Bring your swords, and guns, to church

Back in my high school days, my family attended a Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas.

Most every Sunday, our minister made the same request before he preached.

“Hold up your swords!” he’d say, and we’d all raise our Bibles to show that we brought them.

I don’t recall him ever asking us to hold up our guns. Of course, that was years before Texas passed a law allowing the carrying of concealed handguns.

In the days since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, we’ve seen a barrage of news stories and social media posts on the gun control issue.

ReligionLink produced a helpful primer on “God and gun control,” with background articles and expert source suggestions for reporters covering the faith-based response to the Connecticut tragedy.

A Religion News Service headline caught my attention today:

Churches under fire for using gun classes as outreach

When I clicked the link, I noticed that the story had an Oklahoma dateline. Since that’s my home state, my interest was piqued even more.

Here’s the top of the story:

PRYOR CREEK, Okla. — Pryor Creek, Okla., is gun country.

Located midway between Tulsa and Siloam Springs, Ark., the town of approximately 8,500 sits in the heart of Oklahoma’s greenbelt. Hunting and fishing are simply part of everyday life in Pryor, as it is known to locals.

Derek Melton is the assistant chief of police in Pryor, as well as senior pastor at Pryor Creek Community Church, a congregation he describes as Baptist, but not Southern Baptist.

Immediately, two things struck me about this story. First, the lede seemed to lack condescension or outrage. That’s not always the case when the national media report on gun-toting folks in the sticks. Second, the writer (or his editor) felt compelled to identify the nature of the church. How many journalists would have put a period after “Pryor Creek Community Church” and left it at that?

Instead, RNS elaborated on the church’s denominational affiliation (or more precisely, its lack thereof) even before getting to the nut graf:

“We follow the 1833 Baptist Confession,” Melton said. “We are an historically evangelical church.”

The confession is better known as the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1833, and there are very few churches around the country that subscribe to it. They answer to no denominational headquarters, no bishop, no overarching authority, except the Holy Spirit as mediated through the congregation.

Pryor Creek Community Church is also one of a few dozen churches around the country that are offering concealed carry certification classes as a way to reach out to non-Christians and attract new members. Melton sees no conflict between being a Christian and possessing weapons.

The story runs only 660 words but gives both gun proponents and critics ample space to express their points of view.

Even better, the critic is allowed to present a nuanced perspective. In other words, his position isn’t totally black or white. There’s a little gray, just like in real life:

Cizik, who was a top official at the National Association of Evangelicals before leaving it and helping form his new group, said he is concerned about churches using weapons training as a means to reach non-Christians.

“I grew up in gun country,” Cizik said. “I am not intrinsically anti-Second Amendment; however, this seems to be an ethically suspect message. The gospel should be’Put your faith in Christ.’ This seems to be’Put your faith in Glock.’”

Cizik said he believes it’s difficult to make a hard and fast judgment about the method, though. He believes gun ownership and even concealed carry permits are matters of personal judgment.

“The church has always used a variety of methods for drawing people in,” he said. “However, I do think that there are plenty of organizations more suitable that could be doing the training.”

For the sake of full disclosure, I recognized the name of the writer whose byline appeared atop this story. I have known Greg Horton for more than a decade. When I served as religion editor for The Oklahoman, he frequently e-mailed me with his critique — positive and negative — of the Saturday religion section and other religion stories that I wrote.

I think I’d still give the church gun story a positive critique even if I didn’t know the writer.

But by all means, GetReligion readers, check it out and weigh in with your journalism-related comments.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • MJBubba

