Shootings at Unitarian Church In Tennessee

Ken AshfordCrime, Godstuff, Sex/Morality/Family Values1 Comment

You know, it’s both laughable and disturbing that pundits like Michelle Malkin can make their daily bread by referring to liberals as the "unhinged left", accompanyed by such adjectives as "deranged" and so on.

When was the last time a disgruntled liberal started shooting people he disagreed with politically or socially?  Ever???  It just seems to me that even at its most fringiest extreme, the left just doesn’t do eliminatiost rhetoric.  But you find a LOT of that on the right side of the spectrum.

And it’s not just talk.  Yesterday, as posted on The Moderate Voice, there was a shoot-up in a Knoxville church.  Two people were killed; several injured, somce remain in critical condition.

Terrible news this morning. Some man entered our church with a shotgun and started shooting

I was not there this morning as we had friends visiting from out of town. But we seriously considered attending with our friends. This is such a shock to the community here. Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church is such a welcoming community. Though it’s decidedly more liberal than East Tennessee as a whole, we have very good relations with the rest of the community. I don’t understand why anybody would do this. All we know right now is that the suspect was not connected to the church in any way. I have no idea if the man had some sort of political or cultural agenda (TVUUC had just put up a sign welcoming gays to the congregation), or if it’s just some lunatic acting for no reason at all.

This morning we learned the answer to the reason why:

The shotgun-wielding suspect in Sunday’s mass shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church was motivated by a hatred of “the liberal movement,” and he planned to shoot until police shot him, Knoxville Police Chief Sterling P. Owen IV said this morning.

Jim D. Adkisson, 58, of Powell wrote a four-page letter in which he stated his “hatred of the liberal movement,” Owen said. “Liberals in general, as well as gays.”

Atkinson entered the church during a performance of "Annie, Jr."


While I can understand that there are bigots out there who dislike gays, I just can’t understand the mentality of someone who would shoot up a children’s musical, in a church, because of their hatred for gays.  Boggles the minds.

UPDATE:  Being closest to a UU member myself (to the extent I am affiliated with any religion), I was touched by rousing defense of the religions, as expressed by Sara at Ornicus:

We are an odd group, we Unitarians.

Conventional wisdom says that we’re soft in all the places our society values toughness. Our refusal to adhere to any dogma must mean that we’re soft in our convictions. Our reflexive open-mindedness is often derided as evidence that we’re soft in the head. Our persistent and gentle insistence on liberal values is evidence of hearts too soft to set boundaries. And all of this together leads to a public image of a mushy gathering of feckless intellectuals that somehow lacks cohesion, backbone, focus, or purpose.

You can only believe this if you don’t know either the history or the modern reality of Unitarian Universalism. The faith’s early founders, Michael Servitus and Francis David, were executed for the radical notion that belief in the Trinity — which excluded Muslims and Jews — should not be a requirement for participation in 16th century public life. Four hundred years later, in the same part of the world, other Unitarians died in concentration camps for having the courage of their humanist convictions. Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother from Michigan who was killed by the Klan in the days following the Selma march in 1965, was one of ours, too.

And then there are the thousands of us who lived to fight another day — surviving not because we were weak and indecisive, but because we were unshakable in our convictions and unwilling to back down out of sheer cussedness. That Unitarian-bred belief in the nobility of the human spirit was the spiritual foundation on which a plurality of America’s founders found sure footing as their convictions crystallized into revolution against tyranny. It fueled the passionate oratory of Daniel Webster, the wisdom of Ben Franklin, and the incisively clear writings of Tom Paine. It sent Paul Revere out into the cold of an April evening, and set Thomas Jefferson to the task of writing a Declaration. It recklessly bet the church’s entire existence — and the lives of its leaders, who willingly and knowingly committed a capital act of treason — in order to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Unitarianism and Universalism lit the spark of progressive change that drove Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Julia Ward Howe to organize for women’s rights. It sent Jane Addams, Dorothea Dix, Albert Schweitzer, and Clara Barton forth to bring health and hope to the poor. It gave voice to poets from Whitman to Plath to cummings, novelists from Dickens to Melville to Vonnegut, and musicians from Bartok to Grieg to Seeger. It fueled the boundless imaginations of Bucky Fuller and Rod Serling and Frank Lloyd Wright. It kept Christopher Reeve alive and breathing and working for his causes. I still hear it crackling hot and fresh every time UU-bred Keith Olbermann goes on one of his trademark rants.

These are not fearful people. Nor do any of them seem to be bedeviled by a lack of conviction. "Mushy" or "feckless" are about the last words I’d use to describe any of them. ("Stupid" isn’t anywhere on the list, either.) When you sign up to become a UU, this is the legacy you take on, and from then on attempt to live up to. It’s not God’s job to make the world a better place. It’s yours. This has never been work for the faint of heart, mind, or spirit — and in this era of conservatism gone crazy, it still isn’t.

I’m thinking about all this tonight as I sift through the incoming news that seven people were shot when 58-year-old Jim Adkisson pulled a shotgun out of a guitar case and opened fire during a kids’ performance at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church this morning. Two have died; four are in critical condition as I write this.

