Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An execution in Knoxville

At Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church last Sunday morning, 58-year-old Jim David Adkisson took a 12-gauge shotgun out of a guitar case and opened fire on 200 parishioners.

As I write this, two of the eight he wounded have died. Three remain in critical condition. The shooter is alive, I regret to say, and in custody.

It'd be easy to label Adkisson a "nutjob" and throw this incident on the pile with Columbine, Virginia Tech and last year's Colorado church shootings. For Second Amendment advocates, it's convenient to bemoan Knoxville as the inevitable result of an "unarmed-victims zone," and the anti-gun crowd will be inclined to use the tragedy to disarm law-abiding Americans.

None of that helps bring the picture into focus. In the interest of understanding, then, I'm going to start with the frame.

The Shooter
At Adkisson's home, according to Knoxville Police Chief Sterling P. Owen IV, investigators found a four-page letter expressing his "hatred of the liberal movement. Liberals in general, as well as gays."

The police report is more specific about the shooter's motives:
"(Adkisson targeted this particular church) because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of media outlets. (Since) he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement...he would then target those that had voted them into office."
Notably, Adkisson's home reportedly held numerous books on right-wing politics, including Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder by Michael Savage, Let Freedom Ring by Sean Hannity, and The O'Reilly Factor by Bill O'Reilly.

One of Adkisson's neighbors described him as "a very nice guy," while a longtime acquaintance said that he "always had the attitude the government was trying to get him. He disliked blacks, gays, anyone who was a different color or just different from him."

The Church
Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church characterizes its beliefs this way:
We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All individuals should be encouraged to develop their own personal theologies, and to present openly their religious opinions without fear of censure or reprisal.

We believe in the tolerance of religious ideas. All religions, in every age and culture, possess not only intrinsic merit, but also potential value for those who have learned the art of listening.

We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, nor a document, nor an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.

We believe in the never-ending search for Truth. If the mind and heart are truly free and open, the revelations that appear to the human spirit are infinitely numerous, eternally fruitful, and wondrously exciting.

We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge, religion and the world, the sacred and the secular, since they all have their source in the same reality.

We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty, and justice -- and no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

We believe in the ethical application of religion. Good works are the natural product of a good faith, the evidence of an inner grace that finds completion in social and community involvement.
In describing its religious-education curricula:
"We need to understand our connection with our liberal religious heritage: the Jewish and Christian roots from which we spring; the Eastern religious traditions that have nurtured us; the insights of philosophy and science that have expanded our knowledge; and our mystical sense of union with one another, our planet, and the universe."
The church recently had posted a sign welcoming gays, an expression of its long-standing tolerance of and service to that community, and hosts social events for gay and lesbian teens.

A Clearer Picture
The only way to see this incident clearly is to detach oneself from ideology and even sympathy. Approaching an explanation from a conservative or liberal mindset is an impediment, as is grief for the victims and their families.

The truth, as I see it, is this: Jim David Adkisson felt licensed to execute people who weren't acceptably Christian enough, not straight enough, not white enough and, Lord knows, not nearly conservative enough.

Further, anything resembling empathy for either Adkisson's actions or his motivation poses a far greater danger to this country than the members of Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church ever could.

That Adkisson is a defective human being is both a given and entirely beside the point. In cases like this, it's far too easy to call the perpetrator "crazy" and, in the process, relieve ourselves of confronting what we'd rather not see.

This isn't about a deranged man, a shotgun and a church in Knoxville.

Ultimately, it's about widespread and less-lethal damage done by those acting out their self-righteousness -- in our communities and in the workplace, in the media and in the marketplace. It's about delusions of ideological superiority. It's about xenophobia masquerading as patriotism.

This time, tragically, people died. Yes, let's grieve for them and condemn their killer. But we can't deny -- nor should we dismiss -- that moral arrogance, much of it with institutional imprimatur, is chipping away at the foundation of our nation.

(Complete coverage of the shooting and its aftermath at the Knoxville News Sentinel.)