“Brothers and sisters, Fox News and the NRA are not spiritual authorities.” It’s one of many mic-drop moments at the pulpit for Rob Schenck, the evangelical minister speaking out against what he sees as an unholy marriage of Christianity and gun culture in “The Armor of Light.” Although likely to court accusations of one-sidedness and manipulation, this emotionally charged, theologically astute directing debut from longtime documentary producer Abigail E. Disney feels entirely welcome for its sharp, intelligent presentation of a rarely aired point of view: Here are principled believers willing to preach against the choir, and doing so with a nuanced conviction born of painful personal experience. It’s precisely the sort of faith-based provocation that Christian leaders would be far better off recommending to their congregations than the likes of “God’s Not Dead,” which is not to imply that Disney’s lesson in loving, compassionate dissent should be heard by churchgoers alone.
In a film that is very much about recognizing the ground we may share with our adversaries — and, in turn, the differences we may have with our ideological brethren — Disney grants Schenck the sort of bold, confrontational intro that may well turn off the more left-leaning viewers in the audience. An outspoken pro-life advocate and demonstrator, Schenck stirred widespread outrage in 1992 when he showed up outside an abortion clinic in Buffalo, N.Y., bearing the preserved body of a human fetus, as shown here in startling news footage. In the present, Schenck expresses the shock he felt after the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian by a pro-life activist — a tragedy that made him newly aware of the capacity for violence among so-called God-fearing people, and the inadvertent power of his own words to incite and inflame them.
As founder and president of Faith and Action, a Christian outreach organization based in Washington, D.C., Schenck acknowledges that he ministers to a very conservative constituency, including many Tea Party Republicans. It thus took him considerable soul searching before he ultimately concluded that a worldview that genuinely upholds the sanctity of life must limit and perhaps even restrict the use of firearms — a belief driven home by the horrific recent wave of public shootings in the U.S., especially the 2013 Washington Navy Yard rampage that killed 12 people.
Those who defend their Second Amendment rights have of course long argued that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” in the words of anti-abortion activist Troy Newman, one of many conservative figures we hear extolling the virtues of gun ownership in God’s name. (Others include Sarah Palin and Franklin Graham, shown riling up the crowds at an NRA rally.) Again and again in “The Armor of Light,” in mostly intimate, non-intimidating group settings, Schenck and his collaborators push back against that sort of might-is-right thinking, gently but assertively pointing out that firearms have never been a biblical entitlement. They not only cite the dangers of trying to play the hero in a life-threatening situation, but also suggest — far more radically — that the love of God should compel all followers to adopt a posture of self-sacrifice, not self-defense.
“We have replaced God with our guns as the protector,” says Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, an unarmed black teenager who was shot and killed by Michael Dunn, a white man, in 2012. The devastating racial implications of that case (explored at length in Marc Silver’s documentary “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets”), and of the disproportionate number of African-American men victimized by gun violence in the U.S., are touched on only briefly here, as Disney perhaps wisely avoids freighting her documentary with too many interrelated issues. But McBath, in joining forces with Schenck, becomes the film’s other major subject, and she proves to be no less stirring or gifted a preacher as she takes a vocal stand against the Stand Your Ground law that was cited in Dunn’s defense — a law, she says, that effectively gives people license to shoot first, based on flawed perceptions and irrational fears.
McBath’s remarkable show of resolve, especially during the lengthy and painful drama of Dunn’s trial and retrial, gives the film considerable emotional heft. But Disney’s work is most galvanizing at the level of discussion and argumentation; it’s a pleasure simply to hear thoughtful, eloquent men and women willing to challenge some of their religion’s most popular tenets in search of deeper, less self-serving truths. Even as it delves into some of the most painfully relevant issues of the fraught present moment, “The Armor of Light” is notable for its general avoidance of overt conflict. Voices are occasionally raised as perspectives clash, but for the most part the film’s arguments seem to flow along on a single tide of shared consciousness. That smoothness is reflected in the filmmaking, as Schenck’s and McBath’s separate voiceovers play out over d.p. Jeff Hutchens’ attractive handheld coverage, and accompanied by Paul Brill’s sometimes overactive score.
Disney, whose numerous and formidable doc-producing credits include “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and “The Queen of Versailles,” might well have pushed deeper here, or sought out a greater plurality of opinion. (Another Christian who’s changed his mind on gun rights, personal-injury lawyer John Phillips, isn’t as well integrated into the mix.) Yet her documentary is clearly just the beginning of a new conversation in the gun debate, one spurred by a rare and refreshing instance of a clergyman swimming against the tide within his political and religious sphere. “The Armor of Light” may be calmly assured of its moral standing, but its grace and composure are the very opposite of complacency.