Powered by RedCircle
Ep 1 – “Costly Grace” with Rev. Rob Schenck
Welcome to the first episode of Reconciliation Roundtable, a new podcast where we discuss building bridges of understanding across religious and political difference.
This week I had the chance to talk with a friend and collaborator, Reverend Rob Schenck, about his path to God and what he calls his journey of “three conversions,” from childhood Jewish roots to Christianity, from a pure faith to a highly politicized one, and from a radical role in the religious right to an epiphany that caused him to return to the simple Gospel that first drew him to Christianity.
You’ll learn about the transformations that led Rob on his remarkable journey from the epicenter of the religious right to becoming the reluctant subject of an Emmy-award-winning documentary to his rise as a highly regarded public theologian known for his open and accessible style. To hear more of Rob’s story and journey of transformation, you can read his memoir Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love (Harper Collins, 2018).
Guest Website/Social Media:
If you enjoy this podcast and would like to find more content like this, please visit my website at www.markbeckwith.net, where you can listen to more episodes, read my blog, and sign up to get weekly reflections in your inbox. I also explore the themes of this podcast further in my book, Seeing the Unseen: Beyond Prejudices, Paradigms, and Party Lines(Morehouse Publishing, 2022).
This episode of the Reconciliation Roundtable podcast was edited, mixed, and produced by Luke Overstreet.
[00:00:00] Mark: Welcome to Reconciliation Roundtable, a new podcast where we discuss building bridges of understanding across religious and political difference. I’m your host, mark Beckwith, retired bishop of the Diocese of Newark In the Episcopal Church. There are forces and voices in our increasingly polarized world that want us to view each other and the issues of the day in a binary way: this or that, good or bad. I want to invite you on a journey beyond the safety of our silos and our egos to the soul where we have the opportunity to see things differently. If you enjoy this podcast and would like to find more content like this, please visit my website at www.markbeckwith.net where you can listen to more episodes, read my weekly blog, and sign up to get weekly reflections in your inbox. I also explore the themes of this podcast further in my book, “Seeing the Unseen: Beyond Prejudices, Paradigms, and Party Lines.”
[00:01:18] Today I’d like to welcome the Reverend Rob Schenck. For decades, Rob has been an activist in the evangelical Christian movement, most prominently the anti-abortion movement. Years ago, he had a reconfiguring of his faith and his theology and has come to see things in a different light, which we will talk about in our time today. He is featured in the Emmy Award winning documentary, The Armor of Light. He is the author of Costly Grace, a memoir of his three conversions, which we will talk about today. It is my honor and pleasure to introduce my friend and colleague, the Reverend Dr. Rob Schenck.
[00:02:00] Rob, I want to welcome you and thank you for your willingness to be part of this Reconciliation Round Table.
In the course of our time together I want to explore with you, where you started and how you’ve gotten to where you are now, spiritually particularly, but in every other facet of your life. And I’ll start having read your book Costly Grace, and so I have a deeper understanding of your journey. You were raised initially in a Jewish household or partly Jewish household that was part of your framework and in your teens, mid late teens, you became a Christian.
Can you speak to that? What was the motivation? What was opening, your heart, your mind to a new way of looking at the world and your relationship to God in that world?
[00:02:49] Rob: Sure. Happy to do that. Mark, thank you for the invitation. Thank you for the good you do. Thank you for your friendship to me, initially at a very lonely time because I walked a very lonely road moving from the very conservative religious world for most of my adult life a more moderate place.
[00:03:11] And we found each other in that early stage of my journey. Thank you for being there as a companion for me. You know, my, my upbringing religiously was complicated because my father was born Jewish, and raised, in what was then called the temple in reformed Judaism. That’s not quite in fashion these days.
