On Sunday a man attacked a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville Tennessee with a shotgun, during a children's performance or presentation of some sort, killing at two adult parishioners and sending seven others to the hospital, five in critical or serious (i.e. life-threatening) condition. Thankfully no children were harmed physically. It is hard to image the carnage and harder to ponder the emotional and psychological effects, particularly on the children. Today follow-up news reports state that the attacker, who was stopped and restrained by people at the church and then arrested, had written a four page letter making clear that the attack had made the congregation a deliberate target. In a sound clip, a police spokesman boils the motives stated in the letter down to the man being distraught over his inability to find work, and his hatred of "the liberal movement."
This news has resonated for me. That's partly because the last organized religious body with which I was affiliated was the First Parish Church (UU) in my old home town in Massachusetts. It was a church which had provided a haven for me when I found I could not affirm the beliefs required of me for confirmation into the Episcopalian denomination into which I had been baptized, including most particularly the doctrine that God reserves His forgiveness and salvation from sin only for those who believe certain things in certain ways about Jesus of Nazareth, and condemns all others to eternal damnation. The universalism of my Unitarian church's views and explorations (rather than teachings) allowed me scope for grappling with some of those issues through informal comparative thinking.
It was also a church whose youth fellowship provided me a welcoming context for working out some of the struggles of my adolescence, and a group of friends in the endeavor to whom I still think back frequently, though I have lost touch with them. It was a church and a group of friends that reinforced the values of my family concerning volunteering and the connection between morality, ethics and struggling for social justice.
Among the things we did in our youth group, formally the Harris Union (named for a church leader some decades before, or possibly a street in town associated with the church, or perhaps a street named after the man) but called by us the Harris Onion, was to take charge of the church service one Sunday a year, allowing us to give voice to our youthful perspectives and gropings for coherent outlooks on matters spiritual, in all their unevenness, and to invite adult sharing. Likewise I remember services in which younger Sunday School classes featured in some role as the focus.
The powerful emotional effect that the news from Knoxville has had on me partly comes from visualizing it, anachronistically and in displace topography, occurring in the sanctuary of our 1830s-built New England meeting house.
The resonance comes as well from more recent experiences: The First Unitarian Church in Portland, and members of People of Faith for Peace associated with First Unitarian, have been mainstays of the local peace and anti-war movement, especially the PDX Peace Coalition in which I have worked, along with members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the American Friends Service Committee. The church itself has provided us a physical home at times in which to meet. The kindness and ethical commitments of these people remind me of what I liked best about my old church -- it is hard and painful to imagine them, and the people I am sure are like them in Knoxville, as the focus of such a horrifying, terrifying attack.
Their activity fits with my longer term experience of faith-based activism in various peace & justice movements, which for me have often particularly focused on Africa, whether it be the anti-apartheid movement, advocacy for improved U.S. Africa policy, the global Jubilee debt cancellation movement, or the global movement to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, in which trinitarian Christian groups, both Protestant and Catholic, and sometimes Jewish groups, have played significant roles. Particularly with respect to Africa, religious peace and justice groups have rejected conventional U.S. media stereotypes about "the continent," many of them dating back to the 19th century, others influenced by various racialized discourses of more recent vintage, but generally concatenating to grossly inaccurate and misleading depictions.
Religious bodies often have particular ties to African people in particular places, as well as commitments to the universal dignity and worth of persons, that cut profoundly against the more general anti-African dimensions of U.S. culture. It also seems to be true that faith motivations often provide a steadfastness and consistency of engagement that I sometimes have envied, sometimes felt almost parasitic upon, and always recognized with gratitude, in my own less consistent efforts.
Finally, thinking of Unitarians in Knoxville has brought to mind the family of one of my brothers, who live in Louisville, Kentucky, and who have been members of one of the liberal mainline Protestant churches there (not Unitarian Universalist). That congregation's social justice work has included work in continuing struggles over racial equality, education and the role of police in the community, and also participation in a movement called simply "Fairness" in engaging with LGBTQ rights issues locally (I believe they also are a "welcoming congregation"). They do this in a context where history and the present make those struggles tougher, but by the same token perhaps consequential in a different way, than in Portland -- though perhaps not unlike struggles in some other parts of Oregon. Given the generally greater religiosity of the Southeast, compared to unusually unchurched Oregon, it seems likely to me, and not surprising, that in the Upper South, and perhaps elsewhere in the "Bible belt," liberal religious congregations are key centers where people seeking humane progressive change find one another, find and build community, and work together.
