Garmon and Joyner: A church shooting

Published: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 8:39 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 8:39 a.m.

Last Sunday morning, July 27, shortly after the worship service had begun at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, a play put on by the youth of the congregation was in progress.

Jim David Adkisson, 58, walked in carrying a guitar case.

Adkisson took out a semi-automatic sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun and began firing.

Greg McKendry, 60, an usher and member of the church governing board, was killed on the scene.

Linda Kraeger, 61, a member of a different Universalist Church who was visiting died a few hours later from injuries.

Five others were in critical condition.

Many more, including a number of children, will carry emotional scars for the rest of their lives.

The attack was over in minutes. The expressed anger and hatred behind it had evidently been building for some time. In a four-page letter found in his truck, Adkisson expressed frustration about being unemployed, and he declared that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country.

Hatred is always misguided, and murder is always a horrible wrong. To attack a religious gathering for the supposed political views of its members is not only tragic, but in this particular case, misinformed.

Since the violence in Knoxville there has been much speculation about what happened and why as well as about the nature of Unitarian Universalism. It is clear from the expressions of fear and suspicion that we have heard and read that many people have misunderstandings about this liberal religion.

Unitarian Universalism is indeed a liberal religion at the "left" end of the Protestant spectrum. But liberal religion is not the same thing as liberal politics, And UU congregations provide a faith home to people of all political persuasions; and they are often involved in work for social justice and in opposition to discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation.

Unitarians get their name in contrast to trinitarians. More than 200 years ago, a number of New England churches began turning Unitarian based on the conviction that trinitarianism was not Biblically supported. Noted Unitarians include American Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, and many historians consider Thomas Jefferson a Unitarian as well.

Universalism also goes back over 200 years in this country. The name comes from belief in universal salvation: that a loving God would not condemn creatures of His own making to eternal damnation.

From their beginnings, both Unitarian and Universalist churches emphasized reason in engaging religious questions and the freedom to believe as one's mind, heart and conscience dictated. This emphasis on freedom is the reason this approach to religion is called "liberal" (from the same root as liberty).

In 1961, Unitarians and Universalists consolidated as the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Over the past two centuries, this religious tradition emphasizing freedom, reason and acceptance has evolved, becoming more open to spiritual inspiration from non-Christian as well as Christian sources.

In the 1930s, many Unitarians and some Universalists began identifying as humanists. Today Unitarian Universalism is a religion where people of many beliefs worship as one faith.

For Unitarian Universalists, religion is less about what one believes, and more about how one lives, the ethics and values that guide one's life; about coming together with others in community strengthened through shared worship; and about connecting with transcendence, the source of healing and wholeness which we call by many names.

Unitarian Universalists come together to nurture our spirits, to help heal the world, and to share a faith that we need not think alike to love alike.

Adkisson's deep sense of victimization evidently led to scape-goating, a process that happens all too frequently in media and public discourse. He is not alone in categorizing a group of people and laying blame upon them.

Unfortunately he is also not alone in responding with violent speech or action. His apparent despair, exacerbated by a pattern of alcohol abuse, led him to target with violence those who do not think as he does. Hatred like that can strike anywhere on anyone; indeed, Adkisson expressed hatred for traditional Christians as well.

We Unitarian Universalists light candles of grief and love for our brothers and sisters in Knoxville, and also for Jim Adkisson.

We send prayers for grace and healing to everyone whose lives are marred by violence and hatred.

Though we may not think alike, we do believe that we can love alike.

If you want to experience this healing message of liberal religion, or ease your fear or even anger and hate through understanding, come join us on Sunday, or give us a call.

Let us together nurture our spirits and help heal the earth and all her beings.

The Revs. Garmon and Joyner are co-ministers at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville.

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