On Wednesday, hundreds of worshipers gathered at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, in Newfoundland, Pa., for a controversial wedding vow renewal ceremony. With police officials and protesters gathered outside the religious venue, a congregation came together inside. The brides, clad in white, stood alongside their husbands, dressed in dark formal attire, all unified by the (at times) bullet-adorned crowns that rested on their heads and the AR-15 rifles in their hands.
An open letter shared on Facebook by Newfoundland Sanctuary Church’s pastor, Rev. Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, invited readers to join him on Feb. 28, making it clear that the Newfoundland church would not be “blessing guns” but would instead be “(re)dedicating marriages to each other and most importantly to God.” Moon is the son of late reverend and self-proclaimed messiah Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who founded the Unification Church, which many regard as a cult (the Unification Church distanced itself from Wednesday’s ceremony).
The ceremony reportedly went without any major set-backs. An attendant checked the guns at the door to assure none of them were loaded and zip-tied the weapons before allowing worshipers to enter the church’s doors. Worshipers drank holy wine as a commitment to their newly renewed marriages, and to their church, while Rev. Moon prayed for “a kingdom of peace police and peace militia where the citizens, through the right given to them by almighty God to keep and bear arms, will be able to protect one another and protect human flourishing.”
This isn’t the first time the church has encouraged assault-style rifles in one of their ceremonies. Their religious doctrine sees the semi-automatic weapon, specifically, as “the rod of iron” described in the book of Revelations. “The scripture tells us that God will shepherd His children with the rod of iron, guarding the flock not as a dictator, but as a loving father,” writes Rev. Moon in his Facebook post. “In the same way, each of us is called to use the power of the “rod of iron” not to harm or oppress as has been done in the satanic kingdoms of this world, but to protect God’s children.”
The ceremony followed the Parkland school massacre on Feb. 14, in which the same AR-15 assault rifle was used by an assailant to shoot and kill 17 students and teachers. The recent tragedy is part of the reason the weapons-prevalent ceremony has provoked such strong backlash, as many Americans are now pushing for stricter gun control. Yet to Rev. Moon and his Newfoundland Sanctuary Church, gun control is not an option: He addressed the topic in his social media post by saying, “If the football coach who rushed into the building to defend students from the shooter with his own body had been allowed to carry a firearm, many lives, including his own, could have been saved.” He prefaced that by saying: “You and I are responsible to protect our families, communities and, ultimately, our nation. The “rod of iron” allows not only strong men, but also women and the elderly to have the ability to protect themselves and others from such predators.”
The seeming fanaticism of the Newfoundland Sanctuary Church, we’re sure, is enough to make most people cringe. Yet, their practices are clearly protected by not only their right to religious freedom, but also their right to free speech, and to keep and bear arms. While it is natural to want to censor these types of actions and the people behind them, we must remember that the most valued aspects of our society also protect the religious practices of the Newfoundland Sanctuary Church in the same way that they do the Westboro Baptist Church and the K.K.K. (to the extent that they can be seen as a religious organization). This is not an attempt to normalize the situation or to discredit your disgust. It’s a simple reminder that the most effective way to fight free speech is with more devastating and counter-acting free speech. As for Rev. Moon and his Newfoundland Sanctuary Church, we have a feeling we’ll be hearing from them again.