A film review by Betty Reardon
So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.
– Romans, 13:12
Abigail Disney’s brilliantly executed, ethically instructive and politically relevant documentary is an important contribution to the current societal conversation debating the American gun culture, its daily shootings, and the growing conflation of weapons with personal and family security that characterize it. The regularity of gun deaths that takes lives of all ages and races, but disproportionately of young black men makes the persistence of racism imbedded in our social order readily evident. Less noted, brought to public attention only in sensational cases or crimes that bring the active attention of feminists and women’s rights activists, are the multiple incidents of domestic violence escalating beyond physical abuse to murder, when the abuser is in possession of a firearm. Children bringing loaded guns to school or dying by accidental shootings, usually in their own homes is more frequently reported. Easy access to guns also increases the possibility that death or serious injury in the commission of crimes that might not otherwise have had lethal consequences. Clearly the prevalence of handguns and private possession of assault weapons poses a problem of such proportions as to be a subject of significant attention on the teaching agendas of all peace educators. Disney’s film is a powerful pedagogic tool for addressing this agenda item. It vividly illustrates the dire national need to confront the problem of weapons in American society and documents the struggle to fulfill that need by three individuals of diverse backgrounds who share strongly held beliefs in the value of human life.
Values reflection, perspective change, and transformation, both personal and social, are touted as goals of peace education. Such purposes appear repeatedly in the literature, recognized as the conceptual fundaments of peace pedagogy intended to induce authentic peacelearning. Peacelearning is a term we use to refer to the reflective and affective experiences that lead us to a comprehension of the nature and consequences of any of the multiple forms of violence and knowledge of potential alternatives – the two part substantive core of peace education. It is learning that peace educators seek to deepen into committed action toward the realization of one or more of the alternatives. It can evolve in any setting in which learning takes place, within an individual or a group. The alternative embraced by Reverend Rob Schenck, Lucy MacBath and John Phillips, featured in “The Armor of Light” is the reduction and elimination of the widespread gun violence that brings daily tragedies into the lives of families and communities throughout the United States.
While peace educators have identified particular learning goals, i.e. develop a range of capacities to elicit and refine particular skills and abilities necessary to being effective agents for the achievement of the alternatives; and they have as well, designed specific pedagogies to achieve the goals, the actual experience of peacelearning tends to be hard to describe. However, as an oft quoted justice asserted, “I know it when I see it”, and I see it in Abby Disney’s documentary exploring the controversy over personal possession of guns, the confrontation between those holding up the inviolability of American citizens’ “right to bear arms” and those seeking to save the lives of the thousands regularly lost to gun violence. This film, in following the evolutions and actions of the three seeking to end the carnage, shows us persons who vividly manifest the responsible civic action that we hope to achieve through our varied practices of peace education and peace studies. As such it is an invaluable tool for the preparation of peace educators for classroom use at the secondary and tertiary levels. It is also invaluable as an instrument for public education for political action, particularly those actions directed toward changing gun laws – from those that still make it possible for virtually any and all to purchase and carry guns and to sell them with little regulation – to a set of reasonable regulations that would more effectively protect the public. “The Armor of Light” is an ideal vehicle to promote an informed and reasoned discussion of guns on university campuses and in community settings in which citizen’s groups seek to exercise civic responsibility to contribute to public security.
The major focus of the film is on the experience of Reverend Rob Schenck, an Evangelical Christian minister and activist for “the right to life,” chronicled through three of several stages of peacelearning that have long figured in my own teaching and writing about peace pedagogy: first, awakening of awareness of a particular aspect of the peace problematic, often as consequence of coming to know of a values and perspective challenging social reality; second, reflective analysis on that reality and one’s own relationship to it, risking the challenge and discomfort of a change on one’s perspective, even the ways in which we live out deeply held personal convictions and social values; and third, consideration of alternatives, resulting in commitment to action, to personally confront and act publicly to change what the learning has come to reveal as a remediable condition of violence and/or injustice.