[00:03:35] You hear it more as synagogue. but then met my mother in his late twenties. And my mother was not Jewish. They fell in love. He proposed, she accepted, and his family rejected that, engagement and said initially that they would, boycott the wedding because he was marrying outside the Jewish faith. He carried that pain all through his life and transmitted it somewhat to his four children. However, they came to some kind of reconciliation along his engagement journey. And his family did support the marriage, but it was predicated somewhat on a promise that my mother would convert to Judaism, which she ultimately did, and a promise that the children would be raised Jewish. And we were, at least with some Jewish identity. Although my father was a very liberally minded man, culturally, religiously, politically, and all during my upbringing, he reinforced with all four of his children that we were free to explore the world and make our own decisions in every way, including religiously. And as I got older my dad encouraged all the kids to go out and essentially shop for a religion that was comfortable for them. And I took that spirit into my teens and started exploring different. religious traditions. Read the Bhagavad Gita by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada when I was about 14, or at least some parts of it, not the entirety of it, and explored Hindu religion and other faiths.
[00:05:22] And then met the son of a Methodist minister who introduced me to the Jesus of the sermon on the mount who blessed the poor and the marginalized and the oppressed. and I found that very appealing and eventually responded to a public invitation extended by a British Methodist evangelist named Peter Bowl, who came to our little country church in Tiny Grand Island, New York, which in case mark you’re ever playing a trivia game is the largest freshwater island in the United States. It’s between the US and Canada. It’s where I was raised and my heart, as the founder of Methodism, John Wesley once said, my heart was strangely warmed and I made a public profession of faith in that little evangelical United Methodist church, which was an important distinction.
[00:06:16] Rob: And I would embrace the evangelical Christian faith and pursue it for virtually my entire adult life. So I don’t know, maybe I’ll take a pause there because I know the story goes on, but you may have, you know, questions about that?
[00:06:32] Mark: Well, and you gave yourself over to Jesus and became part of the Christian family. And that raised some challenges, I think, with your father who was encouraging you to explore different religious traditions, but perhaps not this one? And you engaged in that and you went to Bible school and really put your heart’s soul and mind into learning and living into the Christian faith as you were receiving it. And that was very important to you. And you met your wife Cheryl, through this process. You got married at a relatively early age.
[00:07:11] Rob: Real early.
[00:07:13] Mark: And then as you were living into this faith, it was coterminous with the growing anti-abortion movement and that became a significant part of your life.
Can you describe how that move, that shift happened, into this activist presentation that you began to live out?
[00:07:34] Rob: Yeah, you’re right. I became a passionate, born again Christian. Felt a call to serve in ministry early on. We had a kind of rule back then, which was based on a biblical text, that “it’s better to marry than burn” and I was certainly in love with the girl I met at that church, Cheryl. We were married at age 18, and that was to be safe, that we didn’t violate the morays of our new faith, and that our intimacy was kosher, so to speak.
[00:08:10] That was the way we lived out our faith in those days. We went to Bible college together and I would eventually be ordained as the youngest member of my ordination class, which was at age 21, and immediately went into ministry.
[00:08:30] By the late 1980s, there was a growing movement among evangelicals in the anti-abortion pro-life arena. And I was swept into that and became a leader in what was called then Operation Rescue. And it included a very demonstrative form of opposition to abortion.
[00:08:53] Mark: What was the invitation, Rob, to become so passionately involved in this ministry: Operation Rescue? What was the energy around that? The sense of invitation?
[00:09:06] Rob: Well, by then my identical twin brother Paul had taken the same path I did. We always did as twins. We were a mirror image of each other, literally and figuratively. And my brother was then the pastor of quite a large evangelical congregation in our hometown, and a couple of members came to him and made him aware of an abortion provider that was adjacent to their house. It was a clinic, and they were very distressed about that. He took on that cause of opposition to the presence of that clinic, in our community, and eventually urged me to get involved.
[00:09:50] He said, “this is the new civil rights struggle of our time. The pre-born (in those days we used language like the child in the womb) is the least empowered member the human community and you need to advocate and champion their rights.” And he eventually convinced me to volunteer for a protest that included using my body to block the door of that clinic so that no one could access it.
[00:10:21] I was arrested. And from that point on, I got deeply involved and eventually I ascended to national leadership in that movement, and I would spend about 20 years there. It would eventually take me to Washington DC where I built my own organization that would eventually stand for what we said was the defense of life in the womb.