One of the dead, Greg McKendry, apparently took a shotgun blast full in the chest while trying to shield other members from the line of fire. Three other members of the congregation almost immediately charged the gunman and took him down, breaking his arm in the process. Still other members acted sanely and calmly to quickly get the dozens of children out of the sanctuary, and summon the police.

Those are the Unitarians I know. Smart, tough, fearless, calm in a crisis, committed to right action. It could have been any UU church in America, and they’d have behaved pretty much the same way.

It could have been any UU church in America — and that’s the problem.


After 25 years of right-wing eliminationist rhetoric about liberal hunting licenses and scaring us out of our treason and keeping a few of us alive as museum exhibits, it’s natural that some of us would jump to the thought that maybe, at long last, somebody finally decided to grab a shotgun and go bag himself some libruls — and decided (not unreasonably) that down at the local UU church, they’d be as thick on the ground as quail on one of Dick Cheney’s private hunting trips.

Whatever the reasons turn out to be, there are at least two lessons I hope y’all take away from today’s events.

One is that you can bet that the members of this congregation will find a novel way to approach their healing — and in doing so, they’ll set example for the rest of us to watch carefully. If (when) mental illness becomes the issue, they will respond to this man and his family with compassion and justice, because that’s the UU way. And if hate turns out to be part of the story, too, then Knoxville, TN is about to have a dialog on hate crime that will leave nobody in town untouched or uninvolved. That’s the UU way, too.

The other is that this congregation’s cool, brave response shows, once again, that it’s past time to drop that old stereotype, and stop underestimating the courage and intelligence of the religious left in America. We’ve gotten incredibly short shrift over the past few decades — not only from the religious right, which thinks we’re the minions of Satan on earth; but also from fellow progressives, who think that "religious" is a synonym for crazy, dangerous, irrational, and definitely not an asset to the movement.

Secular progressives don’t seem to understand that while politics is all about how we’re going to make the world better, progressive religion tells us why it’s necessary to work for change, and what "better" will look like when we get there. Liberal faith traditions offer the essential metaphors and worldview that everything else derives from — the frames that give our dreams shape and meaning. It has an invaluable role to play in helping our movement set its values and priorities, understand where we are in the larger scheme, and gauge whether we’re succeeding or not.

The conservative movement knew from the get that it would not succeed unless it could offer people this kind of deeper narrative. Providing that was one of the most important things the religious right brought to their party. Progressivism will not defeat it until we can offer another narrative about what America can and should be — and our liberal churches have longer, harder, better experience than anyone at developing and communicating those stories, and building thriving — and on occasions like today, literally bulletproof — communities around them.

And then there’s that long, tough history to draw on. The UUs, along with the Congregationalists and Quakers, have been at the beating heart of American liberalism since before the country was founded. We’ve faced down the ignorant and the arrogant, the terrified and the unreasonable, the cops and the courts and the Congress so many times that it’s not even news any more. Civil disobedience is built into our bones (yes, *sigh,* Thoreau was one of ours, too), and we’ve come to regard it as one of our more important sacraments. These days, it’s not only in our defense of gay rights and our gathering fury about torture, but also in our leadership role in the New Sanctuary Movement defending immigrants from ICE raids.

If the right wing ever does turn its anti-liberal crusade into a shooting war, it’s easy to predict that the country’s UU churches will be among their first targets. What’s less predictable — unless you know the people, the theology, and the history, or took careful note of everything that happened in Tennessee today — is just how surprisingly fierce and fearless that response is likely to be.

Grief and pride taste strange together, but I am full of both for the people of the Tennessee Valley UUC tonight. After all, it could be any UU church in America. That’s the bad news. It’s the good news, too.

Also, local blogger James Protzman adds:

When I talked with my daughter today about this Tennessee shooting, the only word she could find between her tears was the word "ironic." She can’t understand how one of the most peaceful of all spiritual homes could be viciously assaulted by a person who believes liberals are the source of all the world’s problems. She also wondered aloud about all the other deaths that can be laid at the feet of right-wing political hate. Abraham Lincoln. Martin Luther King. John Kennedy. Robert Kennedy. Will it ever stop? she asked.

I hope so, but I fear not.

Maybe the man who committed this crime is indeed insane, which would at least make a modicum of sense. But I suspect he is not. I suspect he is a product of an angry and hate-filled conservative movement headed by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and John McCain, people who joke openly about murder, assassination, and genocide. And I suspect it will get worse before it gets better. Lunatics on the right are already expressing hope that President Obama will be shot within hours after being sworn in. Some are no doubt plotting to bring their hopes to fruition.

Those very same lunatics are also using this tragedy to make their case for fewer restrictions on guns. Preachers, they say, need to face the harsh realities of life in these United States and start packing heat behind their pulpits. Only then, in a perverse echo of mutually assured destruction, will peaceful congregations be safe from their kind.

I can’t help linking all of this madness back to the misguided ego trip taken by Christian churches more than a thousand years ago. Back before they put earthly possessions and power ahead of paradise and peace, evangelical leaders had the chance to be an unequivocal force for good in the world. Today, however, far too many are anything but. It’s deja vu all over again, Crusades on Parade, with so many Christian soldiers armed and ready to kill at the drop of a hint.

This isn’t just another crazy conservative off his meds. This is politics, pure and simple.