I keep hearing from the right wing that liberal ideology is dangerous. Until Sunday, I did not generally associate liberalism with putting your life in danger. Sadly, that is what it has come to. You probably heard about this news story. A man named Jim D. Adkisson, an out of work truck driver, killed two parishioners at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. He also wounded six others. This attack occurred in a packed church with over two hundred congregants. The attack occurred while children were performing a scene for the congregation.
Adkisson survived his attack, but left a four-page letter in his SUV, which he expected to be a suicide note. In it, he said he targeted the church because he “hated the liberal movement” and was “upset with liberals in general, as well as gays.” Moreover, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel:
[The detective] seized three books from Adkisson’s home, including “The O’Reilly Factor,” by television commentator Bill O’Reilly; “Liberalism is a Mental Disorder,” by radio personality Michael Savage; and “Let Freedom Ring,” by political pundit Sean Hannity.
While the shooting appears random, targeting this particular church was probably not entirely due to its denomination, but likely had to do with some rage toward his ex-wife.
While police said Adkisson did not mention his ex-wife in the note, they said she attended the TVUUC years ago. That’s how he selected TVUUC to unleash his frustrations, police said.
I could be wrong, but I have yet to hear any case of a passionate liberal, inspired by ideological books written by the likes of liberal authors like Al Franken, going around killing right wingers for injustices like not supporting gay rights. I doubt that you ever will. Liberals may be wrong, wrong, wrong as noisy pundits like Rush Limbaugh tell us, but we also tend to be nonviolent.
This particular incident strikes close to home because I am a Unitarian Universalist too. It is certainly fair to cast the denomination as liberal. It was in fact one of the major reasons why I joined. More than ten years ago when I started attending services, I simply was not connecting with any liberals in my community. The church gave me a place to be with my own kind and work with others to promote my values. Thankfully, over the last ten years the area where I live has become much more progressive.
Yet, even in the relatively liberal community of Reston, our church has endured some harassment from those who do not share our values. Some years back we were at the forefront of the gay marriage movement. We put out two prominent banners on our property saying simply, “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right”. You would not think that by themselves they would inspire much vitriol. In fact, both were torn down and defaced by those who did not agree with our opinion. The church leadership was concerned enough that they stationed church elders in the foyer during services with their cell phones ready to dial 911.
Unitarians, like Quakers and other denominations, are often at the leading edge of change. Without us, there might still be slavery in the south and women might not have the right to vote. The minister that married my wife and I put his values on the line back in the 1960s when he marched in Selma, Alabama with the late Dr. Martin Luther King. The two congregants who died Sunday are not the only Unitarian martyrs. Among the dozens is the 18th century Unitarian theologian William Hamilton Drummond.
Perhaps incidents like this, as tragic, ugly and thankfully as rare as they are, come with the territory of being a liberal. Jesus was certainly a liberal and you can see what it got him. In general the more liberal you are and the more you express yourself, the more you subject yourself to danger. Yet, while many despise agents of change, without people willing to stand for change it is unlikely that any change would have ever occurred. We progress in part because of liberal denominations like Unitarian Universalism have the moral conviction to stand up peacefully when injustice occurs.
I am convinced that some right wing authors and talk show hosts like Michael Savage are indirectly culpable for these crimes. They pander to our basest prejudices and emotions, which frequently lurk close to the surface. The raw emotions become easier to expose if you are dealing with major life traumas like losing your job, as was true of Adkisson. Some personalities, like Michele Malkin, are clearly fanning the flames of hatred and perhaps help put mentally unstable people like Adkisson over the edge. It is doubtful whether they would be as passionate if their over the edge eloquence did not result in so many listeners and book sales.
In time, Adkisson will be tried. It is quite likely that he will pay for these murders with his life. In this event I already know what the response will be of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church will be. They will be petitioning the governor for his sentence to be commuted to life in prison. The irony is inescapable. In the event the tables were turned, it is unlikely that members of a right wing church would be so compassionate.
It is a shame Adkisson did not sit in the pews and listen for a few services. He might have heard this UU hymn and taken heed:
Come, Come whoever you are;
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving;
Ours is no caravan of despair;
Come yet again come.