Of Madmen and Martyrs: A Unitarian Take On Knoxville

Sara Robinson

We are an odd group, we Unitarians.

Conventional wisdom says that we’re soft in all the places our society values toughness. Our refusal to adhere to any dogma must mean that we’re soft in our convictions. Our reflexive open-mindedness is often derided as evidence that we’re soft in the head. Our persistent and gentle insistence on liberal values is evidence of hearts too soft to set boundaries. And all of this together leads to a public image of a mushy gathering of feckless intellectuals that somehow lacks cohesion, backbone, focus, or purpose.

You can only believe this if you don’t know either the history or the modern reality of Unitarian Universalism. The faith’s early founders, Michael Servitus and Francis David, were executed for the radical notion that belief in the Trinity — which excluded Muslims and Jews — should not be a requirement for participation in 16th century public life. Four hundred years later, in the same part of the world, other Unitarians died in concentration camps for having the courage of their humanist convictions. Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother from Michigan who was killed by the Klan in the days following the Selma march in 1965, was one of ours, too.

And then there are the thousands of us who lived to fight another day — surviving not because we were weak and indecisive, but because we were unshakable in our convictions and unwilling to back down out of sheer cussedness. That Unitarian-bred belief in the nobility of the human spirit was the spiritual foundation on which a plurality of America’s founders found sure footing as their convictions crystallized into revolution against tyranny. It fueled the passionate oratory of Daniel Webster, the wisdom of Ben Franklin, and the incisively clear writings of Tom Paine. It sent Paul Revere out into the cold of an April evening, and set Thomas Jefferson to the task of writing a Declaration. It recklessly bet the church’s entire existence — and the lives of its leaders, who willingly and knowingly committed a capital act of treason — in order to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Unitarianism and Universalism lit the spark of progressive change that drove Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Julia Ward Howe to organize for women’s rights. It sent Jane Addams, Dorothea Dix, Albert Schweitzer, and Clara Barton forth to bring health and hope to the poor. It gave voice to poets from Whitman to Plath to cummings, novelists from Dickens to Melville to Vonnegut, and musicians from Bartok to Grieg to Seeger. It fueled the boundless imaginations of Bucky Fuller and Rod Serling and Frank Lloyd Wright. It kept Christopher Reeve alive and breathing and working for his causes. I still hear it crackling hot and fresh every time UU-bred Keith Olbermann goes on one of his trademark rants.

These are not fearful people. Nor do any of them seem to be bedeviled by a lack of conviction. “Mushy” or “feckless” are about the last words I’d use to describe any of them. (“Stupid” isn’t anywhere on the list, either.) When you sign up to become a UU, this is the legacy you take on, and from then on attempt to live up to. It’s not God’s job to make the world a better place. It’s yours. This has never been work for the faint of heart, mind, or spirit — and in this era of conservatism gone crazy, it still isn’t.

I’m thinking about all this as I sift through the incoming news that seven people were shot when 58-year-old Jim Adkisson pulled a shotgun out of a guitar case and opened fire during a kids’ performance at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church this morning. Two have died; four are in critical condition as I write this.

One of the dead, Greg McKendry, apparently took a shotgun blast full in the chest while trying to shield other members from the line of fire. Three other members of the congregation almost immediately charged the gunman and took him down, breaking his arm in the process. Still other members acted sanely and calmly to quickly get the dozens of children out of the sanctuary and summon the police.

Those are the Unitarians I know. Smart, tough, fearless, calm in a crisis, committed to right action. It could have been any UU church in America, and they’d have behaved pretty much the same way.

It could have been any UU church in America — and that’s the problem.

Nobody seems to know just yet what motivated the attacker. The information is coming out in drips and drabs as police put it all together, and the congregation retreats into itself to pick up the shattered pieces. As we’ve always noted here when things like this happen, mental illness will probably figure largely in the story when it finally all comes out. You don’t have to be crazy to shoot up a church, but past experience suggests that it definitely helps.

But for those of us who’ve watched and worried about right-wing crazies for years now, there’s the sickening feeling that our worst nightmare may have also come true here. Witnesses say that the man was shouting “hateful things.” The FBI is standing by, investigating this as a possible hate crime. It’s not out of the question: According to Out & About, a Tennessee gay news site, there was plenty going on at TVUUC for the right kind of right-winger to hate:

Knoxville Police have not yet released a motive for the shooting. The church is the site of some gay affirming activities.

A member of the congregation wrote in a national blog that the church just recently put up a sign welcoming gays. One of the goals of the church’s long range plan is to “Increase congregational participation in human rights programs for gay/lesbian/transgendered persons.”

