The Love of Morning
It is hard sometimes to drag ourselves
back to the love of morning
after we've lain in the dark crying out
O God, save us from the horror . . . .
God has saved the world one more day
even with its leaden burden of human evil;
we wake to birdsong.
And if sunlight's gossamer lifts in its net the weight of all that is solid,
our hearts, too, are lifted,
swung like laughing infants;
but on gray mornings,
all incident - our own hunger,
the dear tasks of continuance,
the footsteps before us in the earth's beloved dust,
leading the way - all, is hard to love again
for we resent a summons
that disregards our sloth,
and this calls us, calls us.
~ Denise Levertov ~
Try To Praise The Mutilated World
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns.
58-year-old Jim David Adkisson entered the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church one week ago today. It was a special day at the church - one that had been long awaited. The children were performing the musical Annie.
Adkisson carried a guitar case and a bag. He stopped and pulled a loaded shotgun from the guitar case. He fired point blank at the first person he encountered, sixty year old Greg McKendry, a bear of a man who, it is reported, shielded others from the gun blast with his own great body. McKendry died at the scene. Adkisson continued firing – now at the assembled congregation seated in the pews.
The sound of the blasts was deafening. Pandemonium erupted. People in the packed pews dove for cover. Adkisson stopped to reload, reaching into the bag containing 73 live shotgun shells. Members of the congregation seized their opportunity. They tackled Adkisson and pinned him to the floor, holding him there until police arrived.
The shooting was over in a few minutes. A few minutes that left two people dead and six more wounded by gunfire.
They are our people… The dead, the wounded, the bereaved, the traumatized, the frightened… These are our people. Our fellow Unitarians. They are committed to openness, to freedom, to justice, to tolerance, just as we are. They - like we - have challenged the status quo and stood up for the rights of people who have historically been oppressed by society and by institutional religion. These are our people.
When a tragedy like this one takes place, we experience so many different feelings. We are simply stunned and shocked at first - uncomprehending and disbelieving. Can such a thing be real? Can a man who is capable of thinking, planning, and feeling carry a loaded shotgun into a church and begin firing at innocent people listening to their children sing?
The reality begins to sink in, and other feelings – difficult to contend with – may wash over us. There is a terrible sadness for the lives lost and all the lives that have been irreparably altered by this event. We recognise that children who have been splattered by the blood of the dead and wounded in the sanctuary of their church, will be forever changed by this experience. Our hearts break in woe for the suffering that has already happened and the suffering yet to come.
We may well feel frightened. Not long ago, we understood this to be a world where we could feel safe to be in a special place – in the heart of our spiritual community. Suddenly, that feeling of safety may be shaken. If it can happen there, could it happen here? Perhaps we begin to look at each person we meet with some new sense of suspicion wondering which face might be hiding the angry heart of a potential killer.
And we feel helpless. We want to write our letters, send our emails, hold our vigils, say our prayers… We know that we are powerless to undo what has been done or to make it better for our suffering sisters and brothers.
With such a mix of emotions swirling within, we try to make sense of what has happened. “Why” we ask. Why would anyone do such a thing? The “whys” help us to grasp some slender sense of control - to feel that the world remains a sane and somewhat predictable place where gunmen do not randomly fire terrible weapons at churchgoers. If only we know more, we think, we might be able to make some sense out of this - an understanding that will ease our fear and sadness.
There is much information now to help us make sense of this tragedy, although more will surely emerge with time and our understandings may well change. Adkisson expected to be killed by police - he did not count on the bravery of members of the congregation that led them to tackle an armed gunman. And so Adkisson left a letter explaining his actions. He said he took aim against the Unitarians because of his hatred for liberalism. He attacked because he hates gays. He attacked because he hates blacks. He attacked because he blames liberalism for ruining his life and so he decided to do something about it.
Over the past week, I have thought a lot about what happened in a church in Tennesee. I have experience the sadness and the fear and the helplessness. And then I looked for explanations - for a way to incorporate the fact of this tragedy.
The United States is a polarized country. Leaders and media representatives on both sides of the liberal/conservative divide have sought to stoke that separation for their own purposes. Liberals are not innocent of goading and demonizing their opponents by any means, but the conservatives have taken political dispute to an appalling level, casting blame upon and fomenting hatred against liberals.
