Standing in the spot where a German pastor was hanged decades ago for resisting the Nazi regime, the Rev. Robert Schenck experienced a conversion.
Schenck, an Evangelical minister and former anti-abortion activist who now considers the conservative Christian right as a "Ronald Reagan Republican religion," drew inspiration years ago from European theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Nazi resister, who preached ethics and the responsible life and was ultimately executed by Adolf Hilter's regime.
“As I stood there, it was as if the scales were shed from my eyes," Schenck said, referring to his change of heart regarding some of the positions held by conservative evangelicals. "I saw something I had not seen in more than three decades of work. I had been part of a spiritual corruption of the Gospel."
It occurred around the same time the 2015 documentary "The Armor of Light" was released. Schenck is prominently featured in the short film about Evangelicals and gun culture. Today, he serves as president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, D.C., and travels the nation advocating for gun control, using Scripture and Bonhoeffer's teachings to bolster his more moderate arguments.
On Tuesday, standing before several dozen pastors and parishioners from various denominations in Charleston, Schenck raised the question at a Lunch-and-Learn event held by local nonprofit Arm-in-Arm. The topic: Can a community be pro-life (anti-abortion) and pro-gun?
"For me, the gun question in our own culture is a gateway question on Christian ethics," Schenk said at the event, held at All Saints Lutheran Church in Mount Pleasant.
Though mass shootings have impacted houses of worship, Evangelicals are among the most avid supporters of gun rights and most also are against abortion, the Pew Research Center reported.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. encouraged students of the conservative Christian college some years ago to arm themselves, citing the need to protect against violent perpetrators.
But for others, the Evangelical view on abortion and gun rights represents a contradiction where the community calls for life preservation at one stage while life at later stages remains at risk.
"I see an inherent conflict," Schenck said. "I'm not anti-gun. But I do believe whenever someone takes a weapon to himself or herself, they (raise) supreme ethical questions."
Referencing abortion, Schenck said fictional narratives were drawn around ending pregnancies. For example, the claim that every woman seeking an abortion was either being bullied or was selfishly intending to save herself is false, he said.
"It took me some very painful encounters to realize that was not reality at all," the minister said.
Spike Coleman, who pastors St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in West Ashley, said at the event that the anti-abortion and pro-gun views are "hard to fit together."
He pointed to moral injury, the damage that can be done to a shooter's conscience after they've taken a life.
"I think we underestimate the consequences to us emotionally and spiritually when we talk about the gun issue," Coleman said. "Some of the rhetoric is intentionally misleading and we peddle fear."
As the conversation continued, it focused more towards gun violence and other issues within the church.
Schenck recognized that many preachers who advocate for gun ownership aren't malicious. Many want to be able to protect their flock against an intruder, he said. But more has to be discussed about the implications of firearms.
"Have we morally, ethically and emotionally and spiritually prepared those people to kill an 8-year-old child, standing behind the assailant, when the caliber bullet they use passes through the body of the attacker, and strikes and kills the child?" he said. "Have we prepared ourselves as a community? These are the questions I think pastors must struggle with now."
The Rev. Thulie Beresford, a black Lutheran minister, raised issues about race. She pointed to a time when she arrived at a Lutheran church wearing her clergy collar and one of the parishioners thought she was there to ask for food.
Beresford said the Christian church has to be more vocal on issues of race and injustice.
"I'm looking for my white brothers and sisters who will stand up for justice, for even me, as a person of color," she said at the event. "Do I really matter in the Christian church?"
Arm-in-Arm is a grassroots group that starts conversations in churches and elsewhere about firearms. It's leadership said the event was aimed to broaden that conversation.
"Rev. Schenck's work and the Bonhoeffer approach is in line with a central goal of ours — to have people who feel differently discuss the issue of gun violence, to not shy away from a difficult conversation, to engage and together work toward solutions," said Peter Zalka, chairman of Arm-in-Arm.