When Jim Adkisson walked into a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tenn., on July 27 and opened fire with a 12-gauge semiautomatic shotgun, he said he did it because he was angry at “liberals.” I’m not going to quibble here over what a liberal is. I would venture that Jim Adkisson wouldn’t know a liberal from a vacuum cleaner salesman, but if he wanted to kill some “liberals,” a Unitarian Universalist church would be a good place to find them.
In its long history in this country, Unitarians have been in the forefront of the abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil rights, and women’s rights movements. (The Unitarian Universalist Association was created in 1961 by the joining of two old but similar theological traditions.)
Among the Americans who called themselves Unitarians were Thomas Jefferson, John and John Quincy Adams, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Adlai Stevenson. What was it about that tradition that made UUs so threatening that Jim Adkisson had to kill two of them and wound seven others? There was a sign in front of the Tennessee Valley UU Church that welcomed gays and lesbians. Is that what set him off?
I became a Unitarian Universalist 25 years ago because I wanted to stand in the tradition of people like Jefferson, Adams, Emerson, and many other distinguished writers, thinkers, and public servants. They represented the best in America. What happened at the Tennessee Valley UU Church two weeks ago represents the worst.
There are too many guns in this country and too much anger. There are too many people like Jim Adkisson, a 58-year-old, unemployed truck driver, left out, left behind, discarded in this global economy in which the rich grow eternally richer and the poor, poorer.
There are too many hate-mongers in the pulpits and on the airwaves in America, telling people like Jim Adkisson that the source of their pain is liberals or blacks or homosexuals. (He probably found all three at the Tennessee Valley UU Church on July 27.) So when we hand out responsibility for this tragedy, let’s not forget Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Pat Robertson. Without the culture of hate they have been brewing over the last 20 years, this could not have happened.
In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable. When I heard that a stranger had opened fire in a Unitarian Universalist church, I knew immediately that it had to be a hate crime. There are simply too few UU churches for one to be picked at random.
Of course, UUs have been the target of threats and violence before. The Rev. John Reeb was murdered during the Selma March in 1965. When I was a member of the UU Fellowship of Columbia in the mid-1980s, some coward painted KKK on the church door. And in the early 1990s, we were declared a “sect” by the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest sect in America.
Yet, even in this violent tradition, in this violent country, it is inconceivable that a Unitarian would storm into a conservative Christian church and open fire. Such behavior is the exclusive province of the right-wing. And its leaders and spokesmen don’t seem the least bit ashamed of that fact.
Fear can destroy the soul of an individual, an institution, or a nation. Look at what the 9/11 attacks have done to America.
According to the Rev. Peter Lanzillotta, minister of the Unitarian Church in Charleston, the important thing is to not let fear take hold among UUs. Now that this tiny denomination has been “discovered” and reported in the national media as a haven of liberals, will other angry and confused people with guns emerge to try to “settle scores”? In this media-saturated age, copycats often take their turn after highly publicized crimes.
“Whenever any community is willing to take a stand, there is always the risk that some frustrated adversary will become incensed and take violent action,” Lanzillotta says. “It’s just a risk we take. We cannot let it deter us from our mission.
“When we think of our feelings of anger, it is important to remind ourselves that anger can come from many places — some positive, some negative. Incidents like this are a threat to the very existence of an alternative point of view. It is that alternative point of view that some people find so threatening that it must be destroyed. To those people, difference is the enemy. And so our anger is best served through our rededication to our mission of acceptance, openness, and compassion.
“We will respond, not in kind, but in reinforcing our message of dignity, freedom, and hope,” Lanzillotta says.
Indeed, America needs Unitarian Universalists more than ever. Tolerance is the antidote to this culture of violence and hate that we are drowning in.