It’s the same every damn time, isn’t it? Reports of a mass shooting roll in on the TV. Ashen-face police chiefs announce a death toll. Victims and survivors weep. Arguments flare about guns. And then it happens again. And again. How will the circle be unbroken?
The documentary The Armor of Light shows how two very different people of faith ask their armed-to-the-teeth fellow Americans to reconsider their relationship with guns. One is Rev. Robert Schenck, a white evangelical, longtime pro-life activist and spiritual adviser to Washington DC’s Tea Party power elite. The other is African-American flight attendant Lucy McBath, pulled into a life of activism by a pointless act of violence. Schenck’s story serves as the head of the movie, but McBath’s touches the heart.
We first glimpse Schenck from TV footage in the early nineties, brandishing a gruesome real fetus at a volatile pro-life rally and invoking a righteous God with fiery determination. Cut to the present. Schenck heads a religious foundation across the street from the Supreme Court. He’s a star of the evangelical movement, eager to show off pictures of himself with conservative Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Everything is going just fine up until Capitol Hill’s 2013’s Navy Yard shooting, which sets off mass panic and claims 12 lives. Schenck awakes to an uneasy doubt about guns in America and their aggressive prominence in a culture that believes all life is sacred.
Schenck is a compelling speaker, used to holding the floor, and he explains his change of mind in sonorous preacher man tones. McBath’s parallel story builds in a stealthier, more suspenseful way, skillfully paced to reach a pinnacle of shock and disbelief. Her unarmed teenage son, Jordan, was shot dead in Florida by a white man who invoked the state’s Stand Your Ground law. Initially composed as she relives the events of that night, McBath collapses in raw grief at the story’s terrible end.
Schenck investigates gun life with visits to a shooting range and a National Rifle Association rally, which ends with a wildly paranoid speech by NRA head Wayne LaPierre. Lucy and her ex-husband pursue justice for Jordan through the courts. Eventually Schenck and McBath meet. Can she bring him to the path of righteousness?
Well, yes and no. It is tempting to compare the two, and the comparison’s not always flattering to the reverend. Lucy McBath dives humbly into her cause, her faith and strength out in the open. Schenck can hide behind his naiveté. He claims to have never foreseen that his incendiary anti-abortion activism would produce a later act of bloody blowback.
Likewise, he professes to be surprised at the depth of the evangelical movement’s alliance and identification with the NRA. Though Schenck is forceful in declaiming his angst to the camera, his tone turns gingerly and roundabout when suggesting a rethink in the presence of his flock. It’s easy to see why: he meets skepticism and hostility for his pains. One prayer breakfast with peers in a Capitol Hill restaurant leads to angry shouting. Such an impasse is enough to make anyone despair of reaching any resolution on the issue.
The reverend’s portion of the narrative, however, is valuable for the record. He provides a useful history of the evangelical movement’s flight from its rural, Democratic origins into the embrace of the big-money gun lobby and the Republican Party. The three-way started with the election of Ronald Reagan and has never broken up.
By the end, it’s unclear how effective McBath and Schenck’s efforts are to persuade a packing-heat public to lay down its arms. But this subtle, thought-provoking film aims to serve as a conversation opener about guns in America. We have a long, long way to go, but as Schenck and McBath know, you’ve got to start somewhere.