all of a piece!”
From that moment on in “The Armor Of Light” we see Schenck taking his first forays into gun-land. His own constituency shows a strong resistance to giving up either gun or Second Amendment Rights. In the movie some people get angry with Rob, but nothing beats the story he relates to me. “I will tell you the most memorable experience I had with this matter. I was with this small group of pastors in southern Ohio right off the border with Kentucky. Many of them were from Kentucky and we were sitting around the table and we were off camera and I was having a very intimate discussion with them and I asked: ‘How many of you are armed?’ All of them raised their hands and I asked them: ‘How do you make the decision to draw your weapon and prepare to kill with it? What makes the difference for you? Why would you draw it on one person and not on another? Please help me to understand that process.’”
“There were some very awkward comments and a lot of awkward body language. Finally one of them said: ‘I’ll tell you straightforward. That’d depend on the man’s skin color.’ I said: ‘Did I hear you correctly? Brother, please help me, did you say color?’ And he said: ‘Yes.’ I said: ‘Could you help me understand that? I’m not sure how that is a factor.’ He said: ‘If a colored man comes into my county, he knows he doesn’t belong there so I know he is more dangerous than a white man because he is looking for trouble.’”
That is shocking indeed! But perhaps not surprising. In the movie I see you walking the exhibition floor of the NRA convention. Not one black person in sight! in the movie you yourself say at one point that the racial dimension of this subject is the giant elephant in the room that must be addressed. Could you please address the elephant?
“This is not an easy thing for a white person to discuss. In the first place we kind of have an impulse to think that we know everything because after all we are the majority. Moreover, I realize that I do have a different experience in life than my black brothers and sisters because I can’t pretend that I know how life has been like for them, especially over the centuries.”
“Still, I am Jewish by birth and Christian by faith. I grew up in a community where there are only 5 other Jewish families in the entire community of some 25 thousand people. So I did feel like a minority in that sense and I was called names. But it comes down to learning to talk about what it is to be on the other side of the gun. Not on the trigger side but on the barrel side. For so many African-Americans that has been and continues to be the experience. At a more subtle level the problem is that American evangelicals tend to live in their hermetically sealed racial communities so that white knows only white. We attend overwhelmingly white churches and that has not been helpful in this process. Black Christians express a very different opinion on guns than do white Christians.”
What is wrong with the way Christians cling to their Second Amendment Rights?
“It is funny to me that many pro-life advocates who say ‘It doesn’t matter how the Supreme Court interprets the constitution, we know what is right and wrong,’ at the same time say with regard to the Second Amendment: ‘The constitution guarantees our right to bear arms.’ Now, why is the constitution the final authority in one instance and not in another? So I say it doesn’t really matter to me what the Second Amendment says or how the Supreme Court interprets that. What matters ultimately is what is moral and immoral, what is ethical and unethical, what is right and what is wrong. We have to be careful that in respecting the Second Amendment we don’t violate the Second Commandment.”
“Fear had possessed many Christians and this is what I call in my evangelical colloquialism ‘backsliding.’ It is a falling away from the faith. It’s a spiritual crisis and it’s exhibited in the number of guns Christians are buying and the ammunition they are stockpiling.”
In the movie you call this a Faustian pact.
“It is a certain form of idolatry, or even better, neopaganism. It’s like an earthbound religion that looks to politics for ultimate salvation.”
In the movie a father whose son is shot desperately wonders: “Where the hell is the clergy on this?” So, let me ask the same question: Where the hell is the clergy?
“Most pastors have told me that they will not touch the subject even though many will literally whisper to me: ‘I’m with you on this. I have great concerns but I don’t dare to touch it. It will divide my church.’ There are a few exceptions. They are very courageous pastors but they belong to the younger generation.” I see it as a purely political matter. There is this rallying cry that tells everybody to get on the bandwagon of the Second Amendment Rights. I think it is a matter a pastor should address in the pulpit and I am encouraging them to do that.”
“We are doing a lot to equip pastors, help them with techniques in how to deal with this question in their preaching and teaching. On the other hand, there are churches that have armed security personnel and some pastors even go to the pulpit armed. I did ask a pastor recently: ‘What if a homeless person with schizophrenia stands up in your congregation, shouts something at you and reaches for something in his pocket, and you draw and fire from the pulpit or maybe one of your deacons shoots and kills that man and injures someone who is sitting nearby, a child perhaps. How will your church recover from that incident? What will you say? How will you explain it?’ Our efforts are aimed at breaking the spell that has been over the church on this question.”
There is a subtle pensiveness in the documentary and in how the camera portrays Rob Schenck. He visits places and memories as well as things lost. A wonderful tapestry is woven in which Rob’s past experience combines with the unchartered territory of his mission into gun-land. He travels mostly alone, prays alone, wrestles alone. He visits friends that will become his adversaries. He finds himself ostracized. Yet, he finds new friends among those fighting for social justice.
Where is Dr. Rob Schenck headed?
“I see this as the most pressing theological and ethical problem in the church today so I’ve taken it on as a priority. I am writing on the subject. I have two books underway and I meet a lot of pastors, denominational leaders, and speak at seminaries, divinity schools, and so on. While I’m hesitant to say that this defines the focus of probably the rest of my career, it probably and inevitably will because it is of enormous consequence on a spiritual, moral, and ethical level. It is a matter of life and death and that makes it urgent.”
Information about the movie "The Armor of Light" and screening dates here.
By Josh de Keijzer