This may be hard for most of you to imagine, living as you do in a country that has not seen so severe a descent into the propaganda of hatred. Let me give you a few examples: an increasingly popular decoration for conservatives is a bumper sticker that reads “Liberal Hunting License.” Like a deer hunting license, it purports to grant the holder authority to hunt down liberals and kill them. Related bumper stickers include: “Save the seals/Club a Liberal” and “Save the rainforest/burn a liberal.” How about national conservative commentator and author Ann Coulter’s comment: “We need to execute people […] in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too.” Or this from the same source:
“Liberals hate America, they hate flag-wavers, they hate abortion opponents, they hate all religions except Islam, post 9/11. Even Islamic terrorists don't hate America like liberals do.”
And these are only the tip of iceburg – listen to AM radio driving across American and you will be horrified at the abusive, distorted, and hateful propaganda you hear.
Of course, all of these hateful exercises are excused as joking, but there can be no question that the right has encouraged violent hostility against the left.
In my sorrow, I was looking for a way to understand and – truth be told – I was looking for someone to blame. Anger is an easier emotion than the ones we naturally feel in such a circumstance. Adkisson himself was not an adequate target – he is a pathetic man, an alcoholic, out of work, alone, unable to find a job, and newly at risk of losing the benefits that helped him to buy food.
But, although Adkisson acted alone, in a larger sense he was not at all alone in this crime. Criminologist Brian Levin explains "For a male in American society, to lose one's job and to risk losing food stamps ... they have to find a plausible scapegoat, They will take that intense personal feeling of emasculation and failure and find some societal or political overlay that makes the failure seem not of their doing."
The conservative media conveniently provides just such an overlay. They created the atmosphere that could encourage a dispirited, unstable person like Jim David Adkisson to pick up a gun and ruin lives.
And so, I found my enemy. I found the evil I could rail against. I found the people who knowingly, deliberately, and methodically created the environment of hate that made this dreadful tragedy possible - that made it inevitable.
Anger is OK, and I needed to feel angry for a while. Anger is easier than fear and helplessness and sorrow. Anger is much easier than the demanding path that we have committed ourselves to. We know that path. It is the path of love. It is the hardest path to walk. It demands much of us. It often demands more than we ourselves can manage. And yet we know that it is the only path that can lead us to peace, to justice, to a world of opportunity and joy.
With great sadness, today, we add two new names to the list of our religious ancestors who died for their beliefs. The names of Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger now join with those other Unitarians who died for their commitments to freedom, tolerance, and justice: John Biddle, Michael Servetus, Francis David, Norbert Capek, and James Reeb.
Amid my grief, I find myself terribly proud of our fellow Unitarians.
When they had him on the floor, the men who tackled Adkisson did not try to punish him – and amid the blood and mayhem, they must have been tempted. They disarmed him and immobilized him, but they did not harm this man who came with enough ammunition to kill scores of their number.
The Knoxville congregation has not turned to anger. It turned its energies immediately toward healing its community. The Unitarian leadership has not turned to anger, rushing trauma counselors and other aid to Knoxville, the Unitarian Universalist Association – the UUA – has responded with compassion even for the gunman. UUA President Bill Sinkford was asked by a reporter whether he thought that Adkisson would go to hell. “My response”, he explained “was that in my religious tradition, we would say [he] person had been living in hell here on earth, for years…”
The Knoxville congregation has not turned inward with fear, but have joined with others in the larger community. The night after the shooting, a service was held in the neighboring Episcopal church – a service where Knoxville’s Jews, Muslims, Christians and others came together to support one another in their shared time of grief. They turned to hope and confidence as the children who just a day before had witnessed horrendous violence began to sing “Tomorrow” – the impossibly hopeful final song of their aborted performance of Annie. Tears flowed freely as they sang “The sun’ll come out tomorrow, so you gotta hang on till tomorrow, come what may.”
The Unitarian congregation of Knoxville has not given up - not turned away from their great purpose as a beacon of inclusiveness and justice. They have now turned their attention to their church building – the damaged site of bloodshed and death. And today, at 3.00 pm our time, they will rededicate that sanctuary. It will be restored to what it has been – a place of openness and love, a place where all are welcome. Let us keep them in our hearts, our thoughts, and our prayers as they bravely return to the path to which we too have dedicated ourselves: the way of love.
May it be so.