[00:10:49] We were anti-abortion. We were pro traditional marriage, which meant, in our belief system, marriage was reserved for one man and one woman for lifelong monogamous commitment. And for religious freedom, including the public display of religious symbols, the 10 Commandments crosses in public, spaces, signs and monikers and slogans and so forth in public view, including public prayers in places like schools, and government settings.
[00:11:24] So these were the things I advocated for and I would spend an additional, 10 years on Capitol Hill. I had a headquarters building across the street from the Supreme Court. I had a little spiel back then. I’d say “We’re across the street from the Supreme Court, a minute from the US Capitol, and 10 minutes from the White House – we’re right in the center of the action.”
[00:11:44] And many people rewarded me for that. We had 50,000 individual financial contributors, donors spread across the United States. We had hundreds of churches that supported our efforts. And I was out speaking to thousands of people every year, tens of thousands actually, in churches, conferences, conventions, rallies, and so forth.
[00:12:08] Mark: And at one point, in your book you describe speaking to the President at the National Cathedral on Christmas Eve, going up to communion saying something to the President, which caught the attention of the Secret Service. So you were consistent and passionate and willing to take risks that put your own, wellbeing or your freedom in jeopardy. So that was just a part and parcel of who you were for these many years.
[00:12:34] Rob: Yes. Yeah, I question the wisdom of some of that now, at this stage of life. I’m 64. I look back and, I believed everything I was doing. I was never a cynic. I was never, you know, a charlatan. I believed very passionately in what I was doing, and I was willing to pay the price for it, including civil disobedience.
[00:12:57] I was arrested jail numerous times. I was sued. And then I was restricted from entrance into some security zones. Even in Washington DC, it became a problem for me to visit the White House because of my protest arrests. I got in, but it wasn’t easy. So, yeah it came at a cost. I would come to question a lot of that and really to change course late in life, largely because I realized that not everything we were doing was based on moral or religious, spiritual convictions. Some of it, a lot of it over time, became politically motivated, and that would lead to a very big shift in my understanding of what I was doing and what the larger movement was doing.
[00:13:51] Mark: Can you describe that stirring, that’s my word for this shift, and what were some of the experiences or people or circumstances that began to move you from being this passionate, consistent, anti-abortion person to having a more moderate view?
[00:14:10] Rob: Well, along the way, even early on, as early as the mid 1990s, I was troubled by the fact that some of my colleagues in the movement started mimicking nationally known, socially conservative and politically conservative leaders among them. For example: a famous or infamous, depending on how you view him, Rush Limbaugh, who had a three hour national AM radio show that became very quickly the most popular radio show in the United States. And he carried an enormous amount of clout. Some people may remember that President Trump, when he was in office, gave the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh shortly before he died of cancer. And Rush Limbaugh was a juggernaut all of his own, on the, you know, conservative side of the political spectrum.
[00:15:09] And suddenly we started mimicking using his language of contempt, of denunciation, of outrage. And you know, the movement I had joined was originally… we had to actually sign a pledge that we would always be peaceful and non-violent in word and deed.
[00:15:34] So it wasn’t just our actions, but our language. And our language over time became more caustic. More menacing, even. In some ways could be interpreted as threatening to certain people and groups. There were wanted posters that started showing up with the faces of abortion providers and physicians on them, sometimes with a target drawn on their faces. A certain number of national leaders in the anti-abortion movement started showing up at events armed with weapons. And that deeply troubled me. But I wish I could say I was just as courageous as I had been suffering arrest in challenging that. I would gently challenge it, but it would be dismissed.
[00:16:24] Mark: So in your book, Rob, you describe some of these reflections of “is really this the right way to go?” Several times you indicated that, despite your reservations, you redoubled your commitment to the work that you did. But at some point that shifted. Was there a moment, a series of moments, that opened your perspective in a different way so that when you woke up in the morning decided, “I’m not going to continue the way I was, I’m going to try a different way.” How did you describe that transition?
[00:16:56] Rob: Yeah. There were times like that, a couple in particular. I was in Alabama. I was involved in protest activity there. I was arrested and they threw me in the Montgomery city jail in Montgomery, Alabama. And, because the jail was overpopulated, I ended up on the psychiatric ward. And what was unusual about that besides, you know, the deeply troubled, souls who were there, folks who were clearly mentally ill and should not have been in jail cells, but were, it was the fact that wing of the jail was co-ed.
