Saturday, October 31, 2015

Radical Listening

It used to be that the hardest thing to do was to stand up for your principles. It was the stuff of legend: the individual who resolutely believes in something, who faces scorn, ridicule, estrangement from friends and family, all for saying "This is what I stand for." No more; that's easy. Whether right or left, you likely travel with a like-minded crowd, listen to media which parrots and reinforces your views, and consider those with opposing viewpoints somewhere between well-meaning-but-misguided and nut-job.

No, the hard part these days is changing your mind. In our hyper-partisan environment, where compromise is a dirty word, your compatriots expect you to stand with them shoulder to shoulder. Any crack is perceived as a path to the dreaded slippery slope, which can only lead to total disaster. In this telling, even expressing second thoughts or open-mindedness is tantamount to treason, no matter how benign. And if it involves any of the central tenants of the faith, then damn you all to hell.

In that context, "The Armor of Light" is a remarkable documentary about one such public soul-searching. The directorial debut of Abigail Disney, great-niece of Walt Disney, it focuses on the Reverend Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister and founder of the Christian outreach organization Faith and Action. Schenck was also a founder of Project Rescue, an anti-abortion activist group, and was one of the leaders of large scale demonstrations in Buffalo in 1992, where he carried a preserved fetus as he marched. His devotion to that cause is unquestioned and absolute.

But when some in the movement started shooting and killing doctors who performed abortions, he saw a conflict. Anti-abortion also means pro-life, or as he says, "Pro-life means life at conception and for many, many years after till natural death." That led naturally to the topic of guns and gun control. But if there is a third rail of the far right and evangelicals, that's it. And Schenck wasn't ready to touch it.

Meanwhile, while Disney's past films as producer had taken on social issues from a liberal perspective, she wasn't planning on jumping into the gun control debate, "at least not till after my fourth child left for college." But then Sandy Hook happened, and she decided she couldn't not act. She saw the inherent conflict between pro-life and pro-gun, and approached a number of evangelical ministers. Many agreed with her point of view, but declined to be involved due to the danger to their standing, reputation and even livelihood.  

She approached Schenck, expecting him to be a "fire breathing dragon." Instead, she found a "thoughtful, intelligent, nebishy man," who was willing to listen. His reaction after hours of conversation and discussion: "I swear to you, I'm asking and praying and thinking and trying to find a way to not speak. But I can't." And so he signed on to allow Disney and her cameras to follow his public coming out as a second amendment heretic.

The film follows his anguished journey as he goes through this conversion, and confronts his natural allies. Along the way he finds common cause with Lucy McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, an unarmed teenager who was shot and killed in Jacksonville in 2012 by Michael Dunn, who claimed Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law as his defense. And he confronts and engages not only other ministers and congregations across the country, but in an astonishing sequence, other leaders of the anti-abortion movement including Troy Newman, leader of Operation Rescue, at a private lunch. The confrontations over sandwiches and salads are anything but civil. Disney said even she couldn't stay calm behind the camera: "I hate the gun metaphor, but I went ballistic and stood up and started yelling myself."  

All and all, the film is a remarkable look at someone who dares to listen and question the orthodoxy that he had taken as gospel. Disney is quick to point out that there are those on the left who, while they hold views more in line with her own, are as intransigent in their positions as Schenk was in his, and who would do well to follow his example: to at least be willing to question and listen and confront that which divides us. "The Armor of Light" shows that whatever your views, radical listening can lead to reasonable discussion and common ground. And that is a location that we all need to visit more often.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to listen as best he can. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at Glancing Askance , as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

No comments: