Reflections on the July, 27th, 2008 shootings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church
I had prepared another sermon for today but the events of last Sunday has had me, as it has many Unitarian Universalists, thinking.
The first thing I’ve been thinking is that freedom of assembly is one of the basic requirements of freedom. It is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, right alongside freedom of religion. It is part of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, the European Convention of Human Rights, and on and on. Freedom of assembly is basic to what makes freedom freedom.
The great Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams believed that voluntary associations are the central protection of freedom. And he had experience, having watched the Nazis systematically removing freedom of assembly in the Germany of the 1930s, first by thugs, then by thugs in uniform. That’s why, in this morning’s reading, he makes a distinction between freedom of thought, which is personal, and freedom of assembly, which is communal. It is free assembly that frightens oppressors and affects change.
Free people are free people BECAUSE they have the ability to meet together without fear.
Last Sunday morning, at about the time we settled in to listen to a sermon here in this sanctuary, a man with a sawed-off shotgun walked into the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee and began shooting. Greg McKendry, an usher that morning and a board member of the church, stood up to shield the congregation, and was the first to die. Linda Kraeger, a visitor from a nearby UU church, was also killed. Several others were wounded before congregants tacked the assailant, holding him down until police arrived.
The speculation began immediately: was this a random act by an insane person? Was he looking for an estranged spouse? Or was he there to kill Unitarian Universalists because they were Unitarian Universalists? Had our right to assemble freely been infringed upon?
The answer to the question appears to be complex. A manifesto that the killer, Jim David Adkisson, left behind, thinking he would die in a hail of police gunfire, attacks what he calls liberals, blaming them for opposition to the war and for support of minority and GLBT rights.
The killer, it turns out, is from Harriman, Tennessee, a small town in the central part of the state. I have relatives who live in Harriman, Tennessee. One of my cousins was a truck driver and Pentecostal preacher in Harriman. He was an illiterate man and had his wife read the Bible readings for the day to him until he had them memorized so that he could pretend to be reading. Harriman is an isolated place with quite a few poor people.
Barak Obama caused quite a political firestorm earlier this year when he said that the frustrations of poor whites often lead them to cling to guns, religion, and racism. Well, since I’m not running for office, I can say it: Obama is correct. Jim David Adkisson was unemployed and he was bitter about it.
Now, full disclosure. I grew up with guns and religion and racism. I grew up with people like Adkisson. We can’t help being born poor; we can keep from forcing our religion on others; we can keep from hating others; and we can keep from taking a shotgun to church. You can’t help being born into hatred and ignorance and violence.
One of my earliest memories: My parents and I were living in northern Louisiana in a small town. This was the early-1960s. The South was still more and less segregated. I remember the weird look of two cultures, black and white, occupying the same small space yet seldom interacting. And I remember a realization hitting me one day as my family was walking down a sidewalk. Now, my father was born a sharecropper. My parents can barely read. But we were walking down the sidewalk, and an elderly black man stepped off into the street, to avoid us. And then it happened again. And again. And I knew, even as a child, that that was wrong. I don’t know how I knew. Maybe I had gotten in tune with the innate moral core Emerson talks about; maybe Walter Cronkite told me. I don’t know. But I saw that my white skin was a ticket down the middle of the sidewalk. And that was wrong.
I just knew it: People have the right to be who they are and they have the right to walk on the sidewalk.
And with that realization I realized something about oppression.
How could this injustice ever go away?
Nothing could change.
My parents were the sort of poor whites who just kept their moths shut. Part of the problem.
Fortunately, over in Georgia, some people, freely associating in churches, by the way, DID have some ideas on how things could change. They were NOT “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
And things did change. And Unitarian Universalists, in their free congregations, risking their lives, joined in the fight for justice.
And things changed.
Still today, when I’m in the deep south, and I feel the stifling humidity and smell the strong stench of the pines, still, I go right back to 1962, and I look around, and I still feel amazed to see blacks and whites, no longer running on parallel but separate tracks, but interacting. Living together.
Free people did that!
I’m not trying to sugar coat. We know that black kids can still go to jail for sitting in the wring spot at lunch. It happened just last year in Louisiana. And we know that the book has still not been closed on slavery. Last week the House finally passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow.
Well, it’s about time.
But the effects of slavery—and the amassed fortunes based on slavery—still exist in this nation. We have apologized but we haven’t paid up. We still have work to do. But good people and freedom will prevail—eventually—I believe that.
Racism, though we have plenty of it in this nation, is at least officially illegal thanks to some good people freely gathering in churches.
Unfortunately, we can’t say the same thing in the case of the oppression of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. That’s still mostly legal.
It occurs to me that the question to ask is the other way around: Where does a person like Jim David Adkisson get the idea that people unlike himself should be oppressed?
The specific mention of GLBT rights in the so-called manifesto the Knoxville killer left is perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the incident last weekend. We have, unfortunately, grown accustomed to random shootings in this country. But targeted ones. That’s different. Whatever the back story, Adkisson set out to kill Unitarian Universalists because they were Unitarian Universalists, and he was committing a political act.
Now let’s admit that the US media is not all that. . . nuanced, shall we say in its consideration of stories. So perhaps you have missed the information that the killer’s ex-wife had been a member of the congregation and that the killer attended some UU functions in the mid-1990s. So there is a bit of nuance to the motive. And it places Adkisson closer to the usual profile of America’s lone gunmen. Still, Adkisson did choose to name his own motive. And that motive was an attack on liberal values.