And in that respect, the attack in Knoxville also gives me chills, making me wonder if I should fear for my brother and sister-in-law and her mother and my nephews.
This news in one sense is a variant of a kind of horror with which we have become familiar -- mass killings and woundings at schools, at universities, at current or former workplaces, at shopping malls or fast food restaurants, at an Olympic park. In another sense it fits with patterns of attacks on churches, usually in the form of arson, which often have specifically been aimed at African American churches with apparent racial motivations, but also have included substantial numbers of mainly white churches, either out of hostility to religion or sheer destructiveness, as well as racist and religiously bigoted arson or other vandalism against Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques.
The Knoxville attack's political dimension invokes memories of politicized right-wing violence such as the murders of doctors who provided abortions, or the attack on the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Boston in which an isolated, emotionally disturbed anti-abortion man killed a receptionist, including also memories of the previously mentioned Olympic attack by right-wing extremist Eric Rudolph and the Oklahoma City bombing, and fears raised by the organized "militia" movement of the 1990s. In a more abstract way, one wonders how or whether the Knoxville news relates to phenomena such as the purging of relatively more liberal theologians and believers from the Southern Baptist and Southern Methodist denominations and their seminaries; to the (re)emergence on the other hand of more broadly social justice oriented forms of Protestant evangelicalism; and to the heartfelt struggles on both sides over social liberalization in matters of gender and sexuality being played out in one immediately present example in the Lambeth Conference of the world Anglican Communion in England.
Measured across the vastness of the country, the tens of thousands of cities and towns, and across a population of three hundred million persons, the episodes of intense local violence are relatively rare and happen to a tiny proportion of us. But mass media mean that perceptually they happen everywhere and in a sense to all of us. The resultant difficulties of keeping them in perspective and proportion contribute to the dynamics of fear in our culture, which have political effects both in policy and in social psychology. There is perhaps a good side of this, in extending our ability to feel connection and empathy. But such events also become part of the myriad matters to which we feel connected and by which we feel affected, yet unable even much to influence, much less to control.
And, we know, the mass mediation of such events to some extent generates copycat actions. Hence my chills.
These reflections and ruminations have no particular argument. They represent an effort to name and situate my emotional reactions as a non-religious person. The habits of my youth call to mind an impulse to prayer, though I don't now believe in the efficacy of prayer, and would not now know to whom or what I was praying. "Sending positive thoughts" seems merely a denatured variant.
In calling forth my admiration of the people of faith with whom I sometimes toil, the attack also calls forth my ambivalence toward religion in general. It reminds me of my difficulty knowing even what I think of using languages of spirit and soul that are so profoundly evocative, when I don't clearly believe in them as phenomena. It reminds me how that reluctance is tied to what may be a perverse sort of respect or reverence that makes it matter somehow, despite my unbelief or lack of faith, not to be a hypocrite in such matters, if I am to respect the beliefs of others. It reminds me of my recently developed insight that in an odd way my father's escape from a cramped and bigoted form of Calvinism practiced by his mother and her family still left him psychologically scarred, and that I have inherited some of that damage myself. Since Unitarianism was in part, and especially in New England, a break from the dour "angry God" Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards and the first Great Awakening, retrospectively it may make a kind of sense that it held a kind of attraction to me in my youth.
But above all, the attack has made me sad: Sad to think of that congregation of people who have tried to come together to share an appreciation of life, of spirit and the divine, as they see those things according to their own lights, in a community that tries to open itself to many or even all such lights (in the Universalist ambition); sad that such a group of people of good will should find themselves the focus of such a vicious attack.
Sad too to think particularly that this should have happened at an occasion for children, in which rather than as (probably) usual they were often in their own spaces doing children's things, they were with the main congregation, and exposed to the full horror of the violence to parents and relatives and friends and acquaintances. Sad and wondering at how their surviving parents and relatives and friends can possibly help them.
And sad, and angry, and fearful, about how the cultural demonization of liberalism may have contributed to this violence, such that a man who felt "hatred for the liberal movement" and apparently connected that hatred to his own personal woes, should come to focus it in this manner on those people.
I don't know yet how else I will respond, or how others in Portland and Oregon and Washington may be responding. Perhaps if I find out more about concrete actions, I will write more on that. Meanwhile, thank you for your forbearance in allowing me to share these thoughts. If others have been reacting to this news in some way, I invite and would value your reflections on those responses.