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How one evangelical activist changed his mind on gun violence

Rev. Rob Schenck is the main subject of the new documentary “Armor of Light,” directed by Abigail Disney. (Photo by Jeff Hutchens)

For years, the Rev. Rob Schenck led nonviolent protests as an antiabortion activist, focusing on abortion as the primary “sanctity of human life” issue.

But everything changed after the 2013 D.C. Navy Yard shooting that left 13 people dead. A new documentary called “The Armor of Light” tracks Schenck as he decided that one cannot be both “pro-life” and also “pro-guns.”

“I’ll be very candid, I haven’t felt that it’s our issue, until we end up kneeling in prayer, outside the Navy Yard gates in my neighborhood where my apartment building was in lockdown,” he says in the film that will be released on Oct. 30. “So suddenly it goes from theoretical to very realistic.”

On Friday, Tenn. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R) responded to last week’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon by saying that “fellow Christians” should consider getting a handgun-carry permit to protect themselves.

“When we say, ‘Nobody will ever take my life, I’ll take theirs,’ it contradicts the Christian life and message,” Schenck said Monday. “He is not qualified to issue such a challenge to his fellow Christians. It’s bad advice.”

Schenck, who believes that most Christians should not own a firearm for defense purposes, is trying to encourage Christians towards becoming more visible in the gun use debate. Polls suggest that evangelicals are the largest religious group most resistant to gun control laws.

“Pastors and the church as a whole should be speaking very loudly into legislation on guns, especially on the state level,” Schenck said. “Our voices are conspicuously absent from the discussion and the debate.”

This documentary follows a reverend who is breaking with conservative thinking by questioning whether being pro-gun is consistent with being antiabortion. (Video: Fork Films)

Directed by Abigail Disney (the grandniece of Walt Disney), “The Armor of Light” opens in 1992 with Schenck, a longtime antiabortion activist, carrying a dead fetus during protests.

“In my community we talk about the value of every human life. Usually that’s in the context of abortion,” he says in the film. “And if we believe life begins at conception there’s a whole lot of life beyond conception until natural death.”

Schenck was the original founder of D.C.’s multi-site National Community Church in 1994, but now he spends most of his time on Capitol Hill or in churches around the country. He leads a group called Faith and Action, saying that his natural constituency would be conservative.

Since the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, Schenck has been preaching at churches across the country about gun violence.

Schenck said that his organization has lost significant financial support over his activism. According to Faith and Action’s most recent financial statements from 2013, the organization receives about $1.9 million in contributions and grants, and Schenck’s salary that year was $168,333.

“There are some things worth the cost, so I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one,” he told an audience at the AFI Docs film festival in Washington in June.

Disney said at the same festival that she was raised in a “very conservative family,” saying, “I may have gone somewhere else with my adult life but that’s not because I left the values behind.”

Disney, who spent most of her adult life as a feminist and pro-abortion rights, said she wanted to speak with those who believed in the “sanctity of human life” about gun violence.

Disney said that before she met Schenck, she spoke with three white evangelical megachurch pastors who told her she was right to point out the connection between gun violence and life, but they told her, “If I say anything, I’ll be destroyed.”

Most major religious groups in the country favor stricter gun control laws, including black Protestants (76 percent), Catholics (67 percent) and white mainline Protestants (57 percent), according to a 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey. But white evangelicals are the religious group least likely to support stricter laws (38 percent favor while 59 percent oppose them).

It took Schenck eight weeks to agree to work with Disney.

“I was really scared to sit down with him because he was a person on the opposite side of what felt like the biggest, most important, baddest divide I could think of,” she said. “He was as eager as I was to find common ground and inhabit it.”

Disney said that because Schenck was putting himself on a limb by being a part of her film, she said she reconsidered her own views on abortion. She felt more certain of her pro-abortion rights views, telling Schenck that it was offensive to hear some activists using the term “abortion business.”

Schenck said he has spent more time listening to people since his anti-abortion activism two decades ago.

“I hope everyone realizes the opening scene was a long time ago,” he said, referring to when he was holding a dead fetus. My understanding of why people take the positions that they do on it … has changed significantly.”

Schenck said in an interview that religious leaders should speak out on the state level about who may obtain handguns, how many they obtain and how many rounds of ammunition one person can buy.

“I’m not saying self-defense is never an option for a Christian. I think it is,” he said. “But there’s an impulse toward lethal self-defense that’s contrary to Christian thinking and teaching.”

In the film, Schenck meets Lucy McBath, mother of an unarmed, black teenager who was killed in 2012 at a Florida gas station by a white man who claimed the protection of Florida’s “stand your ground” law. In 2014, Michael Dunn was convicted of first-degree murder of McBath’s son, Jordan Davis, who was 17 at the time of his death.

After her son’s death, McBath became a national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She asks Schenck for his public support as a fellow Christian on increased gun control.

“It’s so important, it’s so vitally important that you help,” McBath tells Schenck in the film. “They will listen to you. And I know it’s going to be hard for you.”

Schenck notes that a large number of evangelicals are members of the National Rifle Association, and he pays a visit to its convention during the film. “They are a very large factor in this,” he says.

We are in crisis in America, Schenck says in the film.

“The gun is almost an invitation to give into the temptation of fear,” he said. “And fear should not be a controlling element in the life of a Christian.”

Schenck said that his financial advisers are looking at the future of his organization. It has $130,000 less than it what it had this time last year.

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