Martin Sheen's Spiritual Activism

I was a student at Fordham when Martin Sheen came to screen 1983’s In the King of Prussia, a hastily and inexpensively produced “film” shot on video about the Ploughshares Eight. A friend active in social-justice issues, knowing I was a fan of Sheen for his performances in Badlands and Apocalypse Now, encouraged me to attend the daytime event. Certainly the organizers must have been counting at least a little bit on Sheen’s celebrity appeal, but as I recall the screening was lightly attended. As for the film—well, Sheen’s performance as a judge in the re-enacted trial of the group that entered a General Electric plant in 1980 and damaged nosecones designed for nuclear warheads doesn’t quite match the work he did for Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola. That said, the appearances in the film of Molly Rush, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and the rest of the Ploughshares Eight did leave an impression. So did Sheen’s evident interest in social justice and other issues—which my mere fandom at the time had not previously admitted the possibility of.

Though still more partial to Sheen as Kit Caruthers and Capt. Benjamin Willard than as Jed (The West Wing) Bartlet or Thomas (The Way) Avery, I’ve since continued to follow his faith-driven activism. It’s what prompted me to catch up with his appearance last week on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. Now, I’m not much for Tippet’s style of interviewing, but this wasn’t such a problem with the garrulous Sheen on hand.

He talks about a number of things, among the more interesting: how an institutionally imposed piety turned him off of the Catholic church and how a reawakened understanding of community drew him back (“the single most joyful moment of my life); his Apocalypse-era physical and spiritual crisis and subsequent “rescue” by Malick; and his happily admitted cluelessness about the mystery he experiences at Communion.

Sheen draws a direct line from these to his continued participation in vigils, protests, and marches, and so it’s no surprise when he tells Tippet that the most pressing issue for him right now is the migration crisis. He says it’s vital that the United States welcome “with wide open arms” those fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan—a timely call for action, given the news this week that the number of migrants and refugees entering Europe has topped 1 million for the year and that nearly 4,000 have died making the attempt. (Timely too, given the rhetoric of multiple Republican presidential candidates.)

Sheen also talks about the Berrigan brothers and The Brothers Karamazov, about his heritage and his legal name (which remains Ramón Estévez), and—for the West Wing fans among you—about playing a Catholic president on a popular television series. He does not, however, talk about In the King of Prussia or his appearance at Fordham all those years ago. Still, if you find yourself with fifty minutes or so, and if you’re interested in how this actor-activist views the intersection of his craft, his politics, and his faith, the interview is worth a listen

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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