Sometimes, I have a similar experience as a Christian too…
Yesterday a friend of mine, Mark Perrott, who now lives in the US, visited the First Pentecostal Church in Aberdeen, Mississippi. He had gone along as a visitor for the first time.
Early on in the service, with children of all ages present, the Assistant Pastor got up to announce a competition for the church members. They would be awarding a AR 15 rifle as a prize to whoever manages to invite the most new people to their church this month.
The Pastor happily described the AR15 as a “killing machine” and added that the prize winner would also get 100 rounds of ammunition thrown in too.
Apparently it was not the first time the church had run this kind of competition: the Pastor referred to the fact that there were people now part if the church who had come because of a previous similar promotion. Well, if it works…
As Mark wrote to me:
“Whatever people’s views of gun ownership for hunting, self defense or protection against government, I cannot believe that such weapons being used as a recruiting tool to grow the church. I am at a loss…”
I realise that the ‘right to bear arms’ is a huge political issue and gun ownership is deeply embedded in US culture. Barack Obama recently said his failure to successfully bring in tighter gun control was the biggest regret of his time in office. It is a situation that is completely different to the UK.
It reminded me of Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine about gun violence in the US, where the opening scene takes place in a Bank which is offering a rifle to anyone who opens a new account. As Moore points out, a bank giving away firearms is incongruous enough. But what are we to make of a church which gives away semi-automatic rifles?
Love and compassion?
Along with my friend Mark, I am at a complete loss to understand the thinking which sees no problem in giving vicious weapons as prizes for bringing people to church. After all, it was only a couple of months ago that a gunman killed nine people in a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina. And just last week, there was the horrific shootings in Virginia of a reporter and camera man live on air.
Did not these recent events cause the leaders of First Pentecostal Church to reconsider its prize? Did it not strike anyone at this church as inappropriate?
It’s ironic this is a Church (as you can see above) which features a dove, the Christian symbol of peace, in its logo. On its website, it states:
We are endeavoring to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with love, mercy and compassion (Luke 24:47)
But how does an AR15 rifle represent love, mercy and compassion? How is this consistent with Jesus’ teaching that ‘blessed are the Peacemakers’?
Many people like me simply cannot understand the perspective that refuses to see the connection between such widespread gun ownership and such high rates of gun violence. We are even more baffled when the Church promotes and celebrates gun culture.
If you have 3 minutes, watch this powerful video about a group of activists who opened a gun shop in New York to challenge the idea that owing a gun made you safer:
There has been a positive development in this story because yesterday (Monday 31st August), Mark was in contact with the Pastor of the church, the Rev Ricky Bowen. He told Mark that the church has decided to withdraw the rifle as a prize and wrote:
‘My heart is hurting as I really did not think the promotion all the way through. Your post opened my eyes with an alarming, resounding jolt. I trust you will not judge us by a bad choice of gifting. We really did not even think of it in a negative way until now. I know that must sound foreign to you, however we have had weapons since we were children. That is the way all of us were raised. Thank you for your post. I love the service of Christ. It is my breath, life and hope. The weapon is no longer part of a promotion. May God richly bless you and your business. Your servant in Christ. Ricky Bowen’
In response, Mark (who runs a furniture business) offered to give the church a hand-made coffee table that they could give as an alternative gift. He said he was inspired by the verse in Isaiah 2 which says:
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
This is a good outcome. It is uplifting that Pastor Bowen and his church decided to take such swift action and act in such a gracious way. Perhaps, this episode is an opportunity for the US Church to reflect further on what it can do about gun culture.
This whole story may just be about one weapon amid countless others, but perhaps it can give us hope that change is possible…