[00:17:36] There were men and women. On the same cell block in individual cells, but nonetheless next to each other. And there was a woman that was just maybe three cells from mine who was screaming in distress the whole time I was there. It was almost blood curdling screams. And she was yelling for somebody to come to the care of her children.
[00:17:58] She said, “I have three babies.” And she screamed and said, “Who’s with my children? I’m here. Where are my kids? Where are my children? Who’s taking care of my children?” And no one ever came to her aid. Not a single soul, not even an officer, you know.
[00:18:14] I mean, just her distress itself was troubling enough, but what entered my mind was, in the movement I was a part of, which was overwhelmingly white, only ever a few faces of color among our numbers, and our numbers would often climb into the thousands at any event. And you know, in my imagination, when a woman cried out in distress like that, especially if she was pregnant and considering abortion, a flurry of people would come to her aid.
[00:18:48] All kinds of volunteers. Usually they, you know, in our artistic renderings of that, they would be rosy cheeked white women with their own children. And they would come to the aid of a woman in distress and say, you know, “We will bring you baby supplies, we’ll pay for medical care. We will provide free childcare for you. Don’t worry about anything.” But no such people came to this woman’s aid and I knew no one ever would. I could see that.
[00:19:19] And that, that shook me. It shook my imaginative view of the world I had created in my own mind. But that did not exist for this woman. There was no help for her or her babies. And that bothered me but I learned to put those things on a mental shelf and I did.
[00:19:39] And it would be years later when another encounter, this time with a woman on the opposite end of the social spectrum from that woman in the jail, when I was working on a film project with Abigail Disney, and she’s been public about this, so I’m not telling any secrets here. She’s a world class filmmaker.
[00:20:01] Yes. You know, a descendant of the famous Disney family that built the Disney Empire, and a philanthropist, and a woman’s rights activist. During our couple of years of work together on a film, she said to me one day, I think you need to know about my own abortion experience. And she told me how, as a young woman, she found herself pregnant and realizing she had no capacity to mother a child.
[00:20:33] She didn’t even know what the implications of that would be. And, in that quandary of what will I do? How can I do that? She made the best decision she could, and she said, in the circumstances I was in, there was no other option. And I chose to abort that pregnancy. and as she laid that out in far greater detail than I just rehearsed it, I realized I will never be in her position. I will never be pregnant, and I will certainly never be pregnant under the circumstances she faced or the woman in the jail in Montgomery faced. And those things caused me to start thinking differently. And I realized our movement was built on very simplistic presuppositions about people, about the world they inhabit, about their options and so you know, what I realized, mark, was, I had spent a lot of years demanding that people leave their reality and enter my fantasy. as a minister, especially as a Christian minister, I came to realize over too long a period that my task was to leave my fantasy and enter others’ reality and be with them in their real world and not demand of them that they leave that real world and live my fantasy. That to me is self justification. It’s not emptying myself for the betterment of the other, for the sake of the other. I had to come to a kind of conversion experience. In fact, really I look at my journey as marked by three conversions. My first conversion to that Jesus of the sermon on the mount, who blessed the peacemakers. The second conversion was to a politicized religion that I now call Ronald Reagan, Republican Religion. And it’s distinctly different from Christianity. And then finally, with the help of the writings of a very brave, young German church leader, who was one of the first to challenge Adolf Hitler in fascism in Germany and would lose his life, would be hanged for it at age 39, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who talked about living our Christian faith in the real world with real people who face real circumstances and not take flights of fancy into an imaginative world.
[00:23:15] Mark: As you’re saying that, I’m thinking of something that a spiritual director said to me several years ago that has always stuck with me. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. And as you’re talking about, your work, in the anti-abortion movement, I’m hearing that it was framed in certainty a different reality as you describe it, but it was certain, and then through these encounters, one in the jail and one with the producer who you worked with to produce the Armor of Light, this wonderful documentary, that certainty began to unravel or to crack or to fracture, and you’re brought into the reality of where people are living.
