Editor’s note: The following originally appeared last October, when The Armor of Light was debuting. Given this week’s national conversation surrounding gun violence and legislation, we decided this conversation about evangelicals and firearms is worth revisiting.
If you don’t want a peaceful conversation, bring up guns. During the past several years, few issues in America have been as contentious.
And while mass shootings continue to bring gun violence into the spotlight, the conversations about how to prevent these shootings often devolves into emotional shouting matches. And often, Christians land on the side of shouting for their right to bear arms.
In her new documentary, The Armor of Light (which opens in select theaters today), filmmaker Abigail Disney invites evangelical Christians to re-examine their views on gun ownership—not as a political issue, but as a moral one. The film follows the Rob Schenck—president of Faith in Action and chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance—as he grapples with whether Christians can truly claim to be pro-life and also pro-gun.
The intention of the film, Disney and Schenck say, is not to tell evangelicals what to think, but rather to push them to ask important questions. To that end, they offered free tickets to NRA members for the film’s opening weekend.
“This is about opening up the conversation,” Disney said, “and how are we going to have a meaningful conversation unless everyone’s invited?”
We talked with Disney and Schenck about their motivations behind the film, why gun control is such a contentious issue and what productive conversation might look like.
Rob, what made you agree to be part of this film?
Rob Schenck: I had a growing concern as I watched folks in my own evangelical community demonstrating a kind of escalating fear about a lot of things—government, terrorism, fear of home invasions, of being robbed or murdered. I noted a kind of arming up of people who were purchasing handguns, especially for self-protection, and it was a concern to me.
I’m the chairman of the evangelical church alliance. Our organization has almost 2,400 ministers across the country, and I was concerned whether we were properly guiding those ministers in providing help to their people on this question. Were they preaching on the subject of guns and violence? Were they were helping their people make decisions about the guns they owned and how they might use them?
Abigail, why did you decide to focus the film on evangelical Christians?
Abigail Disney: Well, because that’s where the correlation between gun culture and a demographic is the highest—white evangelical conservative Christians. And it’s where I think the disconnect is also largest between language about the sanctity of human life and the embrace of this culture. It’s not just the gun, it’s a language and a set of values around the gun. I call it yippie-ki-yay culture—this sort of looking forward to the conflict, not exhausting all the other possibilities first, and a blitheness and a disregard for the taking of human life.
Why do you think gun violence is such a controversial topic among Christians?
Abigail Disney: What we’re increasingly seeing is terrible fear among evangelical conservatives. I think evangelicals have always kind of seen themselves as outside the mainstream and as having less political power. There’s always been a sense among them that [someone was] coming to get them. And then you pour ISIS into that, and then you pour this kind of Fox news always amping up the fear, and then you have the NRA, which is also playing on that fear pretty unscrupulously. So you have people who are convinced that on any given night, someone’s going to break in and shoot them in their home, which is just statistically just as close to impossible as it gets. You’re much more likely to be hit by lightning.
Rob Schenck: Fear is a very real human emotion, and Christians have lots of fears. But I don’t believe fear should be a controlling element in a Christian’s life. Our confidence is in God.
In my own firearm training, my instructor actually told me it’s better that you not carry if you are not ready to kill in a moment in time. So whenever a Christian takes on their body the capacity and the willingness in their heart to kill another human being, that, to me, is a serious moral and ethical crisis. It’s also a serious theological problem, because we have to ask, “Is is it always the will of God that I survive a violent confrontation?” For example, with the stoning of Stephen as recorded in the book of Acts, was it God’s will for Stephen to survive, and did he fail at that? Or was it God’s will that he die? I would argue it was God’s will. So these are serious theological problems that demand examination for the christian.
A lot of people argue that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” What do you say to those arguments?
Rob Schenck: A wonderful Christian psychologist, a man named Doug Louie, gave me some good advice. He said “Rob, it will serve you well in your ministry if you always remember it’s not what people say that matters, only why they say it.” So I try to listen deep and long for why a person would say those things.
But on their face, I believe both statements to be false. When you say, “Well, if you take the gun away, then someone will kill with a knife or baseball bat,” well first of all, neither knives nor baseball bats are as lethal or as efficient in the killing as a gun. A gun kind of sanitizes the killing act. You can do it from a distance. If you’re in the right situation, you don’t have to be spattered with somebody else’s blood. If you use a knife or a baseball bat, you do—and that’s a different decision to get that close and that brutal on another human being. The gun is a kind of clean killing machine. It’s in it’s own category.
Some of those guns are designed for only one reason. You can use a knife to cut a watermelon—you don’t use a Glock 9mm pistol to cut a watermelon.
But I really have to keep returning the intention: Why do you carry the 9mm? You carry a revolver or a semi-automatic pistol for one reason: to kill another human being. And killing is surrounded by biblical instruction and warrant and prohibition.
What do you think it might look like within the Christian community to move this issue forward?
Rob Schenck: I think it would be forward movement to simply have the conversation, because this topic is not even treated in the average church. It is ignored.
Many pastors share with me privately that they are very concerned with the number of people who are not just procuring firearms for defensive purposes, some are bringing them to church.
Let’s say someone with schizophrenia gets up and starts yelling and maybe reaches for a cell phone. How many of those people will think he’s reaching for a gun and stand up and shoot? That’s tragic enough, but now the church has to answer for that act.
Most pastors have said to me, “I just don’t touch it. It’s too volatile. It ends up dividing the church.” I think that does a disservice to the people of God, who need moral guidance on this question. So simply having the conversation—for pastors to preach and teach on the subject. and then for Christians to start really prayerfully, contemplatively, reflectively working through it.
Abigail Disney: I tried to offer an example of how to have a reasoned conversation, which is, “Let’s stop talking about the specifics of how to interpret the second amendment. Let’s just back it up to where we all meet, which is around our deepest values.” If we can discuss those and come to some sort of agreement about, for instance, to what level is it lamentable to take a human life? Let’s start from the places we share and come to some agreement about our values, and then legislate from there.
I think everybody’s looking for a silver bullet—which is an unfortunate metaphor, but I can’t help it. We’re always thinking there’s one law or one rule or one petition. But this is a deep, long-term problem. It will take a long time for us to dig out from under it.
The answers are going to be local and specific to localities. What needs to be fixed in Texas is going to be different from what needs to be fixed in Florida and Wyoming and so forth. The answer is going to be for people to get online, do some research, figure out for themselves what they think needs to change. There are plenty of resources and places to go with that energy. It’s in every city. There’s a movement, so join it.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
Abigail Disney: I hope they walk away being willing to admit that they’re wrong. And I’m not just talking about people who disagree with me about guns. I hope people walk away with the idea that it’s all right to evolve politically.
It’s not scary or threatening to sit down with somebody who disagrees with you. It’s not good for anybody to just simply hang out with people who already agree with them. That’s soul-crushing, and it diminishes your mind and your imagination.
Rob Schenck: The film is filled with questions and very few answers. It’s an invitation for people to search their own hearts, their own minds, their own experiences, and come to their own conclusions. I’m rather optimistic about that. I think if people will go through a careful, prayerful process, they will come to the best conclusions on this over time.
I hope they’ll come away asking those questions of themselves and of their Christian communities. I hope pastors will join publicly in the conversation and eventually, our community of evangelicals will help in a larger, national conversation about this crisis.
Dargan is a former RELEVANT editor turned freelancer. Find her online at darganthompson.com or follow her extremely random train of thought on Twitter @darganthompson.