Into the light

Abigail Disney, Reverend Rob Schenck and Lucy McBath on guns and The Armor Of Light.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Reverend Rob Schenck, The Armor of Light director Abigail Disney with US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi
Reverend Rob Schenck, The Armor of Light director Abigail Disney with US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Maria Cuomo Cole, executive producer for Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War, was the host for a luncheon and discussion of Fork Films’ The Armor of Light with director Abigail Disney, Reverend Rob Schenck and Lucy McBath at 21 Club in midtown New York on a beautiful late summer afternoon, elegantly organised by Peggy Siegal.

Documentary filmmaker Kate Davis was seated at my table. The last time we spoke was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York when she presented Jockey, her enlightening exposé on the thoroughbred horse racing world.

Lucy McBath with Abigail Disney: "I wanted the truth of what happened to Jordan and how tragic it was for us as a family."
Lucy McBath with Abigail Disney: "I wanted the truth of what happened to Jordan and how tragic it was for us as a family." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Abigail Disney's faithful and ever more timely directorial debut, The Armor Of Light, is composed around two impressive, inspiring and often surprising individuals who ask the necessary moral questions with regards to gun violence in America. Reverend Rob Schenck, an Evangelical minister with a strong pro-life stance, embarks on a journey of confronting his colleagues with their often very violently defended pro-gun stance because "a lot of Evangelicals are members of the NRA."

Lucy McBath, whose unarmed teenage son, Jordan Davis, was murdered in Florida and who has become a stellar advocate against “Stand Your Ground” laws, is the other outspoken star of the film.

At the cocktail reception before the lunch at 21 Club, I had the chance to speak with all three about the film and what the Reverend at one point calls the church's "Faustian pact." The Armor Of Light had its world premiere at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You managed to make people you are filming forget about the camera. Most impressively during the "pro-life lunch". In the beginning the debate is a bit awkward and then they seem to completely forget about your presence.

Abigail Disney: For some of it I'll take credit for building trust. But for that lunch, we had a lot of trust between Pat [another Reverend at the table] and Rob [Schenck] and me. So they knew and understood the heart of what we were doing. In terms of the two men they were arguing with, I think they were just so into the argument, they forgot the camera. At some point, I think, there was no camera because they were just so angry.

AKT: Is it the subject matter? That the gun question is so dear to everybody?

AD: I think it's deep and it's more than just about guns and it's more than just about safety. It's clearly an issue that people feel all the way down to their toes in this country and that's one of the things I wanted to bring out. Why the deep passion about this? Why does it keep on pulling us counter to what our expressed values are?

AKT: What you show very well is how recent the alliance of pro-gun and pro-life is. It hasn't always been this way. Since Reagan only.

Lucy McBath, Reverend Rob Schenck and Abigail Disney with Maria Cuomo Cole
Lucy McBath, Reverend Rob Schenck and Abigail Disney with Maria Cuomo Cole Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AD: Yeah, I was very aware of it. I had been studying the issue and that side of the issue for a really long time. So I wanted to find a way to kind of say, everybody telling you "we're trying to make it the way it used to be in the past," is either lying about the past or completely misinformed about what the past used to be like. This is a new phenomenon and they are talking about it in new ways that are unprecedented and, I think, dangerous.

AKT: Pretending that something is natural made me think of the colour coding blue for boys and pink for girls, something that was the other way around before the First World War and has nothing to do with nature. You surprise the audience with some of the turns the film takes. Especially about your protagonist, Rob. How did you plot out when to reveal what?

AD: Well, it had many different iterations in the film and the one thing that we found was when we told you all about his life story earlier in the film, actually people weren't that interested. We realised you needed an emotional investment in him. To be rooting for him, to be hoping for him to succeed before you heard all the rest of the information about where he came from. And then it was somehow added into a well of already liking a person. The story itself doesn't necessarily make you like him.

AKT: I loved the quote by [theologian and anti-Nazi dissident] Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the start of your film. "Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." When did that come in?

AD: At the very beginning when Rob and I started first discussing the issue, Dietrich Bonhoeffer popped up. Because Rob just wrote a dissertation, and a maybe book, about him and is fascinated by him. I'm fascinated by him because I started reading him. I put that quote at the beginning just because, he was going to sit through a million screenings and he was going to lose his nerve. I wanted him to have that quote at the beginning just to check back in with his values, so he wouldn't lose his nerve. I told him at the first screening, "there's a present for you at the beginning of the screening that's just for you."

Reverend Rob Schenck greets United States Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi
Reverend Rob Schenck greets United States Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Reverend Rob Schenk came over to join our conversation.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I just heard from Abigail that the Bonhoeffer quote at the start of the film was her gift to you.

Rob Schenck: Yes. Bonhoeffer is an enormous inspiration to me. Some of my doctoral work was substantially on Bonhoeffer. I've been reading him for 40 years and only recently come to really appreciate….

