Voice of Russia radio called for an interview. The call was as unexpected as the topic which interested the radio network.
I initially thought the caller wanted to talk about what a Baptist was, since Russia had military operations in Crimea and deepening tensions with Ukraine, where the new interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, was being widely identified as a Baptist elder at the Word of Life Center in Kiev, which belongs to the Baptist Union of Ukraine.
Instead, Voice of Russia wanted to know about a “faith and firearms” event scheduled last week at a Baptist church in Paducah, Ky., where 25 guns were being given away in an effort to attract members.
Having earlier read a news clipping about this event, I had begun mulling over an editorial on Christianity and hunting.
I had even asked for some moral reflection on the issue from two well-respected Baptist leaders, known for their marksmanship and hunting.
But first some background.
Lone Oak First Baptist Church sponsored on March 6 a “2nd Amendment Celebration & Dinner” featuring Chuck McAlister, the head of evangelism for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, who speaks forcefully about the right to bear arms.
“Our nation’s founders provided for our freedom to worship as we choose and our freedom to protect and provide for ourselves and our families,” reported the church website.
“The Second Amendment Celebration (formerly Beast Feast) recognizes the rights and responsibilities of those freedoms while celebrating both through appreciation of the outdoors and God’s provisions with the purpose to point people to Christ,” it said.
The church promised 1,000 steak dinners and wild-game samplers with a giveaway of 25 handguns and shotguns, underscoring the need for winners to pass background checks and other legal requirements.
I told Voice of Russia that no conflict existed theologically between Christianity and hunting.
Hosting “wild-game meals” has been a long-standing custom in many rural churches as a time for fellowship and outreach when members celebrated God’s bounty, I said.
I added that when so-called “beast feasts” shifted from celebrating God’s bounty from hunting to the Second Amendment, then the tradition breaks down.
The event shifts from God’s blessing to political posturing. The event runs the risk of being politicized, pitting gun-control advocates of faith against anti-gun control advocates of faith. That’s divisive and counter-productive.
Two well-known Baptist educators had earlier shared their thoughts with me on the subject.
I think their thoughts bring moral clarity to a custom that the anti-gun, anti-hunting, and dare one say often anti-Christian crowd finds repulsive.
And their moral critique might also sharpen the thinking of Christian hunters and churches that host wild-game banquets.
Bill Tillman, a senior Baptist ethicist, shared that he grew up in rural Oklahoma, where his father and grandfather were hunters. They taught him hunting skills and gun safety.
“I have watched the cultural conversation change in regard to the place of guns in culture,” Tillman wrote. “Debates infinitum reign in regard to how the Second Amendment should be interpreted.”
“In the process, an obsession over gun ownership has evolved even to the point I would identify the phenomenon as a religious practice with guns as the centerpiece of the idolatry afoot,” said Tillman, director of the Theological Education Division of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, warning of the danger of civil religion.
Across the country in Virginia, Mike Harton shared that “guns have been a part of my family culture for generations (my grandfather was a gunsmith and I still hunt with my great-grandfather’s shotgun).”
Recalling that church beast feasts were fun events where “guns were rarely discussed, and never displayed,” Harton said, “renaming beast feasts to Second Amendment rallies baffles me and completely shifts the focus of the event.”
A former staff member with the Baptist General Association of Virginia, he said, “I would never think of taking one of my guns (long gun or handgun) to church for any reason.”
He added, “To do so would be to carry an idol into the house of God. And to me, those promoting the Second Amendment at church are promoting idol worship in God’s house.”
Harton is a former Baptist Center for Ethics board member.
With full disclosure, I, too, grew up in a hunting family. I recall with great pleasure hunting dove, deer and squirrels with my grandfather outside of Jacksonville, Fla.
Nothing gave me more pleasure growing up in Nigeria than hunting, including trips with my father for bush fowl, guinea fowl, antelopes and bush pigs.
From my perspective, the Lone Oak story is not really about hunting and gun giveaways. It’s really about two more important issues for Christians.
One is whether guns – the obsession with guns – become a rival god to the one true God.
We readily acknowledge that money and material possessions may tempt believers to abandon the faith or be less than faithful.
The same holds true within the obsessive gun culture where more faith is placed in firearms than God. This is, of course, idolatry.
The other issue concerns the church itself. That is, using houses of faith for political purposes.
As God transcends political parties and expects religious leaders to speak morally without claiming the divine favor on one party, so, too, does God transcend the gun-control and anti-gun control factions.
God expects faith leaders to address the gun issue with discernment and to seek to advance the common good without anointing one position as the divine position.
Mixing faith and politics is always dangerous. And more often than not, when the two are mixed, faith gets cooked down.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.