Schenck’s learning process begins with the shocking and severe cognitive dissonance precipitated by the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, a physician associated with a woman’s health clinic providing abortions, at the hands of a Christian “right to life” activist. That event provokes him to confront apparent inconsistencies between faith and action. We see Rev. Schenck’s ruminations on the implications of acts of violence in the cause of preventing what he believes is a most egregious form of violence, taking the lives of the unborn. This rumination leads him to confront the instrument of this particular act of violence and the paradox of so many committed to defend the right to life of the unborn while owning handguns and being staunch proponents of “gun rights” that they argue to be guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
His personal reflections, the painful search of his own conscience and acknowledgement that fellow Evangelicals are capable of such violence and stand ready to rationalize the need for individuals to be armed, challenges his long held value stances and indeed his identity as an Evangelical Christian activist. His searching uncovers links between various forms of violence and the racism evident in the disproportionate percentage of African American victims that leads Evangelicals of color to a different perspective from that of his fellow white ministers most of whom resist the reflection he calls them to. That resistance and his learning from Lucy McBath propel him to what appears to be an irrevocable commitment to continue to “evangelize” his fellow Evangelicals and campaign for changes in the gun laws. Here, indeed, is a powerful example of the kind of transformation peace education purports to pursue.
“The Armor of Light” provides an invaluable case study in peacelearning, and how a process of transformational learning unfolds in one person seeking ethical and theological integrity as he probes more deeply and courageously into the parameters of nonviolence that he came to embrace as a strategy to oppose abortion. In his own words, it may be a “third conversion;” the first being his conversion to the Christian faith as a teenager; and the second his conversion to the Republican Party in early adulthood, along with many other Evangelicals during the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan. This shift results in what he has come to see as the “Faustian bargain” between Evangelical churches and the party. (A Catholic priest recently opined that he perceived a similar bargain between the party and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.) Whether as peace educators we consider “the bargain” assertion to be valid, here is another issue the film raises, another point for reflection and discussion; on the possibility that contemporary politics around both abortion and gun issues, among others, constitute a serious compromise of the principle of the separation of church and state.
Schenck’s path of reflection toward transformative learning, this “third conversion” – unfolds as he becomes more acutely aware of the frequency and destruction of gun violence. He roams an NRA convention, taking in their mantra of “good guys with guns” protecting the innocent against “bad guys with guns.” He learns first hand about how to fire common side arms. Most significant to his learning are conversations with fellow right to life Evangelicals that are both humanly affecting and pedagogically effective segments of film that could well be selected for second viewing for reflection on and analysis of the common arguments on both sides of the issue. It is one a number of bits of teaching “pay dirt” that “The Armor of Light” offers to peace educators. Among them the pain of the bereaved mother as she questions the legitimacy of the “stand your ground laws” that have resulted in lives being taken with impunity.
It is not without trepidation that Rev. Schenck takes up this new evangelism against gun violence, grounded in his own interpretation of scripture. His campaigning among fellow evangelicals involves confronting them with his arguments about what he believes to be contradictions of faith, which he points out in attempts at what peace education advocates describe as civil discourses of difference. So heated is one conversation that while mutual respect may have been saved, civility is put in severe jeopardy. Rev. Schenck fully realized the risks and challenges of his mission to persuade the church to acknowledge its inconsistent stand in regard to abortion and “gun rights.” He urges them to support laws that would control the sale and use of hand guns and assault weapons now so easily acquired by any and all so inclined. We see him gather up the courage required of any who take risks in the pursuit of peace, facing heated and intransigent resistance among his fellow pro-life activists.
In spite of such fiery and thwarting discussions, he continues the practice of dialogue as a tool for exploring contending positions, conducting contentious discourse on deeply opposing views, while maintaining civility. We see his struggle to continue, facing the risks to his own position in the church, and most touchingly, reflecting the frustration and sadness of one seeking constructive change at the failure of members of his own community to venture to look at an issue from another perspective. With him we come to see that even when there is mutual respect and some shared social purposes, sometimes firmly closed minds cannot be opened to alternatives to their own unquestioned perspectives and positions.
But we also see that what might have been irresolvable differences can be set aside in the pursuit of a purpose that holds transcendent significance to even those with strongly opposed positions on serious issues such as the abortion controversy, that it may be essential to do so for a common cause. So, too, we see the importance of supportive others and individuals who hold some different values coalescing around goals common to all. The film depicts the initiation and development of the partnership between Rob Schenck and Lucy McBath, coming from different starting points they find themselves on a mutual journey. They give strength to each others’ resolve, offering each other support in times of waning energies in the partnership that develops between this African American mother and white male preacher. A flight attendant with a family history of activism for civil rights, Lucy MacBath lost her only son, 16 year-old Jordan Davis to an outrage shooting by Michael Dunn, a middle aged white man, over an altercation about the volume of music being played by four teenage boys in a car in a parking lot. Her relationship with Rob and their common learning grow from the tentative transcendence of stereotypes in their first somewhat restrained encounter, to a strong partnership forged in joint campaigning, strengthened by mutual respect and a common commitment to ending gun violence in American society. Their partnership is a model of the development of the capacity for such relationships that peace educators envision, why we advocate the value of diversity, encourage reflection and cultivate the ability to face challenges to our deeply held but frequently unexamined values and perspectives.