[00:24:00] Rob: Yeah. And that certainty, I think you said, exactly. And sometimes I refer to it as certitude, and it’s not a virtue. It’s a vice, because it’s a shortcut. Walking with people through the complexities of their real suffering and their real pain and their real quandaries is hard work. It’s very hard and it’s very demanding on us, but to just pronounce certainties, “That’s not the way it is. This is the way it should be. This is the way it must be, and get with the program” – that shortcuts all that hard work.
[00:24:35] We don’t have to engage in it. Walking with people through their realities and living our own reality, it requires a lot of us. It demands a lot from us sometimes the pain of just sitting in uncertainty and in a quandary and not having the answers to fix our own problems or fix somebody else’s problems in an instant.
[00:24:58] That’s hard, that’s difficult and painful. And the easier way is just to pronounce a fantastical solution. for me that became too much saying, you know, God will take care of that. Don’t worry about that. God will take care of that. Well, that’s a little glib and often it doesn’t happen.
[00:25:17] Mark: Well, As you enter into the reality of other people’s lives and are willing to walk alongside, it seems to me that at the same time you are, embracing or at least willing to enter not only the mystery of life, but the mystery of God. That the dimension of God’s work, the Spirit, Jesus, all of that is much more, deeply layered than it sounds like how you had experienced it before.
[00:25:47] Rob: Yes. And you know, as I look back over those years, and I wasn’t involved in, you know, The anti-abortion movement exclusively. I was doing a lot of other things in those years. I was mostly known for that because it grabbed all the headlines and all the news footage and so on. But in the background, I was doing other work and one thing I gave many years to was, assisting in a Christian humanitarian outreach in Mexico, the people who lived in the inhabited dumps in and around Mexico City. There were some of the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. They were in a form of bondage, a kind of indentured servitude where they worked for the operators of these massive waste processing facilities, which were really quite primitive.
[00:26:40] But you know, they lived literally in, on and off, massive piles of refuse. And I did a lot of work down there. We would recruit, train, and deploy volunteer, medical, dental, health and hygiene workers. We built clinics and schools for those precious people. I fell in love with them. It got to a point where even today when I pass a putrid dumpster on a hot summer day it actually warms my heart because it reminds me of these precious people I just fell in love with. And that’s what they lived in continuously. And you know, the question was often “why does God allow people to suffer like this?” And I tried to answer that question many times but realized it’s not helpful to try to answer that question. it reminds me a little bit of the question that was put to Jesus when he was asked why a certain man was born blind.
[00:27:40] And he said, that’s not the question. Basically, I’m paraphrasing, but the question is, “how can we help this man?” That’s the question, not the other. And so, I struggled with that, but we couldn’t say that publicly, especially from the pulpits I preached in. That was not an acceptable response. You had to have a tidy answer to that. And I struggled with that through the years. So, you know, in some ways my late in life conversion helped me to really live authentically instead of hiding these things and repressing them and having a secret life of doubt and wonder. I could verbalize that. So it was a wonderful gift, a liberating gift to me.
[00:28:29] I remain an evangelical, I’m still an Evangelical Christian. I’m still an evangelical minister. I remain certain about certain things, but very uncertain about a whole lot of things.
[00:28:41] Mark: Well, and you’ve wrestled with a lot of different issues, over the course of time and, most recently, you wrestled with whether or not you should make mention of the fact that, as it was revealed that there was a leak before the Dobbs decision by the Supreme Court. You had experience of a leak, some eight, nine years before that, and you wrote to the Chief Justice John Roberts about that.
Can you describe what was the impetus for you writing that letter? and the struggle that you went through to get to that?
[00:29:16] Rob: Sure. well, you know, this is illustrative of how politicized I became, and the movement I was a part of became, because, in that politicization of our otherwise faith-driven movements, we found all kinds of ways justify what were ethically questionable activities, at least ethically questionable.
[00:29:44] And one was a surreptitious mission that I ran at the United States Supreme Court. I mentioned that our headquarters building was literally across the street from the Supreme Court. And I ended up spending a lot of time there and befriended some of the people who worked in the Supreme Court and around the justices and for nearly 20 years.
