Sun Myung Moon

God, guns and grace: Sun Myung Moon's sons put their spin on dad's religion

God, guns and grace: Sun Myung Moon's sons put their spin on dad's religion

One of the benefits of working at the Washington Times –- as I did for more than 14 years -– was watching the soap opera that was the family of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, which through its subsidiaries owned the Times.

Not that I ever got to see much of Moon's 14 children. But I sure heard about them, especially when their infighting led to massive budget cuts at the Times in 2009.

One of the older daughters and several of the sons all had similar Korean names (which were anglicized to Preston, Sean, Justin and Tatiana), but it was clear they all had designs on their father’s vast empire.

It was also clear they were going to reinvent the theology that undergirded the Unification movement and create their own religion. What sort of religion that may be comes out in a recent Washington Post Magazine piece on a church pastored by one of the younger sons; a church that encourages members to bring automatic rifles to church services. (By the way, I've also written for the same magazine rather recently). 

Sanctuary Church — whose proper name is World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, but which also goes by the more muscular-sounding Rod of Iron Ministries — stands inconspicuously on a country road that winds through the village of Newfoundland, Pa., 25 miles southeast of Scranton. The one-story, low-slung building used to be St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. Before that, it was a community theater, which is why there are no pews, only a semicircle of tiered seats facing the old stage, now an altar.

On a Sunday morning in late February, 38-year-old Pastor Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, son of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, entered stage right wearing a white hoodie and cargo pants…One tenet of the Sanctuary Church is that all people are independent kings and queens in God’s Kingdom — a kind of don’t-tread-on-me notion of personal sovereignty. Hence, symbolic gold and silver crowns bobbed on row after row of heads.

Anyone who’s watched any Unification Church ceremonies knows these folks seem to have a fixation with robes and crowns. Sean Moon wears a literal crown of golden rifle shells. Photos show a congregation in white robes and scarves with guns cradled in their arms. 

A key pillar of Sanctuary dogma is the importance of owning a gun, particularly the lethal, lightweight AR-15 semiautomatic, which the National Rifle Association has proclaimed “the most popular rifle in America.” Last fall, Pastor Sean had studied the Book of Revelation. It makes multiple references to how Christ one day will rule his earthly kingdom “with a rod of iron.” Although Revelation was written long before the advent of firearms, Pastor Sean concluded that “rod of iron” was Bible-speak for the AR-15 and that Christ, not being a “tyrant,” will need armed sovereigns to help him keep the peace in his kingdom.

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Why did that bizarre AR-15 wedding-renewal rite get big-time national news play?

Why did that bizarre AR-15 wedding-renewal rite get big-time national news play?

"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken opened our conversation this week with a rather snarky question: Why did those rather bizarre AR-15 infused wedding rededication rites at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary draw attention from national media? (Click here to tune that in.)

Obviously, it had something to do with the mass-shooting in Parkland, Fla.

So this story had guns. That's a very big deal right now.

What else? This is the snarky part. The Associated Press report featured a car in parking lot with a sign requesting prayer for President Donald Trump. So the story had -- sort of -- the Trump factor. There was an earlier "President Trump Thank You" dinner.

What else? Maybe a bit more snark. It also had amazing visual images -- always crucial in a world of glowing screens -- showing lots of very non-mainstream looking religious people. The crowns made out of rifle bullets were especially nice.

Thus, Wilken said, you have guns, Trump and crazy religious people. And the tsunami of Parkland follow-up stories on AR-15s provided the news hook, turning a rather strange local or regional story into a national story. Take it away NPR:

Hundreds of faithful at a Pennsylvania church on Wednesday carried AR-15-style rifles in adherence to their belief that a "rod of iron" mentioned in the Bible refers to the type of weapon that was used in last month's mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.
The armed ceremony at World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, about 20 miles southeast of Scranton, featured gun-toting worshippers, some wearing crowns of bullets as they participated in communion and wedding ceremonies.
Attendants carefully placed a zip tie into the receiver magazine well of each weapon to assure that a clip could not be loaded.
Concern over Wednesday's gathering prompted a nearby elementary school to cancel classes for the day.

Now, pay close attention to that last part. This congregation has held these rites before. Were classes at that school cancelled then?

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Blessing the AR-15s: So this was a 'mass' in an ordinary church linked to famous 'evangelist'?

Blessing the AR-15s: So this was a 'mass' in an ordinary church linked to famous 'evangelist'?

