According to media reports, an Assembly of God congregation in Louisville, Ky., is inviting worshippers to wear their unloaded handguns to worship on June 27 to promote safe gun ownership and freedom. Pastor Ken Pagano of New Bethel Church is quoted as saying, “I believe that without a deep-seeded belief in God and firearms that this country would not be here.”
Ponder for a moment what kind of handgun Jesus would choose were he to attend the service. When one combines Pagano’s view with recent studies showing that a majority of people who regularly attend worship services believe that torture is often or sometimes justified, it is not surprising that the gospel of Jesus Christ has become associated with militaristic imperialism rather than the love and peace of God.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was no stranger to violence. Violence and the threat of violence hounded him throughout his public ministry. King’s home was firebombed, and his family was often threatened. He was stabbed. His followers suffered violence from vigilante groups and experienced government sponsored and sanctioned violence. Eventually, Dr. King was murdered.
Throughout his life, there is no record of Dr. King urging his congregants to wear their unloaded handguns to worship to promote responsible gun safety. Did King not know about the Second Amendment? Did he not understand that the civil rights movement was threatened by dangerous people, and by people who merely harbored dangerous ideas?
I suspect that King understood that gun-packing does not make a society free any more than nuclear-weapon proliferation makes a world safe. The fact that dangerous people exist who will do dangerous and even deadly things is no excuse for contaminating the gospel of God’s love and truth with a Jack Bauer approach to faith. So I suspect that Dr. King never contemplated having a “bring your gun to church Sunday.” He rightly understood that the gospel of Christ calls for “a more excellent way” to affirm freedom than to parade symbols of fear and death around while singing “Have Thine Own Way.”
Essentially, to embrace torture and militarism means that one must surrender to fear. Those who advocate either approach are basically saying that personal freedom and safety is possible only by projecting a robust militarism and willingness to employ violence. Dr. King, like Jesus and Christians who have suffered violent persecution in every age, understood that violence does not make a people more free or safe. It only makes them more fearful and dangerous to themselves and others. Perfect love casts out fear, not perfect marksmanship and powerful weaponry.
On April 4, 1967, Dr. King called for an end to American military involvement in Vietnam in a sermon delivered at Riverside Church in New York City titled “A Time to Break Silence.” In that sermon, King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” His remarks were denounced by editorial writers in such leading papers as the New York Times and Washington Post. A year to the day later, King was murdered in Memphis.
It is ironic that King’s most often quoted words do not come from “A Time to Break Silence.” It is ironic that the nation, which celebrates his birth with a holiday and pays lip service to his nonviolent movement for social change, has yet to take up King’s call for “a true revolution of values” that affirms love of others over love of things and weapons. How odd that a nation that calls the world to suppress the development of nuclear weapons (and what bigger guns can we imagine than those?) leads the world in merchandising death-dealing instruments.
Perhaps it is no more odd or strange—some might even term it twisted—than to affirm that the biblical philosophy of love affirmed most clearly and profoundly in Jesus Christ justifies taking weapons of violence into a shrine supposedly dedicated to following one who is called the Prince of Peace, and who, when he was threatened by armed assailants, gently yet firmly said to a sword-wielding follower, “Put away your sword.”
Mahatma Ghandi once said. “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” When I read about evangelical Christians supporting torture as sometimes or often justifiable and about Pagano’s invitation for worshippers to wear their unloaded handguns to worship God on June 27, I agree with Ghandi. In his love for all people and rejection of the doctrine of “salvation by force,” Ghandi was perhaps a better follower of Jesus than many of us who quote his words in our sermons and hymns, but who have a strangely twisted sense of his heart.
Wendell L. Griffen is a Baptist minister and law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law. He is also owner/CEO of a consulting firm and parliamentarian of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. He lives with his wife in Little Rock, Ark.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.