Lucy manifests the same courage that so many women have mustered to emerge from lives lived primarily in private (except for the employment they pursue to support families) into the public arena to reason with audiences sometimes hostile but sometimes waiting to be enlisted in their common campaign. Lucy is Women Strike for Peace, Greenham Common Women, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and Women Cross DMZ (30 international peacemakers that in 2015 walked with North and South Korea women across the DMZ). All risked much to achieve justice and security for the vulnerable, clearly demonstrating women’s bravery and the social creativity we know to be essential to the achievement of peace. She has institutionalized these capacities into an organization, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, to further extend and pursue this struggle for security and justice.
The third of the individuals in this team is John Phillips, a successful white personal injury lawyer who agued the case brought by Jordan Davis’ father, Ron Davis, (Ron, himself overcoming a reluctance to be a public person) and Lucy McBath against the man who shot their son to death. Michael Dunn, the middle aged white male shooter cites in his defense Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law on the pretext of feeling threatened by this group of unarmed, harmless teenagers, celebrating a graduation. Viewers will recall that the same law was invoked in the trial of George Zimmerman in the gratuitous shooting of Trayvon Martin. Phillips, a father of a toddler son and himself a gun owner, once aware of the extent and nature of the carnage and the denial of justice in these ever-increasing crimes becomes part of the campaign. His reflections kindle awareness that no one is safe in a gun culture. Because of his public association with the Davis case and the Schenck-McBain campaign, he has put his law practice at risk, suffering harassment as do most those who stand against unjust prevailing norms, experiences well known to those who worked in the Civil Rights Movement.
The film is contextualized within a particular, but highly significant, sector of United States society, Christian Evangelicals, strong supporters of gun rights, and conservative policies that include a strong and active stand against legal abortion. However, the problematic it addresses and the learning processes it documents are, in fact, to be found in relation to other interests groups, other issues of violence, and, indeed, other countries.
Learning programs on the gun issue could also lead to consideration of various related issues of weaponry and forms of socially tolerated violence resulting from private possession of guns. From widespread domestic and gender violence involving hand guns,[i] to the dangers of post-conflict societies where arms remain in the possession of former combatants, to consideration of weapons in the formation of gender identity, to questions of the global small arms trade and other disarmament issues, “The Armor of Light” serves as an ideal starter to an essential peacelearning process and to the public conversation necessary to confront a too long tolerated source of lethal violence in the United States and the world.
Shown on its own this film will provide substance for many rich and productive learning sessions for which the producers have developed a study guide. Combined with some of the other recent films on the issue of gun ownership and the proliferation of shootings producing ever more victims, it could initiate incisive, informed and reasoned discussions conducive to significant learning about one of the major problems of violence that plagues our country today. All peace educators should seriously consider it for that purpose.
[i] Such domestic violence, for example, is the particular focus of “Gun Free Kitchen Tables,” a campaign organized by Israeli feminist peace activists. It is likely that other such initiatives are undertaken elsewhere in the world.
“The Armor of Light” from Fork Films is available from Amazon and iTunes and Google Play. For those seeking opportunities for action on the issue or further background please see the following Fork Films links and those of agencies striving to strengthen gun laws.
- The Armor of Light website
- Host a Screening
- Screening Kit & Discussion Guide
- Pastor Resources
- Videos & Interviews
- Guns and the Evangelical Christian – Film Review by Sojourners Magazine
Gun Violence Prevention Organizations
- New Yorkers Against Gun Violence
- Coalition for Gun Control (Canada)
- Americans for Responsible Solutions
- Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence
- Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
- Everytown for Gun Safety
- Heeding God’s Call
- Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence
- National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence
- Protest Easy Guns
- States United to Prevent Gun Violence
- Violence Policy Center
- Women Against Gun Violence
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