VOICES Hate can kill people


On Sunday morning children were performing the musical “Annie” in their church when a man took a shotgun out of a guitar case, opened fire on the audience and killed two adults, injuring seven others.

Was this a random act of senseless, tragic violence?

Senseless, tragic violence, yes. Random, no.

The tragedy happened at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN, well known for its liberal worldview and social activism. The shooter was Jim Adkisson, a 58 year old man from the Knoxville area with no known family who has been unemployed for several years.

A police spokesperson reported that Adkisson said he targeted the church “because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country.” Police are investigating this as a hate crime. Adkisson has been charged with first-degree murder and is being held on $1 million bail.

What can motivate one person to “shout hateful words” and fire a shotgun at other people because of their religious and political views?

Among items found by police were a letter indicating Adkisson was on the verge of losing his eligibility for food stamps and three books: Liberalism is a Mental Disorder, by radio personality Michael Savage, Let Freedom Ring by Sean Hannity and The O’Reilly Factor by Bill O’Reilly, the latter two being commentators on FOX television news. .

Loneliness, fear of poverty and hate are powerful forces. To what extent was this man further driven to violence by being exposed to the hatred for liberals frequently and vehemently expressed by media personalities, Savage, Hannity, O’Reilly and others? Did the demonizing of liberals filling the nation’s airwaves for the past several decades give Adkisson some sort of perceived permission to kill liberals?

There’s no way I can know in this specific instance. It is established fact that people can be strongly influenced by messages heard repeatedly and that thoughts can lead to actions, sometimes horrific. I believe the culture of divisiveness nurtured by social and political right wing extremists has had a devastating effect on our nation’s sense of unity and purpose. Instead of encouraging the idea that we’re all in this together, powerful voices are promoting a strategy of divide and conquer.

A terrible irony of UU’s (as we call ourselves) being targeted for a hate crime is that the denomination is known for its active commitment to peace and justice for all. It’s been at the forefront of every struggle for people’s rights throughout America’s history including women’s suffrage, ending slavery, civil rights, women’s right and more recently, gay rights. Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were Unitarians.

The Unitarian Universalist Association doesn’t have a creed but affirms and promotes seven principles, including “the inherent worth and dignity of each individual; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; and the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.”

Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church’s website states they have “a long and rich history of taking stands for social justice” including working for desegregation, racial harmony, fair wages, women’s rights, gay rights, protecting and feeding the homeless.

I’m a member of First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, founded 149 years ago and one of the first churches Minnesota. About 40 UU’s from several area congregations gathered on the steps of the church Monday evening to mourn the victims and gain strength through community.

“We were keenly aware that it could have been us,” said summer minister Kelli Clement. She went on to express the sense of the group: Despite some risk, there is no doubt we will continue our liberal tradition and be welcoming to everyone. In a world with too much hate, Unitarian Universalists will continue to stand on the side of love.

From the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church web site:

“Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. This is our great covenant: To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.” James Villa Blake

For more information:

“A Whole Lotta Ugly” in Church Shooting By David Waters http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/undergod/2008/07/a_whole_lotta_ugly_in_church_s.html

Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church http://www.tvuuc.org/

Unitarian Universalist Association www.uua.org

First Universalist Church of Minneapolis www.firstuniv.org

Commentary by Phyllis Stenerson, July 30, 2008 – phyllis@progressivevalues.org