[00:30:05] I directed what we called “a stealth missionary enterprise” under the moniker, Operation Hire Court. You get the play on words there, in which I recruited and deployed wealthy couples who befriended the conservative members of the Supreme Court, who we knew already supported our anti-abortion positions and our anti LGBTQ rights positions and our interpretation of religious liberty. And they, you know, showed generous hospitality to these members of the court, befriended them. And in that way gained both influence and certainly access of course, but influence and the confidence of those particular justices on the court. Again, all conservatives, I didn’t engage with the liberals beyond, you know, congenial greetings.
[00:31:02] But, as a result of that, one of my wealthy donor couples had dinner with Justice Alito and his wife. And somewhere in that conversation the information was divulged, which was highly secretive. And that was that a case we were very interested in called the Hobby Lobby case, where these evangelical owners of a multi-billion dollar company, they were demanding the right to deny their employees, I think it was something like 1100 or 1300 employees, reproductive healthcare as part of their health insurance package. And they were suing the US government over this, specifically the Obama administration at the time. And we were hanging on that decision. We saw a victory by Hobby Lobby and their owners, the Green family, as a massive victory for our cause.
[00:32:01] And everybody, including the President at that time, was awaiting the decision. And then, people who don’t study the court probably wouldn’t know that you never know when a decision is going to be announced by the court. There’s no warning given. One day the justices are seated on the bench in the opulent chamber of the court, and the chief justice will announce “Today we have a decision in the matter of…” and they’ll announce the case and then the author of that opinion will read a summary of it.
[00:32:32] That’s the first time anyone, including the President of the United States, the leaders of Congress, know what the court has decided and the consequences of it. Well, I learned nearly a month out as a result of this conversation that my stealth missionaries had. I learned of that decision.
[00:32:49] Mark: Meaning a month before the formal release?
[00:32:52] Rob: A month before the court publicly announced that decision. And that gives the parties, especially the prevailing party, the party who wins the case, a great advantage over their opponents because they can launch a publicity campaign. They can base enormously consequential business decisions on what they know.
[00:33:14] And I eventually tipped off the CEO of Hobby Lobby about the decision, in advance. It turned out to be the night before. No one knew for certain that the next day would be it. Nobody ever knows that. But even that much time is an advantage. But I used it. And of course, I never disclosed any of this.
[00:33:33] I kept it top secret myself. I didn’t even tell my most intimate circle of colleagues. I did tell my wife and my twin brother and my other siblings because I was like a little boy, I couldn’t keep a secret completely. I had to spill it to somebody. But was very careful because I knew the magnitude of it. I knew how controversial that would be. I knew how compromising it would be to the court, and I knew what an advantage it was for me and for people in my movement.
[00:34:05] Mark: You also knew that you would get, which has happened, enormous pushback from people who didn’t want you to disclose this and you wrestled with that and decided to do it anyway.
[00:34:18] Rob: I did. And I thought for more than a few reasons. One, because frankly, I thought that kind of activity, not just the leak, but what led up to the leak, this befriending of the justices, and really in many ways rewarding them for the positions they were taking by lavishing them with hospitality and accolades and all the rest.
[00:34:43] And there’s a whole story behind that and much too complex to go into. I will say that most of the justices complain that they are not properly compensated for the work that they do. So when they’re invited to, you know, luxurious, accommodations and, you know, expensive meals in high-end restaurants and private clubs, it’s a kind of reward.
[00:35:07] Rob: And so I thought what we were doing, certainly Pushed the boundaries of propriety ethics, and so forth. That’s certainly not in the interest of equal justice under law for all parties because in this case, the wealthy gain access to the court system that nobody else has.
[00:35:28] So I thought it’s important, but then I also knew that once the anti-abortion Dobbs decision was leaked, some underling in the court, I knew how by then I had spent 20 years deep inside, the recesses of the court and I knew how it operates and I knew some low level employee was going to be blamed for that, would have to take the hit for that and likely have their entire career ruined, probably lose their livelihood. And [00:36:00] their chance for being employed in the judicial system ever again. I knew something bad was going to happen and that the chief justice should know that one of his own colleagues, had done the very thing that no doubt some underling was going to have to pay dearly for, and a justice would not ever pay, any consequence for that there in Europe, there’s no ethics code, there’s no authority over the court. Each and every justice is an end in themselves. So I thought it was in the best interests of justice, best interests, of the court itself, certainly in the best interests of the American people, but I wanted initially to keep it private. And then the leak that I was talking about leaked, into the media. And that led me, well, actually it led the Congress to inquire about it. And I was asked to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, as you well know, because Mark, you were kind enough to be there present with me during that ordeal. And it was quite an ordeal. So it wasn’t my decision to go public.
