Torpy at Large: Will black churches join the arms race?

When the mob came to drag Jesus off to a certain and bloody end, he did not draw a sword and stand his ground. Instead he reattached a man’s ear that Peter had detached with his sword and then went to his fate.

That kind of turn-the-other-cheek Christianity has fallen out of fashion in many parts, but not among a number of black pastors I checked with Friday. I had called around to see if they would arm themselves in light of what happened in Charleston. The answer? Nope.

Rev. Curtis Lester, who pastors Greater Bethany Baptist Church just west of downtown, is no doe-eyed neophyte when it comes to mankind.

His historic 100-year-old church sits in a poor neighborhood that sees plenty of crime. They’ve had to call the cops a couple times in recent years when local homeless people got unruly with parishioners. Houses they renovated have been gutted by crooks, and they worried a decade ago about robbing crews who entered another church, forced everyone to the floor and stole their wallets.

So last year, when the so-called “guns everywhere” law was passed by the Georgia Legislature, the congregation had to reckon if they’d let firearms inside the sanctuary.

“The position was to not allow it,” said Lester, Greater Bethany’s pastor for 41 years. “So weapons are a no-no.”

Once again, Lester isn’t looking for an early return to his Creator. The church has a retired deputy walking the grounds during services, and they have a surveillance camera.

Lester concedes that a parishioner might take it upon himself to anonymously pack — especially after last week’s slaughter of nine black churchgoers in Charleston by a white man who was apparently a deranged racist.

“I hope it won’t change,” he said. “It’s a faith thing. I have faith that God will protect me.”

One argument goes that a well-armed sanctuary is a safe sanctuary. I heard it on the Hannity show Friday afternoon just minutes after leaving Rev. Lester’s church. A pistol-packing preacher was telling old Sean that he remains armed during services because, well, you never know.

NRA board member Charles Cotton took it further, saying Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of that Charleston church and one of those slain, is partially responsible for the massacre. The preacher, Cotton reasoned on an online forum, was also a South Carolina state senator who “voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

Later, he told the Washington Post “if we look at mass shootings that occur, most happen in gun-free zones.”

A couple blocks north of Greater Bethany is the English Avenue neighborhood, an area known for drugs, mayhem, despair and quite a few guns. But not in Lindsay Street Baptist, where Rev. Anthony Motley has pastored for 35 years.

Reasoning like the NRA’s is “completely inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Motley. “He was executed and didn’t lift a hand.”

There those preachers go again, with their pacifist, Garden-of-Gethsemane Jesus. Incidentally, that passage contains the verse, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Apparently that admonition doesn’t trouble the modern day prophets who advise the faithful to be well-armed, make sure the other guy perishes, and let the Lord sort it out.

On the way to Motley’s church I passed Greater Springfield Baptist, which has a sign on several entrances forbidding guns inside.

Motley said he didn’t consider putting a “No Guns” sign up at his door. “No, people just know my stand. It’s love, it’s what Christianity is all about.

“I don’t know an African-American church that says, ‘Bring your guns.’ I don’t think you can find one.”

I asked about the idea of an armed sanctuary. “Oh, God, that’s sick,” he said. “We’re back to the Wild West. Everyone go and shoot it out. It’s barbaric. It’s insane. It’s the moral rot from the state Capitol.”

The Rev. Timothy McDonald has pastored First Iconium Baptist for 31 years and is the former president of the Concerned Black Clergy. McDonald said he, Motley and several black preachers, as well as Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis, opposed legislators passing a law that allowed guns in churches. They fought to add a provision that allows houses of worship to “opt in” instead.

McDonald’s church, like many, including the Atlanta Catholic Archdiocese, chose not to allow guns inside. “When the law first passed,” McDonald remembers, “I said from the pulpit that, ‘Guns are not allowed; please don’t bring your guns in here.’”

Church, he said, “should be the one place where you are at peace. I think that notion has been damaged but not destroyed.”

McDonald was a preacher at Ebenezer Baptist right after Martin Luther King Jr.’s mother, Alberta, was shot to death by a deranged man (he was black) while playing the church organ in 1974.

“There was a great debate if guns should be there,” he said. “They decided that guards would be outside but no guns in the sanctuary.”

He, like Motley, said he’s not aware of any black churches with bring-your-guns policies, and “I don’t think that’s going to change.”

However, Motley is realistic. People make individual choices, and parishioners might choose to go against policy.

“They won’t be armed in any official way,” he said with a chuckle. Nevertheless, he added, “They are Americans. Many black people, like white people, are packing.”