And I’m not sure how much good it does to wax philosophical concerning the difference between liberal religion and liberal politics. But we can’t blame others for forgetting the difference when we don’t make it explicit ourselves. After all, Adkisson was apparently a religious liberal. Or at least he questioned fundamentalist assumptions concerning Jewish and Christian scripture and often complained about being forced to go to church as a youth. He sounds like one of us. Apparently preachers such as my Pentecostal cousin were too much for him. So it wasn’t RELIGIOUS liberalism that bothered Jim David Adkisson.
I haven’t been able to decide if this is a digression or not, but the fundamentalist concept of the inerrancy of the bible is not an old Christian tradition. It’s not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or even Lutheran or Anglican dogma. Luther played with it; a few sects have thought about it, but it really took off among protestant ministers in the South in the years preceding the American Civil War. Now, liberal pastors, such as the Unitarian Theodore Parker, argued that the progress of Christian thought required the abolition of slavery. Certain conservative pastors countered that slavery is clearly sanctioned in both Jewish and Christian scriptures, and is therefore sanctioned by God—back then, and now. Ministers such as Parker countered that the scriptures were the product of particular peoples in particular social settings, and therefore reflected the prejudices of the time. The response was: NO! God’s word is God’s word, it does not change with the whims of human fashion.
That’s the source of inerrancy.
Now, slavery was indeed ended in this nation, not by logic or theology but by force of arms. The new concept of inerrancy did not die, however. Liberal ministers did not convince less liberal ministers of the error of inerrancy. And the dogma of inerrancy has retained this hydra-headed, or Janus-faced, life in our national discourse: It’s a religious concept invented to argue a political agenda and that is still its purpose.
I don’t think any rational person would argue against the right of churches to preach inerrancy. Have at it. We’re all free people freely gathered in voluntary association. You can keep whoever you like out of your church; you can condemn whatever you like in your church; you can believe whatever you like in your church. (And by the way, fundamentalists still, necessarily, believe slavery is hunky-dory. Inerrancy is inerrancy.) Go ahead: preach it and be it. It’s a great recruitment tool for the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists!
Jim David Adkisson did not agree with my cousin the Pentecostal preacher concerning inerrancy. In that way, Adkisson was one of us. . .
But back from my digression. Yes, the theologies of the Universalist and the Unitarian traditions have tended toward progressive—dare we say—liberal—political opinions. We fought for emancipation when most Americans believed slavery was OK; we fought for women’s rights when most Americans thought women had it good enough; we fought for worker’s rights when most Americans thought that workers were getting what they deserved, thank you very much; we fought against segregation when most Americans thought separate but equal was peachy-keen; we have fought against various invasions and wars; we have fought against the oppression of immigrants; we have fought for the rights of gays and lesbians and bisexual and transgender people. We have always been a tiny fraction of the US population, but we get out there and agitate and negotiate and educate until a majority of well-meaning people agree with us. These are political battles we fight from a spiritual core value: the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. This is a spiritual value and it is NOT negotiable with us.
But wait: Back to my digression. Isn’t that a contradiction? The fundamentalist can’t do that too? Of course they can. It is their right to take political action based on their spiritual values. And they do. It’s their right to attempt to perpetuate old laws or add new ones that discriminate and subordinate and oppress their fellow citizens.
It’s our calling to stand on the side of human dignity. Then we have a horse race. We have a political system. And “compromise” is not a four-letter word.
That’s the point Jim David Adkisson missed.
Not all Unitarian Universalists have agreed with progressive values over the years. Very few Unitarians were abolitionists early in the struggle, for instance. Certainly in our movement patriarchy has died a slow, loud death and still comes back alive from time to time to startle us, just like the monster at the end of a horror movie. Our greatest failure has probably been in the area of workers rights, most likely because we tend to be educated people and we have a hard time understanding what it means to live without an education.
Let’s admit it: as a religious movement, we STILL don’t know what racism means; we still don’t know what sexism means; we still don’t understand classism, ageism, ableism. We have hardly begun to peel away the layer upon layer of assumption that keeps us from understanding each other. But we are trying.
For all our faults, we are a people who choose to congregate for the purpose of nurturing what we consider sacred—in ourselves, in others, and in the larger world. This is our purpose.
I think we can safely assume that our fellow Unitarian Universalists Linda Kraeger and Greg McKendry did not go to church last Sunday morning expecting to die for their beliefs. In a society in which freedom of assembly is guaranteed, that should never be an expectation or even a fear. It should never be a choice anyone has to make. Yet the facts are there: circumstance required them to die for what they believed.
I propose that the way to honor them is to keep doing what we’re doing, loud and proud, remembering what we are: we are a free people, freely gathering, to affirm and promote the dignity of every human being. We will not remain “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
We UUs are not dangerous to people like Jim David Adkisson because we occasionally affect social change in the United States. The United States is a blip on the radar screen of human history. What we are doing is adding to the human understanding, for the long haul. Because in the case of freedom, after the genie is out of the bottle, it doesn’t go back in. Sure, it’s often one step forward and two back, but the genie won’t go back into the bottle.
We feel dangerous to people like Jim David Adkisson because we are changing the discussion about religion and freedom. . . forever. We UUs don’t agree on many things theologically—we’re free people, after all—but I believe, based on our Universalist and Unitarian traditions we can say this much:
We emphatically declare that it was not Satan or sin or human depravity that drove Jim David Adkisson to commit murder, but his own sad confusion and loneliness. We could have helped him. And perhaps we still can.
We are dangerous to oppressors because we emphatically declare that human beings are good;
That God hates no one;
That God oppresses no one;
That God punishes no one;
We emphatically declare that God does not decree—or underwrite—ANY oppression. Ever.
Oppression is the work of confused human beings.
That is our dangerous message. That is the message we offer to history and to humanity. Call it liberal if you want; call it crazy; but it is the truth.
Now and always.