We are interrupted for Rob to greet and be photographed with United States Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi at that moment. He returns to me less than a minute later.

Rob Schenck: I think Bonhoeffer helps a lot of Evangelicals to work their way through very difficult questions. We know him mostly as a martyr, as a very courageous man who stood up for his principles and surrendered his life in the process. But really, that's the smallest part of Bonhoeffer. He was a consummate theologian and moral ethicist. A moral theologian, more a philosopher, really. Evangelicals have great admiration for him and I think on this question he can help us through some of the most difficult parts of the problem. So when Abby gave us that quote at the beginning, it was a very special gift.

AKT: The issues are very important but there is always the question of seeing oneself on the screen. How does it feel to see yourself up there?

RS: It's very awkward. It's a little disconcerting, you know. I don't think of myself as larger than life. At all. I had to get used to it.

AKT: The film is very personal and in a way follows your journey. It starts with your reflections on memory and spirit of place. By the way, I believe I have been to the small town where you are from for a Wildlife Rehabilitation Conference.

The Armor of Light US poster at 21 Club
The Armor of Light US poster at 21 Club Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

RS: Grand Island [New York]?

AKT: Right by Niagara Falls?

RS: Yes, exactly. It may be.

AKT: Back to the question of memory.

RS: Yes. Thank you for mentioning that because this is always a reinforcement for me of how important this process is in my life. And I get to relive it over and over again. When I watch the film, I am able to see other elements that I need to address that I did not in the initial stages. I've never gotten bored of it, to relive all the emotions attached to it. Even beyond the emotions, it helps me to think about the issue in a deeper way every time I view it. And I see the reactions of the audiences as well.

AKT: Seeing your personal journey gives courage to show us that sometimes going around corners or changing your mind is very helpful and of great importance.

RS: That's a very good point. I hope that's helpful to other people to see that it is a complicated process. And it's not easy, it's fraught with all kinds of potential risks for all of us. In the end, you just want to be honest with yourself, honest with others, and ultimately honest with God. For me this is very much a spiritual journey. And I was very happy with the way Abby Disney as the director and the production crew captured that aspect. I would have been unhappy if this had come out like a news documentary, just filled with facts and data. I don't think that really reaches people where they make this kind of decision, which is in the deepest recesses of their emotions and their thoughts and even in their spirituality.

AKT: What would you say is the most crucial aspect for you now?

RS: You know, staying on mission is my biggest challenge. Because lots of people have lots of different ideas about this. They have their own goals and objectives. Mine are very narrow. I want the church, and particularly the church leadership, to examine this issue as a theological and ethical question. That's it. Period. Because I think if we can come to the right conclusions on that, it will affect everything else we do in relation to gun ownership, gun policy, all of that. I trust people to make good decisions once they have the theoretical tools to work with. And I hope to help them get there. I'm on that journey myself, still.

Lucy McBath with Reverend Rob Schenck in The Armor Of Light: "Morally, I believe, that our pastors and our faith communities have a responsibility…"
Lucy McBath with Reverend Rob Schenck in The Armor Of Light: "Morally, I believe, that our pastors and our faith communities have a responsibility…"

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your participation in the film, I believe, can be inspiration for many people who grieve a terrible loss. Did you hesitate to be a part of it? Was it clear to you?

Lucy McBath: It was very clear to me very early on because I wanted our story to be told. I wanted the truth of what happened to Jordan [her son who was shot] and how tragic it was for us as a family. We wanted to make sure that people understood and were able to see the face of gun violence and how devastating it is to go through the courts system, everything that it entails. We wanted to tell the truth. And specifically for me being a woman of deep faith, I knew for me that what I saw happening in the country was a moral issue. I believe that it has to be dealt with morally and we have to influence the consciousness of the nation, morally, to be able to push people and motivate and encourage people to do something against the rampant gun violence.

AKT: Were you surprised at some of the passionate reactions people showed in the film?

LM: I knew people believed and thought that way but it was just very disheartening to really be faced with it and to know that there are so many people in the country that are pastors and men and women of faith that believe in their guns over God. To me that's the critical part.

AKT: You make that very clear and bring it to the point.

LM: How can you espouse love, acceptance, forgiveness and loving your brother and having sooth in man - but just in case, I need the gun?

AKT: And who profits from this? For one, the gun manufacturers…

LM: Absolutely. It's the gun manufacturers that are making money. The gun sellers are making money. People are dying in the streets. Guns are being sold on the black market. They are being sold online without any background checks. People are buying guns from one another, no checks no balances following those guns. Guns are rampant in our communities and I am really trying to make sure that I encourage the clergy and the faith community to stand up. I know a lot of clergy say "oh, it's too political." But people dying in the streets, due to guns - this is political and you cannot separate one from the other. Morally, I believe, that our pastors and our faith communities have a responsibility to at least encourage some conversation about what's happening in the country.

The Armor of Light opens in the US on October 30.

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