[00:37:09] I had initially hoped to keep it private between me and the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts. He never responded to me, never even acknowledged my letter to him. Then the Congress inquired and said they, they would like me to cooperate, and I eventually did.
[00:37:26] Mark: And you did and you invited me to, sit there with you, which was my honor to do. And, it was, let’s say a fraught engagement, with the people who were challenging you. Questioning your integrity, questioning your truthfulness. And during that process, you’ve talked about this with me before. Tell me sort of spiritual energy or lack of same you were experiencing, as you were going through all of this.
[00:37:55] Rob: Yeah, well, it was multiple layers. first, you know, as I said, [00:38:00] I had hoped to keep this private. So the fact that we were going public, and not just public, but very public, when you appear before a congressional committee, it’s the ultimate. Public disclosure it becomes part of the annals of history of the United States. So that alone, just the exposure of it, I had spent 20 years of my life keeping this secret, protecting it. We had all kinds of codified language, encrypted communications, you know, that alone disconcerting. So, I had that, that I was dealing with. I knew that some of the people I had worked with supported, you know, some of whom were innocent.
[00:38:49] You know, that they may have assisted me in the work I was doing at the Supreme Court, but. They had no nefarious intentions. You know, they, there was no malfeasance on their part. You know, they had good intentions and I worried about the consequences, for them. So, you know, there were innocent people who were exposed in this, and, you know, I didn’t want to complicate their lives or certainly their careers.
[00:39:17] So I had that. Then, just the fact that some of the people I had campaigned for over the years on the Republican side, people I had written talking points for people I had literally prayed with in their offices. I knew were going to call me a liar. were going to say, you know, that I was a defector, a traitor, that I’d gone to the dark side, you know, with the liberal socialist Democrats and all the rest.
[00:39:50] And that’s an unpleasant experience for many reasons. and yet at the same time, I have to say, I felt in the end [00:40:00] when I sat at the witness table, you were behind me, Cheryl, my wife, 45 years was behind me. I mean, literally sitting behind me. there was a wonderful colleague, friend, and I call sister in the Lord, a fellow Christian Lucy McBath, congresswoman from Georgia, who had worked with me in that film you mentioned “The Armor of Light” before she was elected to Congress. She was up on the day as, as part of the Judiciary Committee. She was like an angel, literally, there.
[00:40:32] But beyond all that comfort, I felt a wonderful inner peace about what I was doing. First, I was engaging in truth telling. And as a Christian, you know, I understand that now, re-understand that to be a follower of Christ and emulating as much as I can (it’s a pretty poor imitation), but the life and ministry and message of Jesus, and Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life, and I do believe truth is an attribute of God.
[00:41:11] Rob: It’s one of the character qualities of Jesus, one of the most important. So by simply telling the truth, regardless of how… I understand what you have to be responsible, and I think I was as much as I could be. I mean, truth just for the sake of truth, especially if it harms or embarrasses others, you know, is not necessarily a healthy exercise. But truth telling in the setting we were in, I thought was extremely important. And that it reflected that attribute of God and that gave me a great peace. So I really did feel the presence of God in that moment. It didn’t make it any easier.
[00:41:59] Rob: It was a very difficult ordeal. But at the same time I had a contentedness and a great inner peace about it. And I’d say God was present in that moment.
[00:42:14] Mark: Well, I appreciate the challenge and the courage and the witness that you made, and as we wind up this very moving conversation, let me ask you, where do you find hope?