“Elrod,” who posted a comment on the blog, “The Moderate Voice” says he is a member of the church. He said he was not present today but did add “all we know right now is that the suspect was not connected to the church in any way. I have no idea if the man had some sort of political or cultural agenda (TVUUC had just put up a sign welcoming gays to the congregation), or if it’s just some lunatic acting for no reason at all.”

It is home to Knoxville’s Spectrum Café, which is a social gathering place for Knoxville area high school youth who “support the principles of diversity, tolerance, and the worth and dignity of every human being.” Teens who come to Spectrum respect each others’ ideas, religious views, race, sexual orientations, abilities, and ethnic backgrounds. The group welcomes “self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, or who are questioning their sexual or gender identity.”

The Knoxville Monday Gay Men’s Group meets at the church each Monday from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

David Massey is one of the coordinators of Spectrum Café, also known as “Spectrum Diversi-Tea and Coffee House,” which will begin its eighth year this spring. “We advertise it as a safe harbor for teens who identify as LBGTQ and their straight friends and allies, plus any other youth who are being harassed for religious beliefs, appearance, or abilities,” Massey said in an interview with UU World Magazine.

Other sources note that the church has taken the lead in sheltering and feeding the homeless in the community, and founded the local ACLU chapter.

And in this, too, it could have been any UU church in America.

After 25 years of right-wing eliminationist rhetoric about liberal hunting licenses and scaring us out of our treason and keeping a few of us alive as museum exhibits, it’s natural that some of us would jump to the thought that maybe, at long last, somebody finally decided to grab a shotgun and go bag himself some libruls — and decided (not unreasonably) that down at the local UU church, they’d be as thick on the ground as quail on one of Dick Cheney’s private hunting trips.

Whatever the reasons turn out to be, there are at least two lessons I hope y’all take away from today’s events.

One is that you can bet that the members of this congregation will find a novel way to approach their healing — and in doing so, they’ll set an example for the rest of us to watch carefully. If (when) mental illness becomes the issue, they will respond to this man and his family with compassion and justice, because that’s the UU way. And if hate turns out to be part of the story, too, then Knoxville, Tenn., is about to have a dialogue on hate crime that will leave nobody in town untouched or uninvolved. That’s the UU way, too.

The other is that this congregation’s cool, brave response shows, once again, that it’s past time to drop that old stereotype, and stop underestimating the courage and intelligence of the religious left in America. We’ve gotten incredibly short shrift over the past few decades — not only from the religious right, which thinks we’re the minions of Satan on earth; but also from fellow progressives, who think that “religious” is a synonym for crazy, dangerous, irrational and definitely not an asset to the movement.

Secular progressives don’t seem to understand that while politics is all about how we’re going to make the world better, progressive religion tells us why it’s necessary to work for change, and what “better” will look like when we get there. Liberal faith traditions offer the essential metaphors and worldview that everything else derives from — the frames that give our dreams shape and meaning. It has an invaluable role to play in helping our movement set its values and priorities, understand where we are in the larger scheme, and gauge whether we’re succeeding or not.

The conservative movement knew from the get that it would not succeed unless it could offer people this kind of deeper narrative. Providing that was one of the most important things the religious right brought to their party. Progressivism will not defeat it until we can offer another narrative about what America can and should be — and our liberal churches have longer, harder, better experience than anyone at developing and communicating those stories, and building thriving — and on occasions like today, literally bulletproof — communities around them.

And then there’s that long, tough history to draw on. The UUs, along with the Congregationalists and Quakers, have been at the beating heart of American liberalism since before the country was founded. We’ve faced down the ignorant and the arrogant, the terrified and the unreasonable, the cops and the courts and the Congress so many times that it’s not even news any more. Civil disobedience is built into our bones (yes, *sigh,* Thoreau was one of ours, too), and we’ve come to regard it as one of our more important sacraments. These days, it’s not only in our defense of gay rights and our gathering fury about torture, but also in our leadership role in the New Sanctuary Movement defending immigrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids.

If the right wing ever does turn its anti-liberal crusade into a shooting war, it’s easy to predict that the country’s UU churches will be among their first targets. What’s less predictable — unless you know the people, the theology, and the history, or took careful note of everything that happened in Tennessee Sunday — is just how surprisingly fierce and fearless that response is likely to be.

Grief and pride taste strange together, but I am full of both for the people of the Tennessee Valley UUC. After all, it could be any UU church in America. That’s the bad news. It’s the good news, too.

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