When I speak with Muslim friends in the United Kingdom, they will often express horror and disbelief at the terrible atrocities they see being done in the name of their faith by extreme Islamists.
Sometimes, I have a similar experience as a Christian, too.
Last Sunday, a friend of mine, Mark Perrott, who now lives in the U.S., 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 an AR-15 rifle as a prize to whoever manages to invite the most new people to their church in September.
The pastor happily described the AR-15 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 of the church who had come because of a previous similar promotion.
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 realize that the “right to bear arms” is a huge political issue and gun ownership is deeply embedded in U.S. culture.
President 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 than in the U.K.
Hearing about the church’s gun giveaway reminded me of Michael Moore’s film, “Bowling for Columbine,” about gun violence in the U.S., 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 semiautomatic rifles?
Along with my friend, Mark, I am at a complete loss to understand the thinking that 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 cameraman 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 church features a dove, the Christian symbol of peace, in its logo. On its website, it says, “We are endeavoring to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with love, mercy and compassion (Luke 24:47).”
How does an AR-15 rifle represent love, mercy and compassion? How is this consistent with Jesus’ teaching that “blessed are the peacemakers”?
Martin Luther King Jr., whose life was ended prematurely by a gun, said, “By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
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.
I am even more baffled when the church promotes and celebrates gun culture.
Thankfully, there has been a positive development in this story because Mark was in contact with Ricky Bowen, pastor of the church.
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.”
Bowen continued, “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,” he said.
In response, Mark, who runs a furniture business in Aberdeen, offered to give the church a handmade coffee table that they could give as an alternative gift.
He said he was inspired by the verse in Isaiah 2:4: “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 U.S. 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.
Jon Kuhrt is executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.