[00:42:31] Rob: I guess for all my pessimistic theology, which includes the sinfulness of human kind, you know, our need for a savior. I’m not quite as apocalyptic as I used to be in my early days, but, you know, the world is filled with cataclysms now and there will be more. Notwithstanding all of that, I’m an optimist about humanity and I do think, you know, my father was big supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, and he made sure we always knew where Dr. King, or he called him Reverend King was speaking or preaching or what he was saying and doing. And, you know, King had that beautiful aphorism that “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.” And I do think we bend that way as a human species.
[00:43:26] I would argue the world is far more just now than it was 200 years ago than it was 2000 years ago maybe, than it was 200,000 years ago or 2 million years ago. However you’d date it. And I know I just got in trouble with my fundamentalist friends, but anyway, what’s new? But you know, no matter how old humanity is I think we’re more just and kind as a whole. There are lots of exceptions, distressing exceptions to that conclusion.
[00:43:58] Mark: Sure.
[00:43:59] Rob: I’m optimistic. I think the more we speak truth and justice, the more we live it, the better the world gets. Even if only by a tiny measure. But it does get a little better. And I even thought that day, mark, you were there with me in that crucible, that was the hearing, at the judiciary committee. And even then I looked at some of the most oppositional voices, some who were downright insulting and yet I, there were times I thought they were sitting with the truth and struggling with it in their own minds. I know some of them, I know some of them quite well.
[00:44:40] And you know, you and I are both members of the clergy. We learn how to read people. And I thought I was reading a couple of times, you know, they were struggling because they know what the truth likely is, but they had a script that they had to read. So even in those moments, I see hope.
[00:45:00] It’s like, if somebody has to take a pause for a minute and reflect, that’s a sign that maybe it will be years, but they may come to a different conclusion and I, that leaves me feeling hopeful.
[00:45:14] Mark: Well, throughout your 64 years, you have pursued truth as you received it, and you’ve shifted several times as you describe, you’ve had several conversions. That says to me that you’re open to your heart being changed, your horizons expanding, your life taking a different turn. You mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and we didn’t have a chance to talk about him, but clearly he’s such a, a seminal figure, not just for you, but for so many as you’ve described to me, he is one that, people, in the Christian world on both sides, and those divisions become more and more sharply drawn, he is someone who can bring both sides together and you’ve been endeavoring to do that. And I want to thank you for this time together, but also for your willingness to be vulnerable, to share truth, and to share your faith.
[00:46:19] And this is just an enormous gift as we continue to work, together, in the many ways that we do, particularly around the area of reducing gun violence, but also to build bridges across these divides and to speak to God’s truth. So, I want to thank you, Rob, for your time and for your witness and for our friendship.
[00:46:42] Rob: Thank you, Mark.
[00:46:43] Mark: You’re the author of recently published book, Costly Grace. How can people get ahold of it and how do they keep up to date with, the things that you’re writing, you’re speaking, you’re thinking about?
[00:46:55] Rob: Sure. Well, thank you for asking Mark and anyone who knows Bonhoeffer knows that I poached the title from Bonhoeffer’s phrase, Costly Grace which is subtitled “An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love,” and that alludes to that late in life last conversion of mine, it’s probably not the last one, but it was the most recent.
[00:47:19] And so they can certainly get ahold of the book wherever anyone prefers to buy their books. It’s widely available, published by Harper Collins. Then I blog at revrobshenck.com. And you know, this season of my life I call myself a penitent pilgrim, trying to do the work of repair and I have a lot of lovely people, I work alongside of, including you, Mark Beckwith. So thank you for that.
[00:47:49] Mark: Thank you, Rob. And each of us in our own way, but together are trying to do what we can to build a bridge across difference, particularly in the Christian world, where we all, at some deep level follow the teaching and journey of Christ.
[00:48:08] But often that is polarized in a way that we’re seeking to try reconcile that in a deeper way.
[00:48:15] Mark: Thank you for listening to this episode of Reconciliation Roundtable
If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform, and visit markbeckwith.net to stay up to date with new episodes, blog content, and other news.
Please, if you could, rate and review this podcast on iTunes. It helps new listeners to find us.
Copyright © 2023 Mark Beckwith. All rights reserved. Contact for questions involving permission to use portions of the audio or transcript elsewhere.
Transcripts are created with the assistance of automatic tools. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of this podcast is the audio record.