If you want to understand the current cyberspace freakout about those church rites to bless AR-15 rifles (or something like that, that were based on the Bible, or something like that), please watch this CBS News video.

If you are a journalist who works on the religion beat, you are going to want to place coffee cups or other beverage containers far, far away from your computer keyboard or the glowing-screen device of your choice. Try to stay calm.

Did you watch the video? OK, now let's proceed. Based on the contents of this video, answer this: Who are these people and what kind of church is this?

Apparently, these are run-of-the-mill Christians at a normal church. Right?

Or maybe you turned to CNN for further information -- like this online report, with this headline: "Pennsylvania couples clutching AR-15 rifles renew wedding vows." Pretty far into this report, news consumers learn the following about the Rev. Sean Moon, the head of this organization:

Moon is the son of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who founded the Unification Church in the 1950s. Before he died in 2012 at age 92, the elder Moon was a high-profile international evangelist for decades. He was famous for conducting mass weddings, including at New York City's Madison Square Garden and another one uniting 360,000 couples in South Korea.
The Sanctuary Church calls itself Rod of Iron Ministries, and is a breakaway faction of the Unification Church, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Unification Church distanced itself from Wednesday's event, saying its ceremonies and teachings do not involve weapons.

Wait, wait, wait. Sun Myung Moon was famous because he was AN EVANGELIST, as opposed to the content of his teachings? He was an "evangelist" like, well, the Rev. Billy Graham?

Believe it or not, even that wording is a little bit better than an Agence France-Presse visual report that started like this:

A mass of unusual sorts takes place in a church in Pennsylvania, where dozens of revelers come to pray armed with semi-automatic weapons.

Wait, wait, wait. A "mass"? You mean like a Catholic Mass? I don't think so.

So what is going on here? Let's turn to religion-beat veteran Bob Smietana, who shows remarkable restraint here:

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In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

Anyone who has followed the history of new religious movements in the United States and elsewhere knows that, since the 1970s, the word "cult" is one four-letter word newspapers have often been loath to apply to controversial groups.

That wasn't the case before and after the 1978 Jonestown massacre, when newspapers saw cults under almost every rock.

But now, there's a great reticence at using this particular four-letter word in many news organizations. What, however, can a newspaper do when a group really and truly has the markings of a, well, cult, at the level of sociology and human behavior? Do you use the word or bury it?

For an answer, consider this front-page story from The New York Times, which reports on what can easily be considered a psycho-spiritual group, called NXIVM (pronounced neks-ee-um). In some cases, this organization literally leaves its mark on adherents, according to the story, headlined "Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded."

Read this longish excerpt to understand the scene being set:

ALBANY -- Last March, five women gathered in a home near here to enter a secret sisterhood they were told was created to empower women.
To gain admission, they were required to give their recruiter -- or “master,” as she was called -- naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.
The women, in their 30s and 40s, belonged to a self-help organization called Nxivm, which is based in Albany and has chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico.
Sarah Edmondson, one of the participants, said she had been told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. But she was not prepared for what came next.
Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their “master,” a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”

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Hey, New York Times: Maybe there's more to that Christian-backed school in North Korea

Hey, New York Times: Maybe there's more to that Christian-backed school in North Korea

If there's a nation on this planet harder to understand than the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK, I don't know it -- and you probably don't, either.

More commonly known as North Korea, it's been a family-led Communist dynasty for longer than any other. It's secretive, wracked by poverty and the government keeps trying to launch a missile that is capable of hitting Japan, or Guam or even Hawaii.

There have been (and are) all sorts of religion-angle "ghosts" in news surrounding the DPRK. Our our own Ira Rifkin last year noted the missing elements when The New York Times examined the country's "Juche" philosophy.

Now, the Times's correspondent who skipped the spiritual "ghosts" in the Juche piece has, er, passed over some key faith-related questions in another story. Choe Sang-Hun tells us about a Christian-led university in the officially atheist DPRK, with only a passing glance at the religion angle. Read this multi-paragraph introduction to see what I mean:

Set on 250 sprawling acres in North Korea’s capital, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology abides by the cult of the Kim family.
Atop its main building, large red characters praise “General Kim Jong-un,” the country’s provocative young leader. At the front of lecture halls hang smiling portraits of his father and grandfather, who led the nation before him.
Yet the school is different in one striking way. In a country that bans religion, it is run by evangelical Christians.

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