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.

Although this place sounds and looks like the NRA at prayer, the piece lacks any quote from the National Rifle Association itself; an odd omission.

It does get into the power struggle at the main Unification Church in South Korea and how the struggle between these sons and their mother. Read this piece from Ozy.com for more on her.

So then:

When the Rev. Sun Myung Moon died of complications from pneumonia in 2012 at age 92, it set off a power struggle within his family. Sean, with backing from older brother Kook Jin “Justin” Moon, contends he was selected from among his 10 adult siblings to inherit the Unification Church mantle and be crowned the next-generation “Second King” -- not a full-fledged messiah like his father purported to be, but nonetheless responsible for finishing the work of building God’s Kingdom. Meanwhile, their mother, Hak Ja Han, claims the Rev. Moon, her husband of 52 years, passed the baton to her.

The article then looks back to tell a history of this complicated religion and the intertwined relationships between Moon’s children. One gets lost a bit sorting out which children are which and the article could have used a chart of all the kids like this New Republic piece did.

What’s a bit creepy is that these sons think America is going to go theocratic and the Moon offspring will reign over it.

If all proceeds according to divine plan, the country will be ruled by monarchs drawn from his branch of the Moon family. If the Kingdom comes in Sean’s lifetime, he’ll take the reins as king of the United States. 

Although he has written a constitution.

Sean Moon’s Constitution of the United States of Cheon Il Guk is a powerful document. It throws the country in reverse and then steps on the gas. Consider just these few provisions: The House of Representatives will elect the president. The king will pick Supreme Court justices. 

One theological puzzle piece not explained in this piece is the weird mash-up between Unificationism and Christianity. I listened to a video that went with the article where Sean Moon is saying, in part, “The rod of iron and the baptism of the Holy Ghost –- that’s the real fire.”

Huh? Has this group charismatic overtones as well? In the Post piece:

Everyone then knelt and recited the Lord’s Prayer in unison. Sean lifted his arms and murmured, “All glory to God.” Class dismissed.

Is there more Christian dogma in these sons’ new incarnation of the church than there was in their father’s version? Look through the church’s web site plus this video from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which makes it clear these Sanctuary folks consider themselves to be Christians.

It’s hard not to gaze at the accompanying photos of all these gun-toting worshippers with horrified fascination. It makes one wonder what separates this group from the Branch Davidians in Waco. I think the best line in the comes at the end of this paragraph:

Individually, Sanctuary Church members come across as honest, reasonable, upright folk, the stuff of good neighbors. Collectively, the dynamic changes. So much of the Church discourse can’t abide contrasting opinions and worldviews. You don’t hear much talk about, or empathy for, the poor, the infirm, the weak. Most enervating, though, is the steady drumbeat of dystopia. To be a devout Sanctuarian requires almost superhuman faith in the cleansing waters of catastrophe. It’s like standing on the deck of the Titanic and rooting for the icebergs.

Read this article several times to grasp what’s really going on here and watch some of their videos.

After Moon died in 2012, a lot of us thought his church would die with him although I had heard rumors about one of his younger sons then pastoring in South Korea was putting a whole new spin on the faith. That was Sean, child no. 12. 

So here we are. What I appreciated about this piece is that -- unlike some other published accounts of this unusual Feb. 28 service -- it didn't make the church sound like a dystopian horror show. It told their side and portrayed them as human beings. In today's journalistic climate, that is a rare thing.

Please respect our Commenting Policy