    Tightly-written article gives real information. Thanks for posting. We were joking at our Advent service this evening that church is the safest, most well-defended place in town, since so many of our church ladies are packing. Since our ladies are range buddies, I know that they would love to have a range at the church. Unfortunately, we know we would never be able to obtain a permit for a firing range in our suburban town.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks, MJBubba.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Most of what my wife and I have seen on TV News and cable news today are stories like this which may be well written but–as has become virtually standard in media coverage, –: focusing almost solely on guns. In a short two or 3 days the media– that seems to so love splashing violence around– seems to have begun totally absolving itself (and the blood splatter video game industry) of having had any role to play in horrors like Sandy Hook. They are clearly NOT giving play to their own culpability and are deep-sixing news coverage from this angle. Rupert Murdock came out strongly in favor of stricter gun control. Fine. But I saw no indication of any reporter cross-examining him on the products put out by his media empire. Yet a powerful case can be made (with confirmatory research going back decades) that the media’s use of bloodshed and violence as entertainment is, at least, a co-equal cause of the massacres in our culture.
    In fact, in a number of places in the Bible warnings are given about the harm looking on violence can cause to the viewer. So, even if one does not believe the Bible as God’s Revelation, folk wisdom 3,000 or so years old highlights just how ignorant or evil we are to tolerate our culture’s use of grisly violence and bloodshed as entertainment.

    • sari

      Deacon John,
      Politicians jumped onto gun control almost immediately; it’s obvious why the media focused on guns first.. Ascribing Lanza’s actions to violent media in the absence of any data boils down to speculation. The logical next step would be for the media to address mental illness (not autism), but that’s been relegated almost exclusively to opinion pieces.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.
      • sari

        Do you feel the media seeks to assign blame in the absence of actual data?

        • Alan

          The media seeks to assign blame for the presence of eyeballs only – data is neither necessary nor sufficient for them

          • Bobby Ross Jr.

            Alan,

            Speaking of blanket statements with no evidence to back them up … care to be any more specific or provide any links to back up your claim?

    • Josh Lyman

      If it was co equal, why do other western countries that have the same games, films and TV, not have the same gun violence as America?

      • Bobby Ross Jr.

        Josh,

        Does your question have a journalistic point?

        As for your statement, here is what I wrote in the 1999 story that I referenced:

        Others stress that all the violence in America – violence that
        despite the high-profile cases is on the decline statistically -
        can’t be blamed on popular culture.

        The United States has a tradition of violence that includes the Wild West and early 20th-century race riots in places such as Tulsa, said Richard Slotkin, a history professor at Wesleyan University.

        “The same violent movies that we look at here are shown in Europe and Japan, but you don’t find the Europeans and Japanese killing each other at the same rate we do,” said Slotkin, whose books include “Regeneration Through Violence” and “Gunfighter Nation.”

        “It can’t just be the images. It’s got to be something the images are tapping into.”

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Deacon John,

    Interesting question. In 1999, I did a 2,400-word, Page 1 Sunday piece for The Oklahoman on the entertainment/video game question. That came after Columbine and some other tragedies.

  • Darren Blair

    As a Texan?
    The last I recall hearing, the concealed-carry law does *not* extend to churches, meaning that someone attempting concealed-carry in a church is breaking state law and risks having their permit revoked in addition to other penalties.

    Additionally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (better known as the “Mormons”) has requested that members not bring their firearms into the church facilities period; the only exception is if the person is in the protective services and they’re carrying their service weapon.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Darren,

      The brief reading I did on the Texas law indicated that churches must put up a sign to ban concealed weapons. In other words, they could choose to allow them. Is that right?

      • Darren Blair

        What I recall hearing is that it’s a strict ban, in that churches were classed along with schools, hospitals, and other such facilities.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I wonder why people feel compelled to defend bloodshed, violence, and human splatter as entertainment. Do they have a passion or fetish for it themselves??? And it is irrelevant whether any one massacre can be traced to someone obsessed with violent movies or splatter videos–the overall picture is clear–research and wisdom observations going back, as I said, thousands of years, virtually mocks the idea : “Violence as fun and games: No problem here!!!!”
    And as far as other countries. Some are now having the same problem as us as our blood lust spreads and infects other parts of the world through unregulated greedy media interconnected corporations. One news network (unfortunately I didn’t make note of which one) dared to show clips –only once– of massacres similar to ones here in recent years.
    Today, the Boston Globe headline story was about guns. A brief story about shockingly violent and bloody video games at a video show was buried inside and specific information about the worst ones left to the very end of the story (an old journalistic trick ).

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Deacon John,

      Sometimes I get the impression that you’re not a big fan of my profession.

      • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

        Bobby —-I’m not a fan of the way the media so often speaks in a monotone drone. As I said, the story you pointed out was well written–I only poked at it because it was just another gun story taking up space that makes it harder for stories about the Mental Health issue, or the blood splatter video games issue, or the Hollywood violence machine issue to get through.
        I worked for a number of years as a columnist and reporter for our local newspaper and learned a lot about how things work–like a writer putting info at the end of a story he doesn’t care that it gets published–for editors usually cut a story short for space purposes by cutting from the end of the story
        first.
        Frankly, I have a great deal of respect for reporters who try to do a quality job that isn’t just more of the same or appears to be part lof the media’s latest “pack” mentality.

  • cvg

    This was a very well written, tight article. The extra religious information on the quoted individuals greatly assists interpretation. It seems one of the article’s hinges is framed by these quotes:

    “A church is a place where we gather for worship and prayer in the name of the Prince of Peace,” he said. “Carrying a weapon, openly or concealed, into a place of worship is counter to that spirit.”

    “The disciples carried weapons,” Melton said. “Peter cut a man’s ear off. I believe if more honest citizens were armed, the safer our communities would be.”

    What is the spirit of Christianity? Individuals exemplifying forbearance, or groups pursuing member safety(spiritual &/or physical)? I like Jonathan Haidt’s cognitive psychology framing here: westerners tend to interpret morality based either upon what is good for a lone individual or what is good for group. I think there is a dearth of news articles that aid understanding each paradigm on their own term. Instead, I tend to find articles the pit one paradigm against another. In rare instances, background information, like in this article, minimizes the usual perjoratives. Is it enough?

    The journalist provided motivation for the group perspective: outreach & member recruitment. However, I don’t think that goes far enough in understanding why a Christian would take actions that are good for their group, but not necessarily kosher or good for other groups or individuals (firearm violence).

    Also, am I the only one that caught the irony in referencing Peter’s sword example? Did Melton really leave his reconciliation there? Was further explanation cut out because it was not needed, there wasn’t space, or was it thought to set up enough of a balance for a lay audience?

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    I have not seen a single news story about the murders that discussed the responsiblioty of the school board and its management for the lack of physical security at the school. Public school boards make decisions about whether to have physical security or not, and it is a policy decision that cannot be attacked through a wrongful death lawsuit by the families of the victims. The risk of any particular school district being affected by one of these attacks is very, very low, especially during the tenure of any single board member, so there is a low risk they will ever have to deal with one of these massacres personally. And the cost of establishing guards with metal detectors and x-ray machines is a real cost, probably meaning reducing the teacher positions at the school by one for each guard. Unless parents take their concerns to the school board, the boards are not inclined to take any action to physically protect children.

    The White House, Congress and the courts all have physical protection against gun attacks. They have armed guards, metal detectors and x-ray machines. It is simple and it works, but it costs money. I propose that Congress enact a special dedicated excise tax on ammunition and firearms that will fund the purchase of the equipment for school districts who commit to fund the hiring and training of security guards to operate them and provide security for at least three years. Then the focus should shift to the schools and their failure to value the safety of children enough to actually pay for it. Massacres occur because schools are vulnerable. If schools are defended, they will be subject to fewer attacks, just like the White House, Congress and the courts.

  • FW Ken

    The obsession of the media with guns does not speak well for your profession, Bobby. A lot discussions I follow are more concerned with mental health services than gun control. And, as mentioned above, a lot of folks are more interested in the broader place of violence in or culture than in more laws. Granted, these are conservative folk who are quick to note that we have a lot of laws already and they haven’t seemed to help a lot. Whether, I’m interested in the disconnect between the media gun circus and broader issues, e.g. mental illness and cultural tolerance for violence.

    As to the article, the description of this churches place in the Baptist world was interesting. The back and forth quotes were good. But it seems to dance around the most salient factor: this is a small town in a rural area. Guns aren’t there to protect from criminals so much as snakes, wolves, and so on. I’ve lived on the city and on the farm – guns have different meaning based on where you are.


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